In April 2005, I never heard of any Neverending Tour, it seemed a fairy tale miracle when I passed the Beacon Theater on Broadway and 74th Street and saw Bob Dylan’s name on the marquee, just 2 or 3 short weeks after reading Chronicles and finding my brain recalibrated. As I’ve said elsewhere, I had nothing but time and money on my hands, so when I quiveringly sat down at my computer and quiveringly ordered tickets from StubHub for the show on Friday, April 29, for a gaspingly great sum, all the quivering was from nervous anticipation and not the expense. But there were five concerts in this series at the Beacon in April. I have a cousin who is an entertainment lawyer and two emails later, I found myself in a room at the Riga Hotel, handing over a fax and my ID to a woman at a card table set up in the hotel room, and leaving with an 8th row ticket to the Thursday night, April 28th show. I still have no idea what happened.
In those few weeks before the concerts, I bought Hwy 61, Bringing it All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, and Blonde and Blonde, I read Robert Shelton and Clinton Heylin, I bought Dont Look Back. I managed to fit in listening to 2 or 3 albums, often 2x each, reading 40 or 50 pages, and watching DLB once or twice every day. Although now I would lead a newbie directly to Tell Tale Signs, and Oh Mercy, and John Wesley Harding, and Paul Williams, I had no human mentors, and I went the canonical route. Holding that ticket in my hand, in my urgent naivete, the thought of seeing Bob Dylan live produced a state of freakish anticipation in me: WHAT WOULD HE LOOK LIKE. WHAT WOULD THIS BE LIKE. Since he is, well, no longer the creature from Dont Look Back. It is not easy not to be captivated by that creature, always in graceful bowlegged motion, his rudeness irresistible to me (as of course it was not to many people), his face withstanding the most invasive close-ups.
And what if nobody goes? What if I am forced to feel sorry for this man so soon after discovering him? WHAT IF I AM TOO LATE?
There were two acts appearing before Bob Dylan And His Band, someone named Amos Lee, and then a name I knew, Merle Haggard, an old country singer. This can’t be good, if Bob Dylan can’t fill a theater–a small theater–on his own. I arrived at the time indicated on my ticket, found the lobby sparsely dotted with people, and more bars than I expected in such a small venue. And indeed, the theater was nearly empty when I took my seat, and this Amos Lee took the stage. He sang pleasant songs that expressed his thoughts and feelings, and was gracious about the fact that the theater was nearly empty. At the break, I returned to the hall, and goodness, look at all these people. Just standing and talking and drinking. They seemed unaware that they were in a theater.
On line for the restroom, I saw a woman who was not young, and who had shaved her head and tattooed it in different colors. People intimidated me, they weren’t the usual bland cheerful gaggle at a rock concert. Back to my seat for Merle Haggard. I found that I was sitting next to a couple and their children. They were all attractive and affluent looking. The couple seemed excited to see Bob Dylan, and they had an enormous pair of birdwatching binoculars which they generously offered to share with me when The Time Came. Now I was a little disappointed, I have to say: it felt now as though I was in store for something like the Radio City Christmas Show. Meanwhile, Merle Haggard was energetic and entertaining. When he was done, I made another trip to the restroom–good god! Look at all these people! The hallways were now mobbed, people loud and juiced up. Why are they all out here? There was now something edgy and sharp to the atmosphere of the Beacon.
Back in my seat, now the theater is full, now the noise level is high and strong, now I can see that I surrounded by primarily very animated middle-aged men. Many are wearing shirts and ties, they’ve come from work, they’re holding beers and they all seem to know someone, very few people are by themselves like I am, I see no women like myself, on their own, and I see almost no couples. Oh dear, my heart sinks a little–these men are just here because they are reliving their youth, when they were once irresistible sylphs like the star of Dont Look Back. Between this and the Disneyland family next to me, I am growing increasingly anxious. I have a lot riding on this–this man’s memoirs changed my life, after all. It could end in this concert hall.
The lights go down, there’s a great roar from all those stockbrokers and lawyers. A voice that I assume is a recording narrates something terrible–a kind of summary of Bob Dylan’s career that is unkind and disrespectful. I hear the phrase “has-been”. I hear the voice say “Columbia recording artist” and I think, oh how awful! His record company makes him play this before his concerts! I feel angry and defensive.
And there he is, hunched over a small keyboard. It’s easy for me to find and feel my first impressions: Cold. Fierce. Present. He looks up briefly from the keyboard, and from where I am sitting, row 8, no binoculars, I can see his eyes, ice blue. I don’t feel welcome, or delighted, but I feel that a cold wind has blown all my anticipation away for good.
