Music by VICE

My Father Was Left Out of Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan Movie

My late father's extensive contributions were left on the cutting room floor of 'Rolling Thunder Revue.' So I went looking for his legacy.

by Julien Levy; illustrated by Nico Teitel
Sep 18 2019, 11:00am

This summer, Netflix released The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Film by Martin Scorsese, a major production critics described as, variously, "simply brilliant," "a little too much of a good (indulgent) thing," and "snippety and jumpy." The mixed reactions weren't simply a reaction to, but a function of what the film is… or is not. Marketed as "part documentary, part concert film, part fever dream," the work uses documentary's visual language to ostensibly tell the story of Dylan's legendary 1975 tour—a traveling hootenanny featuring a revolving cast of performers and the staging and pacing of musical theater—but takes substantial liberties with the facts, interweaving fictional characters and events with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews featuring the real people who made it happen. It's an intriguing choice that in-and-of-itself raises important questions about cultural hagiography, the debt artists owe to the truth, and how they can pay it.

But for me, the most bewildering feature of the film lies in what was left on the cutting room floor: Dylan's collaboration with Jacques Levy, a relatively obscure New York avant-garde theater director whose contributions to Rolling Thunder, both as a songwriter and one of the tour's central creative architects, represent one of the most substantial partnerships in Dylan's career. Like so many articles about Rolling Thunder and the 1976 album Desire that boil Levy's contributions down to a sentence or outright ignore him, Scorcese's film functions as idol-worship, portraying Dylan as a lone genius while dismissing a more nuanced, more interesting truth: Without Jacques Levy, neither Desire nor Rolling Thunder as we know it would have existed.

Were I a casual viewer, this all might have escaped me, but I have a personal stake: Levy was my father.

In 1975, my father, a 39-year-old psychologist turned theater director and lyricist, bumped into Dylan on the street. The encounter sparked a writing partnership that would yield seven of the nine songs on Dylan's 1976 record Desire, as well as a track that wound up on 1991's The Bootleg Series. When Dylan decided to take the new material on the road, he asked my father to direct what would become the Rolling Thunder Revue, an oft-imitated, widely-influential marriage of theater and rock, home to some of Dylan's greatest live performances.

My father died in 2004, when I was 15. I never got the chance to do much more than love him. I came to know him later, through the stories I heard second or third-hand—remembrances from family, friends, and collaborators who'd been in the room when he was producing his life's work. When my mother got the call that Martin Scorsese was directing a Rolling Thunder documentary and that we'd been invited to see it at his private screening room, my family took it as a tacit acknowledgment of my father's importance to the story, and for my part, I viewed it as an opportunity to get to know my father a little more.

Five minutes into the film and there he was as I never saw him, walking around in the background at Rolling Thunder rehearsals, talking to people at parties. In glimpses I saw the man with whom my mother fell in love—vital, in his element, with a (mostly) full head of hair. At the 13-minute mark, the fictional documentarian Stefan von Dorp mentions that Jacques gave him permission to film. Any minute now, I thought, they'll get to him. But even though the songs he co-created serve as the film's centerpieces, and despite lengthy musing on the tour's theatricality, my father vanishes from the story before it truly begins. If I hadn't already known the man standing beside Dylan at the head of the tour's crew photo shown 20 minutes into the film, I'd have assumed he was a producer or a manager of some kind. In an analogue to my life, he's barely introduced before he's gone.

Despite the filmmakers' insistence that it's simply an interpretation of the truth, presenting a version of history that never was and isn't meant to be definitive, because the film bears Scorsese's name, is so cleverly edited, never effectively tips its hand, and features the famously reticent Dylan, most viewers won't know the difference. So what follows, culled together from as many primary sources as I could get my hands on and interviews with some key players from the tour, is neither a biography nor a comprehensive chronicle of events, but simply the story of Rolling Thunder that the film declined to tell.

It's also the story of my family.

bob dylan and jacques levy

One early summer evening, as he walked out of his apartment and lit a cigarette, my father spied a familiar face walking down on the street. "Bob!" he called. Dylan turned around. It turned out they were heading to the same bar, so they decided to go together.

By 1975, Levy was pushing 40, living in a loft above a bakery on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village. He'd grown up poor in New York City, sharing a bedroom with his immigrant grandmother until leaving the city to study for his doctorate at Michigan State. In his mid-30s, when he'd called to tell his mother that he was ditching his career as a clinical psychologist to pursue musical theater, she'd cried.

