By David Perry
Distant echoes from Bob Dylan’s 1975 Costello Gymnasium performance surface in the final mix of the newly released 14-disc CD box set, “The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings,” which is released on Friday, June 7. Five days later, Martin Scorsese’s documentary/concert film of the tour lands on Netflix and in select theaters.
The 148-song, cube-shaped CD collection, a 3-LP (much abbreviated) vinyl version and the film are splashy reminders of one of the most unique tours in music history. It was a barnstorming circus of folk, rock and poetry, and it played at the gym (now Costello Athletic Center) on North Campus on Nov. 2, 1975. It was the fourth show on the tour that some consider Dylan’s finest.
Eighty hours of film were shot early in the tour – cameras were rolling in Lowell – and that footage, along with new interviews (including one with Dylan), shapes Scorsese’s film.
The lone song from the University of Lowell gig, a blazing, intense version of the yet-to-be-released “Isis,” appears on the 14th CD (but not on the LPs).
The show was Dylan’s first-ever performance in Lowell. Tickets cost just $7.50 (which nonetheless was a bit steep for the era).
The return on investment, says Paul Marion ’76, has been vast for those who attended, for the city and for the legend of Lowell-born Beat writer Jack Kerouac.
“Everybody’s mind was blown,” says Marion, recalling the show, which featured Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and a cast of other musical characters and literary legends. Allen Ginsberg was in tow, as were playwright/actor Sam Shepard and folk-cowboy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. “It was amazing.”
Marion compared the show – the first of several to feature Dylan in whiteface – to “performance art, a kind of theatrical Dylan.”
Rolling Thunder was Dylan reinventing himself as troubadour to play small venues, surrounded by musical and literary heroes.
“It was DIY before we really had that term,” says Marion.
In mid-October, Mark Morse ’77, chair of the school’s Social Committee, answered the phone in the student activities office. It was Boston-based concert promoter Don Law’s agency.
“They said they wanted to bring in a concert so big they couldn’t even tell us who it was,” recalls Morse. He argued, “Listen, I need to take this to the school administration for approval. I need to know who it is.”
Bob Dylan, Law’s rep told him. Morse could tell the five most necessary people.
A few days later, Morse and his committee, Dean Leo King and a couple of others met to make plans for the show. Tickets would go on sale the following Monday, Oct. 27. Law’s agency would take care of all of the sales – two tickets per student, with ID. No one could let word out about the show before 9 a.m. the day the tickets went on sale. It was so quickly put together that posters advertised the show at “Lowell State University.”
“I kept my word, but I did hint,” says Morse. “I told people, ‘You want to be here that morning. Trust me.’”
“I’m walking across South Campus, the quad area,” recalls Marion, “and parked there is a lemon-yellow RV with posters on it. I got closer and saw ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ and the names Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s some kind of tribute show.’ It turns out that was a mobile box office, and it really was going to be Bob Dylan. In Lowell.”
Marion snagged two tickets. He couldn’t get the $15 out of his pocket fast enough.
In her review of the show in The Connector, Teresa Sullivan wrote that even with the high expectations attached to the show, “no one went home disappointed.” Dylan strode out at around 9 p.m., “decked out in a hip-length leather jacket and a white, wide-brimmed hat, with a feather pinned to one side. He was made up, too – white face and red eyes.”
In all, it was a three-hour show. No cameras were allowed, noted Sullivan.
After warmup sets by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Neuwirth, Dylan ripped through a set laced with “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” and several songs from Dylan’s soon-to-be-released album “Desire,” such as “Romance In Durango” and “Isis.” He sang with Baez, and she sang alone. It all wound down with a full-cast rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”
The night was “transcendent,” says Marion. “A surreal night to be on Riverside Street.”
A few days later, columnist Mary Sampas revealed in The Lowell Sun that Dylan and others had toured Kerouac-related sites in Lowell and that much of the trip was being filmed, including the now-iconic photo of Dylan and Ginsberg sitting at Kerouac’s grave in Edson Cemetery.
“I’ve always thought the Kerouac revival should be credited to Dylan’s stop in Lowell,” says Marion. “A lot of people peg it to the 25th anniversary celebration of ‘On the Road’ at Naropa Institute. But what happened here seven years earlier was as important.
"The pilgrims had landed, at UMass Lowell, and it was a jolt.”