18 October 1976
There was a moment in Bob Dylan’s recent Hard Rain TV special, filmed in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the end of the Rolling Thunder tour, that I hope I never forget: when Dylan turned “Idiot Wind” into the roughest outlaw ballad in the book. Just into the first verse he lowered his head; with a turn of a line, he seemed to take in the whole history of the place in which he was singing, to understand in an instant the lives of such Colorado killers as Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid. His face alive with evil and glee, Dylan was suddenly the lowest, dirtiest, meanest killer of them all. “I can’t help it—if I’m lucky.” His eyes snapped and I cringed.
The show was filmed without competence or imagination. The radical chic A-rab outfits were dumb, and it was obvious even while watching that Dylan’s presence was overshadowing any questions of musical quality. But that presence was so strong, so nasty, that it cut through everything in its way. The man came across. I was shocked when the credits ran; nothing like an hour seemed to have elapsed. As far as I was concerned the show could have gone on all night.
But Hard Rain, the soundtrack (and then some, and less some) of the show, is Dylan’s worst authorized album—without Dylan’s visual presence the music dies on the turntable. I never saw the Rolling Thunder tour, and the Mad Dogs & Englishmen (Folkie Division) concept of the affair sounded less than thrilling, but it’s hard to believe the jumbled, random, offensively casual mess on this album represents the best music the tour produced. The musicians don’t play, they bump into each other. Dylan doesn’t phrase, he bleats, and for the first time in his career, he sounds stupid. There is no musical attack, no rhythm, no craft. The arrangements are pointless—nearly nonexistent, as with “Memphis Blues Again,” or philistine, as with “Maggie’s Farm.” (Are those long, ridiculously drawn-out pauses after every verse, in which Dylan sounds like a dying horse, meant to give the song impact, or draw applause, which is all they do?) Occasionally, the tunes generate an initial momentum; it’s dissipated almost immediately by the indifference of the performers. They sound as if they could, you know, care less. As a document of a tour where almost every show was taped, this makes no sense (and where are the songs introduced on the tour, like the old ballad “Railroad Boy,” “Going, Going, Gone,” or “Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?”).
The tour reportedly ended badly—wearing out, with audiences declining, money disappearing into ballooning expenses. You could think this album represents the resentment felt by the musicians toward a public that ultimately refused to salaam to them. Whether that’s so or not, what I hear in this music, in its dogged lack of charm or groove, is utter contempt for the audience. And that contempt may well be the other, duller side of Dylan’s nastiness, of that malicious intensity he exposed on television with “Idiot Wind.” Focused and revealed, that nastiness is at the heart of Dylan’s art. Unfocused—and disguised as camaraderie with busy, chattering music—it’s merely irritating, and, worse, it is empty.
Bob Dylan, Hard Rain (Columbia, 1976).