Bob Dylan’s 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour is the subject of a new Martin Scorsese-directed documentary, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” that premieres on Netflix on June 12. The tour’s music is also documented in a 14-CD boxed set, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, that came out on the Columbia label on June 7.
There was only one New Jersey stop on the tour, but it was at one of the most unusual venues at which Dylan played — not just in the course of the tour, but in his entire career. On Dec. 7, 1975, he and his tourmates (including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Allen Ginsberg) performed at the Clinton Institution for Women, a medium-security prison.
(NOTE: I’ve put together this post drawing on information contained in 1975 coverage of the event by New York Times and Rolling Stone, as well as the 1975 television report you can watch below, and information contained on the reference sites setlist.fm and bjorner.com.)
The Clinton Institution for Women (now known as the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women) was, at the time of the tour, holding 100 men as well as 200 women. Among the men was Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer who, Dylan believed, had been wrongly convicted of murder, and was the subject of Dylan’s recently released single, “Hurricane.”
No tickets were sold. The idea was to raise awareness about Carter, and offer a show of support for him.
It was a shortened version of the tour show, and didn’t draw a big crowd. According to the TV report, about half the inmates decided not to attend, and those who did were outnumbered by reporters. There is no music from the show on The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, but there is some footage of it in Dylan’s 1978 movie “Renaldo and Clara,” and in the Scorsese-directed documentary.
Dylan performed a set heavy on protest songs but not exclusively devoted to them: “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Hurricane” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Flack sang “Killing Me Softly,” “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter” and “Feel Like Making Love,” and Ginsberg read his poem “Kissass.” I can’t find any reports of other songs or poems performed.
According to the Rolling Stone article, “Hurricane” and the provocative “Kissass” drew the biggest responses from the audience. Reporter Les Ledbetter adds that “Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, was hooted for the softness and lack of spirit in her songs. When she replied, ‘We came here to give you love; if you can’t handle it that’s your problem,’ several prisoners traded looks of resignation.”
On the next night, Dec. 8, the last Rolling Thunder Revue show of 1975 took place at Madison Square Garden. The show, titled “The Night of the Hurricane,” was attended by 14,000, and featured guest appearances by Muhammad Ali and Coretta Scott King.
There was another benefit for Carter in Houston in January 1976, and the final shows of the tour — which had begun in October 1975 — took place in April and May 1976.
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