Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, the Rolling Thunder Revue and the epic saga of “Brownsville Girl”

By on August 2, 2017

Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & the Gospel Years — one of several titles we’re featuring over in our Dylan collection, streaming for our subscribers on Night Flight Plus — focuses on the seven-year period in Dylan’s career between the mid-1970s through the early ’80s.

At a staggering four hours long, the music documentary tells the tale of this era in Dylan’s career through the eyes of many of his contemporaries (singers, studio musicians, record producers, critics, etc.), where we learn about Dylan’s much-ballyhooed Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour (Dylan played some 57 shows between October 1975 and May 1976), his self-indulgent and critically-drubbed tour film, 1978’s Renaldo and Clara, and his born-again Christianity, which led to the release of several so-called gospel albums.


We also wanted to take this opportunity today to pause for a moment to remember the great Sam Shepard, who died on July 27, 2017, at his home in Kentucky, aged 73, from complications due to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Shepard and Dylan‘s paths crossed numerous times over the years — in addition to joining Dylan’s whirlwind Rolling Thunder Revue and writing a book about his experiences, he was co-credited as a writer on Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara, described by one critic as a “four-hour fever dream” about the rock ‘n’ roll life — and we’ll be telling you more about Shepard’s incredible life, as well as offering some of our own thoughts about his legacy, a bit further down in this post.

First, though, a few comments about the documentary.

Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & the Gospel Years is clearly not designed for the casual Dylan fan. This wholly-unauthorized documentary offers a critical assessment and a deep-dive downward into a singular period of Dylan’s incredible more-than-six-decade career, a career which continues today, of course, showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Producer/director Joel Gilbert — who has worked on a number of previously-released Bob Dylan-related documentaries, including 2003’s Bob Dylan 1966 World Tour: The Home Movies, and 2005’s Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1974: Through the Camera of Barry Feinstein — focuses here on what happened at the end of the ’70s through the eyes of those who were right there beside the folk icon and legendary songwriter.

Beginning in ’75, we learn how Dylan hit the road with a carnival-like variety show called “Rolling Thunder Revue,” which featured Dylan and a rag-tag band of folk troubadours — including Sam Shepard, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Joni Mitchell — appearing (unannounced) at a number of small venues across the country before finally coming to an end with his famous all-star benefit show for wrongly-convicted heavyweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

This Madison Square Garden show — dubbed “The Night of the Hurricane” — doubled as a stirring showcase for Dylan’s then-new single, and Dylan himself would later refer to it as “one of the greatest nights of my life.”

In the documentary, the wrongly-incarcerated prizefighter Rubin Carter — whose saga was taken up by Dylan and immortalized in his 1976 protest anthem, “Hurricane” — tells us about being convicted for a murder he did not commit (Carter had been imprisoned on a 1966 murder charge and conviction, a crime that was ultimately not proven to be committed by Carter).

Carter’s considerably long, in-depth on-screen interview was reportedly the first he’d done in more than thirty years, and it was advertised as a “tell all” type of affair, and although he offers up some compelling factoids, what he talks about here has been discussed elsewhere (still, you won’t likely find a more candid, lengthy interview with Carter than this one).

We did appreciate Carter’s occasional attempts at humor, though, like when Hurricane Carter quips “even a cockroach has a right to protect himself,” and filmmaker Joel Gilbert shows us an illustration of cockroach wearing boxing gloves.

Also interviewed were folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; violinist Scarlet Rivera; bassist Rob Stoner; the late Jacques Levy (who gives us an inside peek at what went on during the production of Dylan’s Desire album); and Joey Gallo.

Jacques Levy was a theatre director and lyricist who in the mid-1970s co-wrote a number of songs with Dylan, including the classic track “Hurricane,” and he directed Dylan’s famed US concert tour, the “Rolling Thunder Revue.” This interview took place in May 2004 — sadly Jacques passed away the following September.

Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & the Gospel Years also tries to assess the meaning behind Bob Dylan’s born-again transformation and his years-long detour into fundamental Christianity. We learn how he became involved with this pursuit of a purpose-filled life through the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, and how Dylan used this new search for meaning as lyrical fodder for three gospel albums, winning a Grammy for Gotta Serve Somebody.

In this lengthy section, director Joel Gilbert devotes a good deal of time quizzing his interviewees — including, In his first-ever interview, Dylan’s Bible class teacher, Pastor Bill Dwyer — about gospel music, the tenets of Christianity and the New Testament, and the Book of Revelation in particular, which Dylan often used as his source material during the late ’70s and early ’80s, preaching evangelical messages that drove his critics and fans a little crazy at the time.

We hear from the great producer Jerry Wexler (identified onscreen by a chyron reading he’s a card-carrying Jewish Atheist), who worked with Dylan on his Slow Train Running album; background singer Regina McCrary; keyboardist Spooner Oldham; songwriter Al Kasha; San Francisco Chronicle rock reporter Joel Selvin; AJ Weberman and others.

Although no actual Dylan music is heard in this completely unauthorized documentary — instead the film’s score is made up of recordings featuring the aforementioned Scarlet Rivera, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Regina McCrary, and Rob Stoner, along with Bruce Langhorne (a longtime Dylan collaborator, who passed away earlier in 2017); and, somewhat amusingly, from the writer/producer himself, Joel Gilbert & Highway 61 Revisited (Gilbert wrongly says that his is the the world’s only Dylan tribute band, but we’re going to let him slide on that for now).

Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & the Gospel Years also features an array of visual materials you won’t likely see elsewhere, including licensed live concert video clips and TV footage from 1975-1981, which includes footage shot at some of the locations where Dylan recorded tracks for the albums he made during the late seventies and early eighties (Rundown Studios, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the Vineyard Church, and the Fox Warfield Theatre, among other locations).

Read more about Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, the Rolling Thunder Revue and the epic saga of “Brownsville Girl” below.

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A look at Shepard’s incredible career résumé reveals that he had accomplished turns as a playwright — many of us, in fact, believe that Shepard should be considered one of the best 20th Century dramatists — an author, an actor (he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the early days of the space program), as a screenwriter and occasional director, and a musician and an occasional lyricist, notably co-writing a song with Bob Dylan called “Brownsville Girl,” which appeared on Dylan’s 1986 Knocked Out Loaded album.

Shepard got involved with members of New York City’s late-Sixties folk and rock music community, playing the drums for a time with psychedelic folkies the Holy Modal Rounders, who once opened for the progressive rock group Pink Floyd. He appeared on two of that group’s albums, Indian War Whoop and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders.

Shepard also had many intimate connections and interesting musical collaborations with icons like Bob Dylan, John Cale and Patti Smith, with whom he had a well-publicized relationship. In 1971, Shepard and Patti Smith co-wrote and co-starred in the play Cowboy Mouth.

Sam Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on November 5, 1943, on the Fort Sheridan army base in Illinois, but he mainly grew up on his family’s ranch-style avocado farm in Duarte, California.

Known as Steve Rogers through his childhood and adolescence, Shepard held down a number of obs in his youth, working as a stablehand, a sheep shearer and picking oranges, and he briefly attended Mount San Antonio College, as an agriculture student, before dropping out to join a touring repertory group, and to pursue his true calling as a playwright, after he’d discovered the plays of Samuel Beckett.

Much of Shepard’s own family inspired his work, including his alcoholic, nomadic father, who seems to have been one of the biggest influences. Other influences on his work seem to have 60s rock music, the counterculture and drugs, vintage movies, and popular myths of the Old West.

In 1962, Shepard moved to New York City, living with Charles Mingus Jr., and became infatuated with the burgeoning jazz scene in the city. He continued to pursue writing plays, becoming a darling of the off Broadway theatre scene in downtown Manhattan, especially the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, which was just beginning to make itself heard.

