Chronicling Every Detail of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder and '74 Reunion Tours in 200+ Pages
1974-01-25, Tarrant County Convention Center Arena, Fort Worth, TX
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When I was compiling my series chronicling every show of the first Rolling Thunder tour a couple years ago (if you missed it, go here then scroll down to “1975”), I found no resource more valuable than a PDF file titled Songs of the Underground. Songs of the Underground is an exhaustive guide to every Rolling Thunder show. Not just the setlists, but every word Bob said onstage, every song anyone else played, every human being known to have taken part in the tour, from stage carpenters to wardrobe assistants, and every CD and vinyl bootleg that contained material from the tour. The PDF runs to 178 pages long! Had this guide been a printed book, those pages would have grown thin and ragged from how often I thumbed through them.
“Songs of the Underground” was compiled by longtime Dylan fan and collector Les Kokay. He did a similar document for the 1974 Band reunion tour that runs to 70 pages (equally exhaustive, but fewer shows to chronicle). I’m always interested in Dylan fans who spread their knowledge in creative ways, so as I’ve done a few other times recently – Dylanchords, Thousand Highways, DylanStubs, The Last Waltz Revisited, the guy posting a review of every single show of the Never Ending Tour – I wanted to talk with Les to hear about creating these invaluable resources.
As he notes, his Rolling Thunder and 1974 tour guides were the products of decades of work, much of it done before the web made information more easily accessible. We get into the weeds on creating them as well as gathering tapes and info in the pre-internet era.
Why did you do the '74 and Rolling Thunder PDFs? Which came first?
First came RTR [Rolling Thunder] (started in the 1990s I think). Although the 74 tour was the first tour I managed to complete with cassette tapes, there was much more information missing for 75-76 that I wanted to find out. A line in Paul Cable’s book His Unreleased Recordings caught my eye when I got it in May 1979:
With regards to the other artists contributions, Dylan sometimes assisted with the backup and sometimes did not. As there are numerous Rolling Thunder tapes it would be too large an undertaking to catalogue here which instrument Dylan played on what performance.
So I knew each RTR had a lot more contributions from other artists than merely the "Band sets" from 1974. Cable listed a bootleg Tapes from Sherry Attic, which contained Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Tracks, so I guessed that maybe there would be recordings of 'Guam' and the guest artists.
How did you source all that info? What were the hardest bits to track down?
I sourced 99% of the information by listening to my cassettes.
Whenever new information emerged, I would add it into my Word documents. Sometimes I would go back and add something new that I didn't do initially, like include the Bobtalk for the 74 tour, or do a song chart for the RTR shows. When I had enough "new" content I would make a new PDF. I have done 10-20 updated editions of Songs of the Underground.
One thing I found really valuable about your Rolling Thunder one was the attention to detail on the non-Bob sets. That info is hard to find; much of it gets erased in the official box sets, Scorsese doc, etc. Why did you focus on the Guam, guests, etc as much as you did?
One, I included the Guam details because no one else had done so, and I had obtained recordings of almost all the 'complete' shows in existence. As recently as 2020, I was able to locate a complete Rochester, New York, War Memorial Coliseum, 17 Nov 75, afternoon show, but now have little hope of finding any more.
And two, I felt that listening to a complete RTR show is a different experience than just hearing the Dylan set. The same applies to 1974 (including the Band sets).
For 1974, the Band sets, apart from the first unique show when Dylan stayed onstage for the Band songs [also the first show I ever wrote about –Ray], provide a much needed change in tempo and musicianship, that allows the transition to the Dylan solo set to flow more smoothly.
For the 1975 shows, having the Guam sets builds up anticipation of the eventual Dylan set (clearly the highlight of the show), and then second set allows the guests to perform, Dylan to perform solo, and then have a climax to the show with everyone on stage for the final songs.
Structuring the show this way is similar to having a five course meal. You could start with the mains, but it's better to start with the entree.
For 1976, less full sets were taped, the structure is changed to Dylan opening solo, and this new structure is less successful and enjoyable (as in 1976 in general).
Any particular favorite things you found or learned about '74 or Rolling Thunder in the course of compiling those?
For 1975, locating the unique duet of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" Plymouth, Massachusetts, War Memorial Auditorium, 30 Oct 75:
I discovered that the Band sets were very hard to find and offered more variety than expected. When I started, only 1 or 2 Band sets circulated, now 34 of the 40 shows circulate.
How did you find them? Presumably it was the same tapers as were doing Bob's sets. Did you have a sense why they were so buried?
Many sets came from Band collectors (who only taped the Band sets!). As most of the Dylan tapers didn't bother with the Band sets, there aren't many 'complete' show recordings.
Having listened to so many '74 shows, how well do you feel Before the Flood represents the tour?
