Dylan's Mid-'70s Renaissance
by Justin Farrar | November 14, 2013
When it comes to the use of rock 'n' roll in coming-of-age flicks, one of the sharpest examples is in Dazed and Confused, director Richard Linklater's masterful portrayal of high school life in mid-'70s America. That opening scene is one for the ages: a cream-orange Pontiac GTO -- driven by Pickford while girlfriend Michelle Burroughs rides shotgun and rolls a joint -- cruising oh so coolly through Lee High School's parking lot to Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." But my personal favorite is when Mitch, freshly graduated from junior high, follows super-stoner Wooderson and Randall "Pink" Floyd into The Emporium for the first time. The scene plays out like a rite of passage: After Wooderson throws open the door to the pool hall and game room, Mitch follows him to a new level of maturity and freedom. No longer is he restricted to boring junior high dances with chaperones. He now runs unsupervised with high school teens who smoke, toke and play foosball all while Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" booms from the speakers.
The inclusion of "Hurricane," a protest song chronicling the imprisonment of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, is a savvy one for several reasons. The tune's knotted poetry and social conscience definitely reflect Mitch's newfound maturity (i.e. this is the kind of sophisticated music the older kids listen to). But for those of us who obsess over rock 'n' roll history, it also speaks to the specific context in which Dylan's mid-'70s renaissance unfolded.
Between the years 1970 and '73, when -- apart from "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" -- he released very little that garnered strong radio airplay, Dylan wasn't terribly hip with America's youth. Partying to the arena-tailored sounds of Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac and Thin Lizzy, they largely dismissed him as a holdover from another era. This, however, began to change by 1974. Documenting his successful "reunion" tour with The Band, Before the Flood featured a slew of older tunes couched in an entirely new sound, one loud and big enough to conquer the then-thriving arena/stadium circuit.
The following year, Dylan further re-energized his career with the release of The Basement Tapes and Blood on the Tracks. The former, a collection of heavily bootlegged recordings made with The Band in 1967, helped acquaint younger rock fans with some of the best work from his mid-'60s heyday. The latter, chronicling the separation from then-wife Sara, was his best studio effort since 1966's Blonde on Blonde. Sprawling and complex, with production values that sounded thoroughly current, it achieved double-platinum status and in the process transformed Dylan from '60s artifact into modern rock star.
Toward the end of 1975, he updated his sound further when he took the Rolling Thunder Revue on the road. Backed by a disheveled assortment of old friends, weirdoes and rockers, the tour at times featured six to seven hard-raging guitarists, including glam-rock innovator Mick Ronson (who previously worked with über cool dudes David Bowie and Lou Reed). With Rolling Thunder making its way across the country throughout 1976, Dylan also found the time to unleash the highly anticipated follow-up to Blood on the Tracks. Also going platinum multiple times over, Desire and its bold and brash style represents the climax of his mid-'70s renaissance. Anchored by radio staples "Hurricane," "Isis" and "Mozambique," it is the most classic-rock entry in the icon's massive catalog. And it is this version of Dylan that the teens growing up in mid-'70s America, like those hanging at The Emporium, embraced the way they did Skynyrd and Aerosmith.
Of course, being a man of a million falls and a million comebacks, Dylan eventually ran his reacquired rock-star status right into the ground, the soundtrack to which is the live album Hard Rain, released in autumn 1976. The music is hard rocking, almost deliriously so. At the same time, it betrays the state of near collapse in which Dylan and Rolling Thunder found themselves after nearly a year of incessant touring (and wild partying and personal strife). Opting to take an extended break, Dylan wouldn't release another studio album, the all-too-tepid Street-Legal, until 1978. And just like that, his mid-'70s renaissance floated away on an idiot wind.