His first play was produced when he was just nineteen. His early plays, produced off- and off-off-Broadway, were described by one reviewer as “short, bizarre, surrealistic pieces that tended to project images rather than provide ordered reflections of reality; they are characterized by compelling monologues.”

Somewhere along the way, he and his lover Patti Smith began working on projects together.

“He was so high energy and had a real glint in his eyes,” she later recalled of their first meeting in the pages of the Guardian UK in 2010. He was born for rock ‘n’ roll.”

Shepard won six Obie Awards between 1966-68 and he also contributed a sketch to the risqué show Oh! Calcutta! in 1969.

That same year became involved in screenwriting, working on Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother, and writing the screenplay for the Michelangelo Antonioni film Zabriskie Point (1970).

Shepard then spent the next four years in London, and when he returned to the U.S., in 1975, Bob Dylan invited Shepard to join his Rolling Thunder Revue, ostensibly to write scenes and dialogue for a surreal Fellini-esque film Dylan wanted to make about the experience.

Shepard would later somewhat confusingly describe his first meeting with Dylan by saying that the first thing Dylan said to him was: “We don’t have to make any connections.”

The tour — which was intended to evoke an old-timey roadshow driven by the forces of nature — promised to have a circus-like stage atmosphere. It had initially sprung from a conversation that Dylan had had with his friend, singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth, about wanting to “travel around and sing and do little concerts in little halls.”

Neuwirth began putting together a group of talented musicians that included multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, guitarists Steven Soles and T Bone Burnett (who’d later go on to form their own group, the Alpha Band, with Mansfield) drummer Howie Wyeth, and bassist/bandleader Rob Stoner. The band were dubbed “Guam” for some odd reason.

Shepard — who was just about to move to a horse ranch at the time, and had already come out west — had initially turned him down, but Dylan’s business manager persisted.

And, so, in the autumn of ’75, Shepard headed east to take part in Dylan’s legendary tour, keeping a diary and setting down his thoughts while on tour.

At the time, Dylan had only recently begun to tour again — he’d hit the road in ’74, supporting is then-new album Planet Waves, with the Band backing him up — after staying off the road for nearly a decade.

For the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan had initially set up a series of gigs at New York’s Bitter End club before expanding the idea to a full-blown tour which kicked off on October 30, 1975, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

He was joined by many of his famous friends, including folk legends Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, poet Allen Ginsberg and a filmmaking crew led by director Howard Alk, who was assisted by Sam Shepard.

The first leg of the tour lasted through early December, culminating in the Madison Square Garden benefit show. The best musical documentation of this tour can be heard in the Rolling Thunder Revue Bootleg Series Vol. 5.

Dylan — often playing behind face paint or a mask — would perform songs with Baez, followed by solo sets from each, and the whole night closed with a crowded rendition of “This Land Is Your Land,” which saw everyone present joining Dylan onstage.

Then, after a short holiday break at the end of the month — Dylan’s Desire album was released during this break — Dylan held a second benefit for Carter, this time at the Astrodome in Houston.

In April, he resumed the Rolling Thunder Revue, with a modified lineup, for for another round of dates that lasted until late May and were preserved for posterity with a live album (Hard Rain) and a TV special.

In a 2014 interview with Guardian UK, Shepard recalled his experiences on the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour:

“It was pretty insane. Now that I look at it, it wasn’t really, but I wasn’t accustomed to transience, every second was all about movement. And I was glad to get back to a kind of constancy. Writing was the constancy.”

Meanwhile, Shepard’s screenplay for a Fellini-esque film never materialized, although he would later work on Dylan’s lamentable movie, Renaldo and Clara, which was part music documentary, part fictional feature.

Shepard co-wrote the script with Dylan.

