Yesterday I stood in the middle of 52nd street to catch a glimpse of Bob Dylan merely leaving a bus and walking about ten feet to the backstage door of the Ed Sullivan theater. I did eventually get my glimpse of stubborn shoulders and yet another brimmed hat. I don’t usually stoop to age-inappropriate fan behaviors like waiting outside doors; the few other people in 52nd street with me appeared to be shabby autograph hounds waiting for Bill Murray. Passersby occasionally asked who was on the bus and I wish now I hadn’t answered each time: No one was interested and I know I seemed barely more palatable than the fellow next to me holding a grimy plastic bag filled with other plastic bags.
Nevertheless, I had a good long time to stand there in the sun and contemplate the bus. I tried to contemplate thousands–thousands–of this. Not, of course, even counting outdoor shows. Climbing down bus steps or pushing off a car seat or turning a corner on foot onto a dry or wet or icy or snowed-up sidewalk. Sun or shadow or night or wind or rain. Alongside people much-liked or not especially liked, or indifferent to. Feeling good, feeling shitty, feeling frightened, feeling hungry, thirsty, feeling nothing much. Talking, smoking, both or neither. Hearing Dutch,Norwegian, Slovenian, Spanish, Hebrew, Finnish, French, or English but with different Rs and vowels. Hearing his name shouted over his shoulder or, like yesterday, no shouts of recognition. Through the door to the usual unfamiliar faces exerting disinterest. Got my clipboard here, busy, just doing my job. Or unfamiliar faces effortlessly indifferent.
That was the first time I’d seen Bob Dylan since Nov 2014 when I took in the 5 Beacon shows here and the show in Newark, NJ. This was the tour with the same setlist every night. Isn’t he doing the same exact songs every night? Acquaintances who’d read this in reviews presented this fact as a criticism: Maybe it’s his age? You waited every time for him to do something different?
I waited for the same songs and yes of course it’s age. A whole story about age performed in a voice I’m still not used to. A careful and rugged and emotive voice. I sound arch, as though my ear is too exceptional to get used to Bob Dylan singing with transparent feeling and mortal charms.
Every night the crowd erupted for “she should have seen me back in ’58…” in Simple Twist and I cheered along insincerely the first couple of times and then stopped. I own a t-shirt with a photo of him from 1958 that I bought at Zimmy’s in Hibbing. It’s not a terrifically rare photo–he’s standing in front of curtains in the Zimmerman living room, holding a guitar and rolling his head back in a Presleyish way. He looks plump, spoiled, unpromising. How fast he’d become gaunt and sly and learn how to sing “those are the hills of hellfire, my love” commandingly, like a grownup. I get it, I get it. Bringing everyone back to some 1958 that could even be real for lots of the audience, that’s hilarious, and an authentic Bob Dylan group hug. I think I felt left out.
Instead I whooped every time he got out of bed in Workingman’s Blues and went into town “on a whim” where he sees. . . his father. “At least I think it was him.” And if it was, his father’s apparently got his own business in town. An astounding vision. The miracle-mystery of time. Or just a passing stranger who may be familiar. He’s equal to both stories or neither and isn’t it a hell of a thing what can happen to a man when he just wants to get out of the house. That’s what I liked to cheer for.
The first three songs end on peculiarly humble inspiring notes:
- Mr Jinx and Miss Lucy took the grand and tragic way out but not me. I remember what caring felt like and I’m sticking around, so welcome to my Show and Concert.
- Back when I cared, perhaps, there was a woman who was free and complete. Nonetheless she belonged to me. Indeed, I spied on her in her secret room. Even if a Peeping Tom, I want to end by celebrating her. Everyone–Let’s give her a trumpet and a drum and salute her! Give her the instruments and let her make her own song.
- You’re the only love I’ve ever known, now bless me as I sail away. Into the measureless nothing that lies beyond our love. A love so vast that the world itself becomes the throne with nothing, of course, left to rule over. I admit it–I haven’t said or done anything in all my rich contrariness. But still, I won’t leave without your blessing.
That fierce solitary lover sets off in his boat and sails to the grim and compassionate land of Workingman’s Blues. The sad quiet intro changed the stage set: here are dark trees and scattered meager lights and the rustling of very tired people finding each other somewhere to rest. We in this song makes togetherness a mode of survival. Some minutes ago he’d brashly told us four times that he’s no longer a man who even cares. Three songs later he laments a past so full of trial or sorrow or both that we’d weep just to hear it.
All these songs about how much it takes to go nowhere. Waiting for You–I’ve never liked the bland country melody and six times I’d wait, lukewarm until the one special moment of the shout out to all of us. Our thousand hearts and eyes. He perks up out of the rocking-chair Waiting for You when he hears the train. Duquesne Whistle is too fast live, as Thunder on the Mountain also was for me. That train has his whole life on it and rushes round him while he stays put, although not unhappily. Please, for me, more restlessness, more nerviness.
Which is why Love Sick brought heat down on my head time after time. Pretty recently I heard Prof Ricks say that Love Sick is not a “romantic” song. He was emphatic about its potent lack of allure. I didn’t have the courage to say, “Speak for yourself, Professor. ” The band never failed to dig in and tear up in an arrangement that wasn’t so much new as more. And every time, I’d steer my boat right into the rocks of that voice.
How we all had to pull together to keep up with him for those last three songs. Stalking the stage, scaring us like a hellfire prophet. And I’ll tell you, those oooohs and the thundering anticlimax–so much for these loong and wasted yeeeahs–you could think after 3 or 4 times this would come off a little kitschy histrionic. It never did. Every time it was some kind of shattering disillusionment followed by such a gentle and loving Blowin’ in the Wind that I forgot there was bitterness in the world. Finally, the gift, the Great Humility laid at our feet, Stay With Me. This must be how people felt when Saved was released: the condescension and pity for everyone who’d have to settle for a recorded Solid Rock. You had to be there to earn those last three words every night.
I left out a lot, didn’t I.
In the new Workingman’s Blues he prays the fugitive prayer. Here it is:
Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, ye that are escaped of the nations: they have no knowledge that set up the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save.