Rolling Thunder IV: Lowell

1975-11-02, Technical University, Lowell, MA

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Wait, Rolling Thunder IV? What happened to Rolling Thunder III??

Unfortunately, the third Rolling Thunder show, on November 1 in North Dartmouth, MA, is one of the few with no recording. So before we get to tonight's show in Lowell, here's a little taste of what happened the night before in North Dartmouth from Larry "Ratso" Sloman's Rolling Thunder book:

This is the first large hall and the band is really pumping out a full sound, especially Ronson whose style is much more suited to amphitheaters. Stoner, too, is pulling out all the stops, playing Dylan’s unrecorded song about Catfish Hunter, doing a neat bass solo between verses. “Fuck,” George nudges me, “Stoner was born to be a rock ’n roll star.” By this time a fairly large crowd had gathered in the sound booth, Chris O’Dell, Jacques Levy, Ronee Blakley, all cheering the proceedings.

And when Dylan walks on, the audience erupts, giving him a standing ovation before the first notes of “Masterpiece” ring out. During “It Ain’t Me Babe,” Jerry the journalist finds us. “Who arranged this,” he gushes breathlessly, “I really like it.” Dylan plows through the same set as at Plymouth, but with tremendous assurance. I move down to stage left and from that angle Dylan looks like a caged animal, stalking the stage, punching out the words to “Isis.” At one point he turns his back and gestures, arms outstretched, and he looks like the IWW symbol, breaking chains like they were made of paper. He finishes “Isis” and exits to a standing ovation, and a waiting Barry Imhoff, who towels him off and walks him to the dressing room.

I watch the second half from a balcony behind the stage as Dylan roars through “I Don’t Believe You,” his foot keeping desperate time with the lyrics of betrayal. The band comes back and they sound like a machine, so tight and precise, especially Wyeth who’s hitting his vast array of drums with the regularity of a drill press. The sweat is pouring off Dylan’s face now, as he croons “Just Like a Woman,” with stiletto-sharp phrasing. “But you break just like a little girrrlll …” he sings, and at once, the lights fly on as McGuinn, Neuwirth, Baez, Blakley, Ginsberg, and David Blue race on for the finale. By 11:05, it’s over, the performers already hurtling toward the Sea Crest in their buses, the crowd slowly filtering out, and Jerry Seltzer, running through the kids like a banshee, shrilling that tickets are still on sale for next week’s concert in Providence.

Okay, on to tonight's show in Lowell, MA!

Bob's performed in Lowell five times - in 1975, 2000, 2010, 2013, and 2019 (I was at that one). While researching this, I heard rumor of a pamphlet that UMass Lowell had handed out at the 2013 show detailing Dylan's concert history there. I couldn't find it anywhere online, but that pamphlet's author Dave Perry, proprietor of local record store Vinyl Destination, was kind enough to mail me a copy.

It's pretty interesting, with a lot of local color about this show and Bob’s other times in town. So with Dave's permission (thanks Dave!) I'm sharing it below. Don’t you wish they handed out something like this at all shows? (If the text is hard to read, click here for a higher-res version).

Rolling Thunder IV: Lowell

The Venue

Small town college - the perfect Rolling Thunder venue, right? Here's how Ratso describes the ambience:

At the Lowell College gym, the promoters have decided on “festival seating,” a euphemism that means they try to cram as many sweaty bodies as possible onto every available square inch of hardwood floor. Only this floor has been covered by a pale green tarp that is emitting one of the most pungent odors known to man—the smell of jocksweat.

I like the way Ratso's friend puts it: "This place lends itself to chaos."

In the pamphlet Bob Dylan in Jack Kerouac's Lowell…1975, author Kevin Ring includes a good contemporary description of the city back then:

In the mid 1970s it was a rusting relic of a place. An air of neglect hung in the air. Downtown was often deserted. The boomtime of the mills and the town as a big factor in America's economic life was long gone. The mills stood mostly empty, the gradual gentrification of some of them still a few years away in the future. Everytime I took a trip there and asked about Kerouac, the reply invariably was Jack who? Either that or the locals dismissed him as an embarrassing drunk.

Show/Setlist Changes

Big addition in this show: the full-Revue singalong "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which would go on to be the penultimate song of most subsequent shows before the “This Land Is Your Land” finale. Unfortunately this recording cuts off before Dylan’s final set so we we can’t hear “Knockin”’s debut.

We can, however, hear the debut of one of the great Dylan/Baez duets: "The Water Is Wide." Presumably Joan introduced Bob to this old Scottish folk song, as she'd recorded it for her 1965 album Farewell, Angelina (it didn't make the final album, but appeared later as a bonus track). If so, it's amazing how thoroughly she and Guam transformed it from a delicate folk song to a hearty rock ballad. Bob would bring it back a few times during the early days of the Never Ending Tour, using an arrangement that's not that far from the Rolling Thunder versions.