In the ‘60s, he'd garnered some success Off-Broadway with his experimental, Brechtian style, winning an Obie Award for directing an early Sam Shepard play. In 1969, he'd made a splash directing the musical Oh! Calcutta!, a controversial erotic revue featuring sketches from Shepard, Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Leonard Melfi, Edna O'Brien, and Jules Feiffer; the play eventually moved up to Broadway, becoming one of its longest running shows. But by mid-‘75, he was between projects.

Dylan and my father weren't total strangers. They had met previously in the late '60s while my father collaborated with Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn on a musical reimagining of Ibsen's Peer Gynt set in the American West. The show never made it to the stage, but McGuinn plucked a handful of songs from the soundtrack and recorded them with The Byrds; one track, "Chestnut Mare," wound up charting. "Your dad improved my work," McGuinn, still a family friend, told me. "The quality of songs I'd been working on with him were better than what I'd been doing myself or with other people. He did inside rhymes and things I never bothered to do. He was brilliant."

As is customary in musical theater, the songs McGuinn and my father had written together had plots and characters. This appealed to Dylan. Just a few months out from Blood on the Tracks, a quintessentially Dylanesque folk-rock record with a distinctly personal and confessional tone, he was searching for a next step. As my father recalled in a 2004 interview with Prism Film Archive, "[Dylan] had heard the lyrics I'd written for McGuinn... I think he liked the idea that I could tell a story." According to my father, the two drank and talked. "Then he said these magic words: ‘I'd like you to write some stuff for me.'"

My father demurred. He was a lyricist—not a musician—and Dylan was, well, Dylan.

"We wound up just over at his place, sitting around," Dylan said in On the Road with Bob Dylan, Larry "Ratso" Sloman's chronicle of his adventures traveling with Rolling Thunder as a young reporter with Rolling Stone. "I had a few songs. I certainly wasn't thinking of making a record album. I had bits and pieces of some songs I was working on and I played them for [Levy] on the piano and asked him if they meant anything to him." The two songs were "One More Cup of Coffee" and a rough version of "Sara." Picking up where Dylan left off, the two got to work that night. "He took it someplace else, and then I took it someplace else," Dylan said. "Then he went further, then I went further, and it wound up that we had ["Isis,"] which was out there, you know." (Via a representative, Dylan declined to participate in this story.)

The chemistry was obvious. "It was more than a working relationship," Ratso Sloman told me. "Jacques and Bob had a real friendship." After a few weeks of writing, my father suggested the two get away from the city and bear down on the work. Dylan offered the use of his house in the Hamptons. The two spent about a month together in seclusion—Dylan strumming his guitar, my father punching the typewriter. "It was nothing prepared," Levy recalls in the Prism Film Archive interview. Dylan, he says, would "play a couple of chords and I might come up with a couple of words or a phrase… We just kept going back and forth that way... sometimes he would throw something and say 'how about this?' I would take it or not take it. That was an interesting moment, the first time I said, 'no, I don't think that's right.' But you have to have that otherwise you can't collaborate."

Sometime in the middle of this writing marathon, Dylan decided to record the new material. There was more than enough for an album, so he announced his intentions to his label and made arrangements. Desire was born.

"I thought it was extraordinary that Bob had collaborated like that, and collaborated with a theater director too... Then I realized as I listened to these songs: they were all little dramas, they had, in fact, written small three to five minute plays.

Unlike Dylan's more typically mysterious releases, there is a story behind the composition of nearly every song on Desire. According to my father in On the Road with Bob Dylan, "Romance in Durango" began with an image printed on a postcard. He once told me that a game to see who could rhyme the most words with "Mozambique" yielded the eponymous song. "Joey" was an elegy for my father's friend, mobster Joey Gallo, whom he met through Marta and Jerry Orbach.

Near the beginning of their collaboration, according to my father, Dylan had mentioned that he wanted to write a song about the incarcerated boxer, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, whom they both believed to be innocent. Dylan was out of practice writing protest songs, so he turned to my father for help. "[Dylan] was just filled with all these feelings about Hurricane," my father told Sloman in On the Road with Bob Dylan. "He couldn't make the first step... I think the first step was putting the song in a total storytelling mode."

According to Rob Stoner, bassist on Desire and Rolling Thunder's bandleader, my father's lyrical influence on Dylan's songwriting was obvious. "Juxtapose your pop's work with any of the songs Bob wrote on his own," he told me. "They're much more like a script. He had a kind of wise-ass Broadway thing. You could see another lyricist was afoot here, and Bob totally utilized the resource he had." On even a cursory inspection of "Hurricane," one can see that the song's opening lyrics read precisely like stage directions:

Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, ‘My God they've killed them all!'

