I was all right till April 28, 2005….Too early? Too late? On time

images5  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. 

orpheus 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. 

images-13 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. 

images-23 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”. images-34 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.

images6And 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. 

images-5 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.

images-62I 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.”

images7What 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. 

 

images-81 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. 

images-92But 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?

salvador  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.

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5 thoughts on “I was all right till April 28, 2005….Too early? Too late? On time

  1. I was at this show and you have done a fine job describing the collective journey we all went through during Hard Rain that night. It was a very special moment. There are moments like this where Bob seems to have the entire theater/arena/world/universe on his shoulders. There are also moments during shows when he seems to speak only to me.

    You also point out how sometimes when seeing him in concert you can see younger/historic Bobs present somehow in the Bob you are looking at.

  2. From England ……. I saw Bob accidentally in his trip to London in 61/2. He seemed interesting if unwashed! In 63 I heard Blowing in the Wind by Peter Paul and Mary. I liked its apparent simplicity, found the writer’s name and recognised it. I then heard Hard Rain, by Pete Seeger, and sought out the original which had by this time arrived in the UK in the wake of ‘Times”. I had found myself aroused emotionally by Pete, but the experience of Bob was altogether different. That stirring you sensed in the last verse at the Beacon was SO compelling at the time that I played that song over and over, just to come to it, to escape from helplessness into some sense of doing something. I actively involved myself in CND and in such anti-racism as there was in early 60s London. Bob took me into action, then, and onward into awareness of why that action failed later, and how to ‘keep it in your mind and not forget’. He no longer (of course) tells me what to do, but he does say, often ‘it’s all right Ma’, and even allows me to share his despair. If I ever met him face to face, I’d thank him for the shared ride and the help along the way, as a brother, not an unapproachable star.

  3. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write this comment, and indeed provide the voice missing at the end of my description of Hard Rain in 2005. It is exactly the condition inthealley describes here so gracefully– “”Bob took me into action, then, onward to awareness of why that action failed later,” that I want to do justice to. I think it’s naive and simplistic to claim that my illuminations and inthealley’s action and awareness, separated by decades, merely prove a transcendent timelessness to Dylan’s work. I want to understand and respect the peculiar urgency and immediacy of your response, and the way it invited you to action, and distinguish the song’s invitation to you from its invitation to me, based on our different circumstances. I think the persistent vitality of Dylan’s work only exists in our expressions and conversations, and many thanks to inthealley for taking the time to make 1963 present to my 2005 experience, as exactly it should be.

  4. “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.”

    Yes! All this stuff about constantly (well, continually) “reinventing” himself… I mean, I get it. That’s what I loved more and more deeply and with more amazement as it unfolded before me–as I listened and discovered he could sing the same song in this way–and this way–and this way–he could sing in this voice, or this voice, or this voice! The arrangements, the new styles, the depth and breadth of what he drew on. And all of it real…

    (It ruined me for any other artist… Tom Waits approaches it. I’m sure there’s more. It always seems someone else has to introduce me to new artists.)

    But relatively recently, I watched a bunch of the 60’s interviews. Then happened to re-watch the 1986 interview on the set of Hearts of Fire–and it was the same guy. (Just different clothes.) And watched more of the recent concert videos–same guy. Guess we all have that physical, attitudinal way of being that defines us. All along the way… Interesting how “different” his mannerisms seem/seemed to me, though, from the 60’s to say, now–in the 60’s, everyone knows/assumes they’re cool (as you say, “It is not easy not to be captivated by that creature…”). Now–eccentric, maybe even awkward. I feel protective and almost cringe a little at what the unwashed, uninitiated must think… Silly me.

    But, same guy. Yeah.

    • It’s true that Dylan pretty much destroys the *reinvention* cliche as it applies to other artists. When it’s just “wanna change my clothes, my hair, myface” as Bruce sings, it’s easy enough to dismiss. But even serious transformations of form or style (yesterday I visited the Picasso B&W exhibit at the Guggenheim and had a chance to think about this, or try to think about it as I jostled to get anywhere paintings crowded by 17 people with audioguide gadgets and that peculiar vacant look on their faces that seems always to accompany audioguide gadgets…anyway…) can’t easily compare to the singular experience of same/different that you had watching those interviews, or I had at the Beacon. The effort to name a constant and hold on to it–he’s always about spirituality! he’s always harvesting the American songbook!–just strains the person doing the holding. I’d say cringing at the uninitiated is a clinical diagnosis of being initiated. Try to work up some compassion for the unwashed–some people don’t have time to take a shower before heading to a show and especially at those summer ballpark shows quite a lot of our fellow travelers are not as fresh as we might wish.

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