Onstage Comments

Bob dedicates "Hard Rain" to Kerouac. This would not be Kerouac’s first shoutout of the night; both Ramblin' Jack and Bob Neuwirth had dedicated songs to him as well. One wonders if Lowell residents love these nods, or wished people knew more than one thing about their town. I'm from Chicago and we'd roll our eyes every time a touring band earnestly covered “Sweet Home Chicago. “Are Kerouac shoutouts Lowell's “Sweet Home Chicago”?

Special Guests

Jack Kerouac, in absentia

Contemporary Reviews

"For three and one-half hours Dylan and Baez led 'Ramblin' Jack Elliot,' Bob Neuwirth and his band, Ronnee Blakely of Nashville fame, and several notable pop performers through songs that span their careers for some 3,300 in University of Lowell's Costello gym. Many others circulated outside searching vainly for any scalpers. Pot smoking and drinking were present but not extensively." - Lowell Sun

"Despite the heavy tour he is on, Dylan seemed to be in very good shape for the Lowell Concert, although obscured by all the make-up, Dylan's face was disappointingly unreadable. Whether Dylan was celebrating the Halloween season or on some trip of his own, it was hard to interpret his donning of the disguise." - University of Lowell Connector

“It was a classic night of music. Dylan, in flower-plumed broad-brimmed hat and yellow bell bottom pants, wore white make-up with reddened cheeks, a kind of clown face. In his dark leather jacket he looked small and thin, but full of life. He played acoustic and electric guitar and harmonica. We were told that the concert was being recorded and filmed for a movie.” - Paul Marion, private journal

“Perhaps it’s the camera crews, filming from about the fourth row, perhaps it’s just the relief to be in an honest, unpretentious, down-home working-class environment—at any rate, everyone seems to be really on tonight. Dylan is hamming it up during the dramatic “Isis,” and Baez compliments him by putting on her own whiteface for their duet, Neuwirth keeps dedicating songs to Kerouac, the band is smoking.” - Larry Sloman, On the Road with Bob Dylan

What'd they do before the show?

Tried to film at a local bar called Nicky's, owned by Jack Kerouac's brother-in-law, but Dylan was a no-show. Here's how Sam Shepard described the vibe in his Rolling Thunder Logbook:

We pull up at Nick’s Lounge, a depressing little Massachusetts bar owned by Kerouac’s brother-in-law, Nick Sampas. Inside there’s some kind of police blowout going on for a local candidate for mayor or governor or something. Hard-ass-looking beer drinkers. Everyone juiced in the middle of the day. Crepe-paper decorations, spaghetti à la carte, garlic bread. The place is really loud and in different circumstances would make even a redneck paranoid. Everything’s set up for us though, and the Sampas brothers greet us with genuine hospitality and good cheer. Nick Sampas is built like a green quarter horse and talks like you’re clear across the room even when you’re standing right next to him. Tony is the opposite of his brother. Tall, thin, soft spoken, and somehow immediately puts you in mind of William Burroughs. He chain-smokes and talks about his memories of Jack. On the wall, lost in among dozens of snapshots of other locals, is a color Polaroid shot of Kerouac and a girl taken right there in Nick’s. Taken about a month before he died. He looks very soused and bloated. We’re treated to big plates of spaghetti and cold beer.

Fun fact: Nick's nephew Jim Sampas, who is now the Literary Executor of the Jack Keroauc Estate by day, also runs a tribute album record label called Reimagine Music. I interviewed him for my book on tribute albums. His first tribute album, back in 1997, was a tribute to his uncle Jack.

Jim tells me that not long before this show, Allen Ginsberg visited his family’s house to see if Dylan could stay there while in town (Ginsberg had crashed there for Kerouac’s funeral six years prior). The Rolling Thunder party didn’t end up staying there, but Jim’s family went to the Lowell show as Ginsberg’s guests. Jim was ten at the time. He sat next to Allen.

Renaldo & Clara Footage

From the show itself, nothing. But, of course, one of the most famous scenes in the movie was filmed in Lowell the following day: Dylan and Ginsberg visiting Kerouac's grave.

What's on the tape

Everything up through the Baez set. It's just missing the final Bob set. Supposedly the Guam set is soundboard and the Dylan set, which only surfaced years later, isn't. It makes you wonder, was the taper’s soundboard access revoked before Bob appeared? I like the admittedly unlikely alternative: This taper was a Guam superfan and left before Bob to beat the rush.

1975-11-02, Technical University, Lowell, MA

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