#9. Hard Rain
“Although the band had been playing together longer, the charm had gone out of their exchanges.”
-NPR’s Tim Riley
So went the review of the Fort Collins, Colorado show in 1976 from which the bulk of Hard Rain got its material. While part of what Riley said is true, I don’t fully agree. Yes, the ’75 leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue was much better and more spirited (listen to The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, especially “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Hurricane” for proof of this) but considering the circumstances behind Hard Rain, it’s pretty remarkable that anything worthwhile come out of it.
The concert had been pushed back a few days because of terrible weather (fittingly enough, rain) so the band was already pretty restless and just wanted the tour to end. None of its members—Stoner, Joan Baez and Scarlet Rivera, among others—were in the brightest moods, while Dylan was in the worst of them. His marriage to Sara was crumbling and it didn’t help much that his former flame, Baez, was always hanging around.
Plus, the show was to be broadcasted on NBC.
So, things were going rather terribly and as for the actual concert, there were a lot of empty seats. But Dylan found a way to release his pain by performing two songs appearing on Blood on the Tracks: “Shelter from the Storm” and “Idiot Wind.”
As the sixth song on a nine-track album, “Shelter” is the first track that makes Hard Rain worthwhile for even non-Dylan fans. The sound of the song is one that The Clash would later master—but that’d still be a couple of years later. While it is straight rock ‘n’ roll, a listener can’t help but hear the reggae and even punk sound that is transcended through the guitar, bass, violin and drums. Before the lyrics kick in, you know the message is going to be powerful; almost as if the storm clouds that had been hanging over Fort Collins were only over the band now and they had to plow their way through it. The thing that I like most about the song is Dylan’s phrasing; for instance, instead of the hopeful way he sings it on Blood, he’s now phrasing each word in different breaths. Dylan sings, “Just. To. Think. That. It. All. Began. On. An. Uneventful. Morn” as if each word began a new (and therefore, important) sentence.
You really believe that Dylan’s being “hunted like a crocodile.”
The best track on the album is left until last and in my book, every officially version of the song, “Idiot Wind” (contained on Blood on the Tracks, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 and Hard Rain) is great for completely different reasons.
Blood version: After the slow “You’re a Big Girl Now,” to hear the immediate opening of “Someone’s got it in for me” with the organ, guitar and drums bashing down at the same time (think “Like a Rolling Stone” but much softer) is quite a shock. Having the most pronounced “E-ed-e-ot” of the three versions, this version falls right between the other two—not quite as hurtful as Hard Rain or as sad as Bootleg.
Bootleg version: The one that leaves you feeling for Dylan because, by the end, he seems about ready to let it all go and start crying. It’s also the version that you’re most likely to hear at 2 am at some dive of a bar.
Hard Rain version: Poisonous. Vicious. Those are just two of the words to describe this version. The humor of “They say I shot a man named Grey and took his wife to Italy/ She inherited a million bucks/ And when she died, it came to me/ I can’t help it if I’m lucky” is all but lost and you envision Dylan being the mysterious shooter. Whenever I listen to it, I think about the kid on the playground who always could hurl the most stinging insults out and even if they were not directed at you, you’d still feel their effect. This song works the same way because unlike the other two, each line (or insult) feels like a dagger—and you’re left wondering who the actual “idiot” is.
The rest of the album contains a few other good tracks (“One Too Many Mornings,” “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “I Threw It All Away”) but its mostly just clunkers. After performing “Oh Sister,” you can hear a fan yelling for “Lay, Lady, Lay” which Dylan would eventually play but in a lifeless version.
It would be another 21 months before Dylan would go on tour again. And after a listen to “Shelter from the Storm” and “Idiot Wind,” it’s no wonder why.