By Katy Cowan
Photographer Ken Regan took almost 14,000 photographs during his time with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. He had complete, unrestricted and exclusive access during that year of 1975.
This March, you can get your hands on Rolling Thunder: Photographs by Ken Regan – courtesy of Ormond Yard Press – capturing the intimate backstage atmosphere of this seminal moment in musical history. The book covers the best of Regan’s Rolling Thunder archive, considered to be the most important Bob Dylan archive, with many photographs that have never before been published.
How did it come about? In 1974 music promoter Bill Graham had arranged for Regan to photograph Dylan at the end of his tour with The Band for a Time magazine piece. On consecutive nights, Ken spotted the same elderly woman in the crowd. “She had a really interesting face but she looked really out of place. She was about forty years older than anyone else in the crowd. I just figured she was a music freak.”
Ken mentioned her to Bill Graham, Bill explained that it was Bob Dylan’s mother, and that he should not take pictures of her. “I’d taken about four dozen! He told me not to release them because I’d never be let within 500 yards of Bob ever again.” Later Ken sent Bob Dylan some photographs from the concert, including photographs of his mother in the crowd. Ken’s note explained that he had not sent the pictures of Bob’s mother to Time, but that he wanted Bob to have them.
“There was no response from him at all, which really kind of bummed me out.”
A year later during the summer of 1975, Ken is woken by the phone at 3am. On the line is Bill Graham’s partner, Barry Imhoff. Barry is in New York, and asks Ken what he is up to for the next couple of months. “I could be anywhere. Why, what’s up?”
Barry is circumspect. There is talk of a tour, something a little different. He then passes the phone to Lou Kemp, a childhood friend of Bob Dylan who runs Kemp Fisheries. He says he is co-promoting a tour for Bob Dylan, and they want Ken to come on the road with them for a few months and photograph the entire tour.
It’s 3am and Ken is incredulous. Dylan? Kemp Fisheries? What? He asks to get Barry Imhoff back on the phone. Ken is a straight talker from the Bronx: “Barry, if this is a f***ing joke, I’m gonna hunt you down and take you apart completely.”
Someone else comes on the line. Ken recognises the voice immediately – it is Bob Dylan. He apologises for waking Ken so early in the morning, and explains that Ken is in the frame as the photographer they are thinking of to document the tour. Dylan makes a point of thanking him for the photographs of his mother that Ken sent to him. By not releasing them, Ken has gained some trust.
Later that day Ken travels to Studio Instrument Rentals’ in Manhattan, where Dylan is rehearsing. Bob explains that this is going to be a different kind of tour, lasting a few months, with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and T-Bone Burnett on board already. Ken would be the only photographer on the tour with complete access. “Bob had given me free rein to shoot it all—onstage, offstage, dressing rooms, parties, trailers, whatever was going on.”
There is one minor caveat. Bob explains that his wife and children are going to be on the tour at various times, and while Ken can photograph them, he can’t release those pictures. Ken is hired that day. There is no signed contract. “We shook hands, and I never betrayed that trust.”
The Rolling Thunder Revue is a tour of two halves, and Ken covers the first leg starting on 30 October 1975 at the War Memorial Auditorium in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and ending with a benefit concert for Rubin Carter at Madison Square Garden in New York on 8 December 1975.