It doesn't. This is what I wrote when Before the Flood came out in my ’74 Guide (pg 47)
This official release is a poor approximation of the 1974 sets. Not only is it selected from the end of the tour where Dylan is ‘shouting’ the songs at ‘breakneck’ speed; it also has some of the songs in totally the wrong place. For example Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door was never played in the first set. The Dylan / Band set that occurred between the Band set and the Dylan solo set is not evident at all. The Band sets are a mess as well; Endless Highway is from the second Band set, but here placed in the first set and When You Awake has been moved from the first set to the second set. The order in the Bands sets is inexplicable as well. In every Band set known, they opened with Stage Fright, but here it is the closer of the first set, whereas almost every opening Band set finished with Up on Cripple Creek, here it is the opening number
When I co-wrote an article with David Brazier in The Bridge (#15), we listed three shows (25th [download below], 28 & 29th Jan 74) that would better represent the tour.
Did you ever consider doing similar PDFs for other tours?
Not really. For ‘74-‘76, the tours were pre internet, so there was a need to help sort out which bootlegs provided some coverage or duplication. I also wanted to see if the cassette tapes I had covered most of the tour as well. In these days, multiple tapes of the same show were rare. Maybe I could have written something on the 1966 tour, but by the time most of the shows emerged, the internet was here. The 1987 tour with the Dead was a strong contender, as there is a mass of bootlegs and multiple recordings, but I seem to sort it out without writing much down, so never started a pdf. The 1978 tour was vast, but there were few worthwhile bootlegs to collect (most were incomplete or inaccurately labeled). By the time the 1981 tour rolled around, vine and tape trees had emerged and bootlegs had faded away.
How did you get into bootlegs?
Bob Dylan first played a single show in New Zealand on Thursday 9 March 1978 at Western Springs, Auckland. I was a high school teacher then and couldn't easily fly to Auckland from the other end of NZ (Invercargill) during the week, so I missed the first NZ concert. I've seen all the other 22 New Zealand shows, in 1986(2), 1992(1), 1998(4), 2003(4), 2007(5), 2011(1), 2014(3) & 2018(2). I know of nobody who has seen all 23 shows; three of us have seen 22 of the 23.
Anyway, around this time, I was reading a review of said Auckland concert in a Canterbury student newspaper and determined that the person who wrote the article clearly had listened to a recording of the concert, so I set about contacting him and obtaining a copy of the recording. It turned out that the tape was rather 'overrecorded' and not a good listen, but at least it was a recording of the concert (assumed overseas to be missing). I then realised that I had a recording that was sought after by overseas tape traders. I wrote letters to a few traders that I had heard of and set about my first tape trading.
In those days it was all snail-mail and trying to build up contacts by being generous, honest, reliable, and using good equipment and tapes. We used to advertise in the fledgling Telegraph and Creem magazine to find each other. The premier collectors were in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. We all used lists of 'what we had' and 'wants', so you could see what others had and what was missing on most collectors lists. It was very different before digital recordings, CD-Rs and the internet.
You've done an Isis column on tours and tapes for many years. How did that start, and how has it evolved?
I traded tapes with the original columnist John Green for many years, so I was known in the UK. When John died, the column was passed on. Twenty years ago, the shows were full of nightly surprises in songs and lyric changes. Now the performances and the setlists are pretty static, so I listen to Dylan band introductions.
Having listened to so many tapes, do you have any favorite years/tours/etc?
Not really as I tend to move along in Dylan's tide, and don't really go back to old shows for recreation. I always intend to one day though. I don't enjoy the Rough & Rowdy set list these days as I find the songs don't flow nicely.
What do you mean?
I find the older songs on the setlist (River Flow, Most Likely, Masterpiece, I'll Be Your Baby, To Be Alone & Gotta Serve, Every Grain) are a real mixture. They are all classics, and while the opening songs (and the encore) work really well, the transitions for the middle songs jar to my ears.
In the past, when Dylan has a segment of 'throw away' songs (Rollin’ & Tumblin', etc) or a segment of uptempo songs (Thunder on the Mountain, etc), these are OK, but with the current unchanging setlist, there are no song segments, just jumping from one old song to a new song and then back to another old song. I find it unsatisfying to listen to.
Do you ever get burned out on listening to Dylan tapes? Particularly when you have to listen to multiple versions of the same show
I used to find them very interesting to hear due to the (almost) nightly changes in the lyrics, but they are occurring less these days, so I am getting a bit sick of the songs in the last four legs.
Were you a taper back in the day?
Yes, I recorded 22 of the 23 NZ shows (and most of the 1992 Oz shows) on cassette and more recently digital.
How hard was it to smuggle in tape recorders? Did you ever get caught?
I got caught once with a recorder (Sony D6) inside my waistband at the turnstiles. I spontaneously said they couldn't remove it because I was on "dialysis", which they believed! Security has been pretty inexperienced (just local employees), however we have not had Dylan here in the modern cellphone era, so things might change.