By the time Dylan and my father returned to the city in late July, Dylan's friend Bobby Neuwirth, a songwriter and musician, had started performing nightly at The Other End (previously and currently known as The Bitter End) in Greenwich Village. It was a sort of impromptu residency, with Neuwirth getting up on stage to workshop material and inviting friends to join him. "It started off as a lark," Neuwirth told me. "Mainly, it was beatin' the heat with cold ones." As more artists showed up to play and hang out—including Ramblin' Jack Elliot, T Bone Burnett, and, yes, Dylan—the idea of bringing a rag-tag hootenanny of folk and rock singers and songwriters on the road began to solidify. "We thought it'd be fun if we got in a station wagon and went places and did a show and got back in the station wagon and drove away," Neuwirth said. "In other words, Rolling Thunder wasn't planned as it materialized."

Burnett remembers the day when his journey to playing guitar on Rolling Thunder began. "I was playing these shows with Neuwirth at The Other End," he said. "After the first or second night Bob and Jacques came in and after the show we went over to [Larry] Poon's loft." A pack of rockers including Patti Smith and David Bowie's longtime guitarist Mick Ronson joined. Once at the loft, Dylan pulled out the typed songs he and my father had just spent a month writing and sat them on the piano, a Steinway baby grand. "He played the whole Desire album, he played us all those songs. That's one night that, no matter how far I sink into dementia, I won't forget."

Burnett remembers being initially surprised by Dylan's new writing partner. "I thought it was extraordinary that Bob had collaborated like that, and collaborated with a theater director too... Then I realized as I listened to these songs: they were all little dramas, they had, in fact, written small three to five minute plays... Dylan that night was probably the loudest singer I ever heard... he was wailing those songs. That's the night I met Jacques."

It was around this time that Dylan met a young visual artist, Claudia Carr. She had been waitressing at Caffe Dante on MacDougal Street, and Dylan was a regular. She hadn't initially recognized him. The two became friends, with Dylan eventually introducing her to his painting teacher, Norman Raeben, who would become Carr's mentor.

A short time later, a group of friends and collaborators assembled at The Other End for drinks. After a long day of writing with Dylan, my father looked across the table and recognized Carr as the woman who'd previously rebuffed his advances at the grocery store. On July 29, 1975, his 40th birthday, he invited her to a recording session for "Oh, Sister," Desire's haunting, plaintive ballad. The two soon became inseparable.

jacques levy and claudia carr and bob dylan

During the Desire sessions, a menagerie of personnel circled in and out of Columbia's Studio E as Dylan and producer Don Devito searched for the right sound. My father was on site, making adjustments to the lyrics and coaching the performances. "When I arrived for the Desire recording sessions," said Stoner, the sessions' bassist, "[Jacques] was scribbling away on a long yellow legal pad, as lyricists do. After every take, they would kind of have a conference, and Jacques would replace the yellow pad on Bob's music stand with new words. Bob could've said ‘Good enough' any time and sent Jacques away, but he considered every little revision to be an improvement. Those dudes trusted each other on a very high creative level."

Recordings in the tin, it was time to take the new material on the road.

Dylan, my father would later say, confided to him that he was sick of jets and limos. He envisioned a version of Neuwirth's ad hoc performances at The Other End, less of a rock tour and more of a traveling carnival. It would be never-ending, and performers would join in or drop out on a whim as the troupe loaded into venues surreptitiously, played a barn-burner of a show, and escaped into the night.

Louie Kemp, a childhood friend of Dylan's who helped produce the tour, said that promoters were wary of the concept's viability: after all, by this point in his career, Dylan was packing stadiums. "Bob had run the idea by a few promoters; they pooh-poohed it," said Kemp. "[They said] it wasn't becoming to a star of his stature to do little venues. But Bob told me what his idea was and asked me if I'd produce it for him, so I did. I handled logistics. The performances themselves were Bob's responsibility, and he enlisted your dad for that."

According to my mother, my father arrived at rehearsals one morning and found the entire crew sporting t-shirts with the word "BORING" printed on the front and "I HATE JACQUES LEVY FAN CLUB" on the back. My mother still has one of those shirts, and treasures it to this day.

Rolling Thunder was to be no ordinary tour, and, envisioning himself an act in the circus rather than its ringleader, Dylan turned to my father, a professional with years of experience choreographing stage productions and helping different personalities coalesce into a coherent product. Dylan asked him to direct the tour. He accepted.