Filmed in the fall of 1975, prior to and during Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Renaldo and Clara featured appearances and performances by Ronee Blakley, T-Bone Burnett, Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Hawkins, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, Arlen Roth, Harry Dean Stanton and Sam Shepard.

Shepard’s tour diary would later be published as Rolling Thunder Logbook (The Viking Press, NY, 1977/Penquin Books, NY, 1978).

You can find glorious photos (by official tour photographer Ken Regan) and excerpts from the book — just as we did — here.

In the Introduction, Shepard explained the genesis of the Logbook:

“This book has taken on such a fractured form not for the sake of “art” or experimentation but rather because the form is a direct outcome of a fractured memory. I was originally hired as a writer to work on a proposed film with the Rolling Thunder Revue, but that role very quickly dissolved into the background and was replaced by a much more valuable situation. I found myself in the midst of all these traveling people as a collaborator in a whirlpool of images and shifting ideas.”

“All of us working together for the same purpose–to try and live in constant movement on the road for six weeks, traveling by land, putting on music, filming this music in the surroundings of broken American history in small New England towns in the dead of winter. Whatever the reasons were behind this reason doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is that it happened. The purpose of this book isn’t to reveal a plodding blow-by-blow account of the sequence of events or to play peekaboo with the private lives of the stars but just to give the reader a taste of the whole experience. If that happens this book is alive.”

In the Logbook‘s foreward, for the 2012 reprint of the book, T-Bone Burnett — a touring guitarist with the Rolling Thunder Revue — writes:

“I thought Sam was there to write a movie. One of the things I found out is that [Shepard] was writing this book. Had I known that, I might have been a little more circumspect in our communications. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful to him for chronicling this extraordinary time. None of us was ever quite the same.”

Shepard’s Logbook — essentially a collection of random anecdotes and stories — captured moments like the time Bob Dylan and the band relaxed at The Seacrest Hotel in Falmouth, Massachusetts:

“Dylan moves up on the platform to the rickety old upright piano used for years for the sole purpose of producing middle class pabulum Big Band sounds of the ‘30s and ‘40s. He sits, stabs his bony fingers into the ivories, and begins a pounding version of ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’ Here’s where it’s at. The Master Arsonist. The place is smoking within five minutes. The ladies are twitching deep within their corsets. The whole piano is shaking and seems on the verge of jumping right off the wooden platforms. Dylan’s cowboy heel is driving a hole through the floor. Roger McGuinn appears with the guitar, then Neuwirth, and the whole band joins in until every molecule of air in the place is bursting. This is Dylan’s true magic. Leave aside his lyrical genius for a second and just watch this transformation of energy which he carries…”

Here’s another excerpt:

“Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head. It moves us into an area of mystery. Some myths are poisonous to believe in, but others have the capacity for changing something inside us, even if it’s just for a minute or two. Dylan creates a mythic atmosphere out of the land around us. The land we walk on every day and never see it until someone shows it to us.”

In 1985, some ten years later, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was released from prison after serving nearly twenty years.

That same year, Dylan and Shepard would reunite during an outdoor writing session which produced an incredible collaboration, an epic song in both the literal and figurative senses, the eleven-minute long “Brownsille Girl,” in which Dylan sings about a long-lost love and a memory about his standing in line to see Gregory Peck in his 1950 western The Gunfighter. Some of the song’s lyrics even offer up a plot synopsis of the film.

“It’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned,” Dylan and Shepard observe in “Brownsville Girl.” You could even say the the same thing about this epic collaboration.

Around the time Knocked Out Loaded was released, on July 14, 1986, Dylan was still smarting over the sting he’d felt after several of his albums recorded in what is now referred to as his “Gospel Years” damaged his credibility with irritated fans and critics alike.

He’d also seen his early ’80s tours met with a lukewarm reception, and he was reluctantly entering the new world of promotional videos with some skepticism (read about that in this previous Night Flight post).