I didn’t know these songs. And I could see the words and I could feel the work of singing them.I listened, and listened, and he sang, and he sang. There was such Thereness to his voice, which I described at the time as being dry and alive like the desert. There was an astounding moment when he walked to a stand and picked up a harmonica, and I saw the same bouncing shuffle, the same set of the shoulders, the same long fingers, that I’d memorized from Dont Look Back. It’s the same person, somehow. And then he did the song A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. I’d heard of the song, but never heard a recording of it before this.
I got it right away: the young boy to whom the world is fragmented, surreal, inexplicably grotesque, inexplicably threatening, inexplicably inviting. His father, to whom the world is known and ordered, wants to hear his son’s adventures, I could hear the father envying and intimidated by the boy’s freedom. But no boy is singing this song, a man who should take the father’s role is singing the boy’s life. Fathers, sons, images obscurely gruesome–bleeding hammers, things dripping, why am I finding a ladder covered in water frightening? The dry, clear, insistent voice lays out every vision for me to see. Hamlet’s father. Hamlet’s father’s ghost, that’s what this is. “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood.”
What I felt was a fear unleavened by awe. This was no operatic sweep of feeling, something I had developed a taste for before I started listening to Bob Dylan. I had been a Wagner aficionado, and I’d learned the sensuous thrill of dark passions evoked in torrents of voice and music, but this was different. I was not intoxicated, I was frightened. When the singer told me he’d been to a place where “black is the color and none is the number,” I knew for certain that he’d been there, he’d been to a void and he was demanding I see it for myself. This was not pleasant. It was not even the vertigo of the sublime, which I’d studied and had some understanding of. It was just a man insisting I share his nightmare.
I’m going back out, he sang. There seemed a low surge from the people around me in the theater. “I’ll reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it” and right there for me it was all saved, he was going to put himself on that mountain so we wouldn’t have to live his nightmare any longer, and as soon as this absurd, romantic wave of relief rolled through me, the theater erupted–people, men, shouting and calling–they heard and felt what I did? It wasn’t only me? I felt we were all rescued in some way together. You can, in fact, hear this for yourself on a recording of this concert. You can hear the insistence and clarity of Dylan’s voice, and you can hear the eruption of shared feeling in the last verse.
But I am too late, aren’t I. I’m too late despite the fact that Bobby Dylan himself got the dates wrong, and claimed he wrote Hard Rain in the first flush of Cuban Missile Crisis anxiety, when he played the song to a sizable audience a month before the missiles were sighted (see Marqusee, page 60). I’m too late for the apocalyptic imagery of the song to do a more authentic kind of moral and emotional work: to articulate fears of nuclear destruction or social disintegration, to articulate collective fears that the agents of destruction and disintegration are politicians separated by chasms of conscience and awareness from the people really *hearing* this song. I knew real fear and I knew real community through the performance of the song, but weren’t these feelings Romantic, based on fantasies of timeless Art and transcendent experience? Apres my fear and my collectivity, I would go out into a nice spring night on the Upper West Side, and make my way home bearing the intensity of my experience as a lantern inside me, illuminating new truths about how emotion can be transmitted, what makes a voice beautiful, what makes age potent, what makes language meaningful. The man in rags panhandling in Verdi Square– his plight was no more distressing to me than it ever was. The woman working the 72nd St token booth at midnight–I did not stop to think more deeply about the persistent racial division of labor in my world. Mike Marqusee writes with great eloquence and energy about the hunger Bob Dylan both aroused and satisfied for young people in the early 1960s who were awakening into political awareness, creative experiments, new ways of feeling, and a runaway urgency to right wrongs. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was of this vitality. Wasn’t my experience selfish, inert, inauthentic, compared to what I would have experienced at the song’s original moment?
Bob Dylan’s career is providing an unprecedented opportunity in the history of art: at every stage of this artist’s career, you will find the same man, singing and re-singing the same songs, writing and rewriting songs, and you will find other people engaging with this one man and his doings, and claiming inspiration and transformation through this engagement, dismissing or reviving his *relevance*, discovering or discarding personal connections with his doings. There is no equivalent anywhere to this documentation of the career, and the response to the career, of any other major artist. This is my pedantic and long-winded way of saying that I’m not going to answer my question above, about whether my experience of Hard Rain in 2005 was less than someone’s experience of it in 1963. But the question itself is part of my experience of the song. And in the year 2505, when someone else encounters this song, and sees and feels something new and strong as a result, they will have a vocabulary for their experience that I can’t possibly foresee.