The tour's acts included everyone from musicians to famous poets to actors. Artists like bassist Rob Stoner, drummer Howie Wyeth, singer Ronee Blakely, and violinist Scarlet Rivera were recruited from the Desire recording sessions. Others like McGuinn, Burnett, Joan Baez, Neuwirth, Kinky Friedman, Ramblin' Jack Eliot, David Mansfield, guitarist Steven Soles, and poet Allen Ginsberg were either friends, transplanted from Neuwirth's shows, or had previously worked with Dylan on other projects.

Bringing his experience in theater to bear, my father required that every performer in Rolling Thunder rehearse his or her part, including entrances, exits, and introductions of each successive act. This sort of staging was the province of stage drama—not rock—and many of the performers loathed it. "He was making us work like a director makes actors work," said Burnett. According to my mother, my father arrived at rehearsals one morning and found the entire crew sporting t-shirts with the word "BORING" printed on the front and "I HATE JACQUES LEVY FAN CLUB" on the back. My mother still has one of those shirts, and treasures it to this day.

"His role was unique," Stoner said of my father. "He wasn't a musician; he was the director. Throughout the rehearsals, he was revising the tunes and thinking of the staging. It wasn't like one band going out there doing their thing; it was like 13 acts—a lot of moving parts! These guys were used to doing their acts. But this wasn't a nightclub, this was a big theatrical presentation for all of posterity. It seems off the cuff, but this thing is really organized. When something had to be done, Jacques was right there. His experience as a clinical psychologist was obvious. He knew exactly how to get the most out of people."

That Dylan and my father respected one another was no secret. "If Jacques hadn't been a meaningful contributor, Bob wouldn't have had him there and kept him there," said Louis Kemp. "That he was there for the duration confirms that." Beyond his early folk years, Dylan's music necessitated collaborators; a band who could bring his musical vision to fruition. But this was the first time in his career that he'd worked so extensively with a lyrical contributor. That required trust and friendship. "It turned out we had rather similar senses of humor," said Levy in his Prism Film Archive interview. "Certain lines I'd write, he'd just laugh. He'd have to stop himself from laughing as he was singing them." And it helped that my father was focused on the work; Dylan famously abhors hangers-on, fanatics, and those who try to call him to account. "I was never a fan with a capital 'F'" said Levy. "[Dylan] loved the idea that I didn't know some of his stuff, that I wasn't one of these people that knew every detail of his life." I can only speculate, but I'm sure that genuine connections and honest opinions were few and far between for Dylan, and when he found them, he embraced them. "One of the reasons that Bob and I are friends is that I always told Bob the truth," said Bobby Neuwirth. "Your dad was the same way. He never blew smoke up Bob's ass."

My father's central task on Rolling Thunder was to create order from chaos, impose the image of a rollicking cavalcade on a tightly rehearsed production and take the audience on a journey. Every act on the tour was invited to sing one song, Burnett remembers. "Jacques had to figure out which song that person could sing, then write it into the story, because what we were doing—what he was doing, was telling a story. With different voices and different songs, and different songwriters...It's very much like a movie score," Burnett said. "Anyone can put a piece of music to a film and have them intersect in some way that's interesting. But if that's what you're doing you just have a series of pieces of music with pieces of film... a score is the overarching arc that goes from beginning to end and tells the same story the movie is telling...And that's what Jacques was doing. He was taking this raw material, and he wrote the show. He wrote and directed the show."

When the tour kicked off on October 30, 1976, my father was on the bus alongside the musicians. He invited Carr along too. It was a motley scene. "[The bus] was like a pirate ship," McGuinn recalls. "Somebody gave me a skull and crossbones flag, and your dad said, ‘Why don't we write a pirate song?' So we did," McGuinn said, laughing. "I played it for Dylan and he said, ‘Oh, that's an old good one.'" The shanty, "Jolly Roger," would later appear on McGuinn's solo album, Cardiff Rose.

During shows, my father would stand backstage, watching the audience for their reactions. Afterwards, he'd give notes and make adjustments. At 40, he was one of the oldest people on the tour. "He was a professional," said Sloman. "Almost professorial. I don't remember him partying or hanging out, really. He was more focused on getting the job done." Constructing the show from start to finish wasn't a one-time effort; my father had to balance the brand new Desire material with fan favorites Dylan hadn't played in a generation, and adjust the show on the fly when other performers like Joni Mitchell and actor Dennis Hopper jumped in mid-stream. According to Neuwirth, "Jacques made sense of it all. I don't know how he did it. He had some brilliant ideas. Like Bob and Joan singing duets like they had back when."