Shepard, in an interview in the December 18th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone, would say this about the track, and it sounds to us like he didn’t know “Brownsville Girl” had already been released:

“I wish you could hear the tune he and I wrote together in the spring of 1985. It’s at least 20 minutes long – it’s like a saga! – and it has to do with a guy standing on line and waiting to see an old Gregory Peck movie that he can’t quite remember – only pieces of it, and then this whole memory thing happens, unfolding before his very eyes. He starts speaking internally to a woman he’d been hanging out with, recalling their meetings and reliving the whole journey they’d gone on – and then it returns to the guy, who’s still standing on line in the rain. The film the song was about was a Gregory Peck western that Bob had once seen, but he couldn’t remember the title. We decided that the title didn’t matter, and we spent two days writing the lyrics – Bob had previously composed the melody line, which was already down on tape. He’s already gone through different phases with the song. At one point, he talked about making a video out of it. I told him that it should be an opera, that we should extend it – make it an hour and a half or so – and perform it like an opera…. He’s a lot of fun to work with, because he’s so off the wall sometimes. We’d come up with a line, and I’d think that we were heading down one trail over here, and then suddenly he’d just throw in this other line, and we’d wind up following it off in some different direction. Sometimes it’s frustrating to do that when you’re trying to make a wholeness out of something, but it turned out OK.”

Dylan — in a long, rambling Q&A-style interview that he did with writer Bill Flanagan — would later single out “Brownsville Girl” as one of two songs that he felt never got the attention they deserved (the other was 1980’s “In the Garden,” a deep cut on Saved, which was the third best album in his trilogy of born-again Christian rock records), although Dylan would only perform it live in concert just once, in 1986.

Not everyone was impressed with the track: here’s how Night Flight contributor Chris Morris — writing about “Brownsville Girl” in his 2016 book about Dylan’s recordings and their impact on his life, Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (Rothco Press) — described the song:

“… One of the co-writes is ‘Brownsville Girl,’ authored with playwright-actor Sam Shepard, who went along for the ride on the Rolling Thunder Revue, and recorded and then scrapped in a variant version during sessions for Empire Burlesque. The 11-minute tune is as demented as Duel in the Sun, one of the Gregory Peck horse operas that Dylan references in this strange, meandering saga. Dense, unpredictable, and frequently hilarious, the song is finally swamped by its grotesque overproduction (though I can’t fault any song in which Dylan’s customarily aggravating background singers are used for obvious humorous effect). It’s a mad Western Odyssey shot in 3D and Cinerama that revels in its own widescreen insanity, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ at the Bijou on acid. Annoying and entertaining in equal measures, it’s the only thing on the album that justifies removing it from its sleeve.”

All total, Sam Shepard wrote forty-four plays, one of which, Buried Child, won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in in 1979.

He was also nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for the plays Curse of the Starving Class and A Lie of the Mind.

Eleven have won Obie awards (he won the first of those when he was just twenty-three). Other titles include: The Late Henry Moss, Simpatico, True West, Fool for Love and States of Shock.

He’s also written collection of short stories (Great Dream of Heaven and Cruising Paradise), prose fiction, and numerous screenplays, including Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, which won the Golden Palm Award at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival (Shepard also appeared in the film as an actor).

Shepard wrote the screenplay for and directed the film Far North in 1988, which starred then-wife Jessica Lange, who he met on the set of the film Frances in 1982. He also directed Silent Tongue (1994).

Acting, of course, became another occupation Sam Shepard excelled at, and he appeared in quite a few of our personal favorites, including Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven (1978), Fool For Love (1985), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Mud (2012), August: Osage County, (2013), and Midnight Special (2016).

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Shepard received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy in 1992, and in 1994 he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

He will be greatly missed. R.I.P. Sam Shepard.

Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & the Gospel Years is just one of several titles we’re featuring over in our Dylan collection, streaming for our subscribers on Night Flight Plus!

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.