In his chronicle of the tour, The Rolling Thunder Logbook, Sam Shepard seemed especially taken by a dramatic piece of staging that reunited Dylan with his most-famous singing partner, Joan Baez, but kept them behind a curtain.

[After intermission, the] audience are back stomping on their metal folding chairs. Suddenly the houselights dim. Audience begin to roar, but then something happens. From out of the roar acoustic guitars are heard. Where are they coming from? Then two voices come into it. A male and a female. But where's it coming from? The audience begin to listen and quiet down, but they can't see the source of this sound. They strain toward the stage but the curtain's still down. Now the voices take on characters. It's definitely Dylan, but who's the chick? […] Visions of Martin Luther King, Washington, D.C., 1964, Kennedy, Birmingham, a flood of images belonging to a whole decade come riding on the words of ‘Blowing in the Wind.' The curtain slowly rises and there they are revealed. Baez and Dylan, like the right and left hand of an American epic."

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After the tour, my father and Dylan stayed friends. My mother tells me there was some floating talk about the old partners reconvening to write again, but it never happened. My father continued his work in theater, directing 1983's Doonesbury the Musical, and writing lyrics for 1988's Fame: The Musical, among other credits amounting to a lifetime in the theater. In 1979, he and Claudia Carr married. In 1980, they had their first kid—my sister, Maya. I came seven years later.

Since Rolling Thunder, Dylan has never really come off the road. Whenever he came to town, my family would be invited backstage. He was always affable and warm. When I was six, my family visited him in his dressing room. He got down on one knee and asked me if I'd like to have one of his harmonicas. "No thanks," I said. "I have one at home." I couldn't figure out why everyone burst into hysterical laughter. My mom still tells that story.

The last time my father saw Dylan, it was backstage after a show. Dylan was wearing a rumpled pink suit and a cowboy hat. My father approached him. They shook hands. "What the fuck is this mustache?" my father said to Dylan. "You look like Vincent Price." Dylan smiled, glad to see time hadn't changed his old friend.

The day after my father died, my mom received a telegram from Dylan: "[Jacques] was one of my favorite people," it read. "The work that we did together will always stay on my mind. We had an understanding between us that was rare."

He may not be around, but the mark my father left on pop culture means that I still encounter him in my day to day life. Songs from Desire are mainstays in restaurants and bars, on movie and TV soundtracks. The White Stripes, Tom Petty, and Andrew Bird have covered his songs. I've caught references to his work in Mad Men and The Simpsons. Rolling Thunder's melding of pop music and theater—curated shows with guest performers and dramatic interludes—has become de rigeur in today's musical and concert landscape.

"It was impossible to include Jacques because he wasn't alive to be interviewed when we started doing interviews," a spokesperson for the production of The Rolling Thunder Revue told VICE when asked about Jacques Levy's omission from the film. "The truth can be siphoned through many different filters depending on the story you're trying to tell. That's why the movie is called a Bob Dylan story. It's very much telling a specific kind of story."

Of course, nobody champions my father's influence more than those who worked with him. "What I learned from him, I repeated [many times] on A Black and White Night with Roy Orbison, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Down from the Mountain shows… all these things are versions of Rolling Thunder in a way," said T Bone Burnett, now a successful recording artist, Grammy winning producer, and musical impresario in his own right. "I said on the radio the other day that I've been doing Bob's act for 30 years, but really, I've been doing your dad's act…[On the Rolling Thunder Revue] he wrote music, he wrote the script, and he directed it. That's what he did. That's the truth of what happened."

Most of the time, when I think of my father, I think of my gentle, patient, goofy pop—wearing short-shorts and Hawaiian T-shirts on family vacations, sleeping on the couch with our cat in the crook of his arm, putting his hand on my shoulder when a girl had broken my heart. But to really know my father now is to know his work; his sense of humor, insight, wit, and emotional depth are alive in his words. When I miss him or feel lost, that's where I look.

Oh Sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don't turn away, you'll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow.

It may not be his voice singing, but in those lyrics I hear my father begging not to be spurned or taken for granted, for me to recognize what's before me and cherish it while I can. But that song doesn't belong solely to me, and that may be what I'm proudest of: I share my father with the innumerable people whose lives have been touched by his work, even if they never heard his name. Jacques could hear the crowd roar from his place backstage, but here he is now, standing for the curtain call he deserves.