Here are Leeuwenhoek’s microscope and the Hubble telescope. They let us see things we couldn’t see without the devices, and then we fret over what it is to make visible something that in the natural order of things would remain hidden. These things are exactly what Freud had in mind when he sighed over our poor species’ efforts to become “prosthetic gods,” and what Bob Dylan may have been sighing over when he claims we invented our doom. Of course, the man with the wooden leg really can get across the room on his own, that’s the thing about prosthetics. I think about what I was able to see with my own eyes on Wednesday night when Bob Dylan performed Forgetful Heart for a public audience for the first time.
I’m in seat 5 in the 7th row of the Marcus Amphitheater at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Seats 5, 6, and 7 of the 6th row are occupied by three tall and high-spirited men who are enjoying each other’s company very much.They’re standing up, and I’m standing too, to try to see past them to the stage. To my right is a woman sitting down, head lowered, sending and reading text messages. Behind me are rows of chairs, behind them is a steeply sloping lawn filled with people. There’s a roof over us in the more expensive seats; if it rains, the people on the lawn will get wet. In the aisle to my right are burly men in red shirts, the security staff, who push into aisles and step over seats, grim and aggressive and intimidating, and make people like me stop standing on their chairs, and other people stop taking photos. Dozens of photos are available on the internet right this minute.
I can see people swarming in and out of the entrance to the right of the stage, talking to each other or talking on phones, balancing three or four beers with two hands, or just standing until a red-shirt asks them where they belong.
I know that not even 50 yards from the turnstiles that let me into this venue is another open stage, with another amplified band on it. Ringing that stage are booths selling more beer, food, things. And 50 or so yards from that stage is another one, and more amplified music, and more booths selling more beer and things to more people, and on like this for about three-quarters of a mile, stages and booths and people flowing through the land along Lake Michigan on the edge of Milwaukee. Lake Michigan does not look like a lake, it looks like an ocean.
And here I am in row 7 seat 5, ahead of me are 6 rows of people plus the security space plus the appr. 4 foot height of the stage, and maybe 8 feet back from the edge of the stage, Bob Dylan has stalked from his keyboard to the microphone stand in front of George Recile’s drums. He has nothing but his harmonica. Through everything around me that wants my attention, I can hear the guitar notes that begin Forgetful Heart.
Right here right now, it’s going to happen. As far as the pleasure this song has already given me goes, I happen to be wearing–in row 7, seat 5–a custom made t-shirt that reads “If indeed there ever was a door.”
Well, what about it? The men in front of me, having to deal with a slow and quiet song they don’t recognize, continue talking and laughing and bending their heads towards each other. The security staff continue to push into the front rows and professionally terrorize people with cameras. People up and down and moving all around. You can hear for yourself, on expectingrain.com, what I heard: Bob Dylan’s voice ranging from gruff and broken, to tender and silken, each word present and audible, and a harmonica solo that will break your heart. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t see what I saw: Bob Dylan sort of slithering around the microphone, limber and awkward in his peculiar way, brandishing the harmonica to keep time, moving with his words, every atom he could control was indeed the song. I saw all this in the glimpses I could manage, in the spaces that opened up when the men in front of me parted for a moment here and there. And if you were sitting in the 4th or 1st row you would have seen the words as they were formed, expressions, whatever Tony was doing, all of which were obscured to me because of people blocking my view, or the distance.
Don’t these goddamned people know that the person in row 7, seat 5, is deeply and truly PRESENT AND LISTENING, and just about everyone else is not? Don’t these goddamned people know that right in front of them is the World Premiere of Something Magnificent? Myself, I sat on a plane on a runway at Newark Airport for 3 and 1/2 hours in a rainstorm waiting to take off and fly to Milwaukee JUST FOR THIS. Will you goddamned people shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down?
I had enough space in my head to hold that poison for about three seconds, and manage to relish hearing Bob Dylan growl the word “heart,” and then I saw with the microscope/telescope that’s built into us–this is exactly what a Bob Dylan concert is. It is exactly as I described it, and then exactly as the men in front of me would have described it (they punched the air and sang along with It Ain’t Me Babe, Desolation Row, and LARS, and the headman of the three–who did not stop talking during all of Forgetful Heart)– turned back to me in delight when Bob did Po’ Boy). It is exactly as the security man who made me get off my chair would have described it.
We decode set lists when he’s on tour, and use those lists to decide whether a show is same-old-same-old, whether he’s pulled out something of particular value to a hardcore fan. We puff our cigars and wonder if Stu will be gone, if Bob will play guitar.
We know if it was a Good show, a Great show, or neither. Some of us yearn for Larry Campbell, some are tired of Cat’s in the Well. We yawn when the row in front of us is shouting “HOW DOES IT FEEL?” Other people are in the way, or sympatico, or irrelevant.
But that’s bullshit, a peculiar bullshit. When I see Bob Dylan at New York’s elite City Centre, that’s the world I get, and when I see him at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, that’s the world I get. Maybe I was the only person in the house whose sky split open wide when Bob Dylan did Forgetful Heart, but a concert is where this happens in conditions I can’t own or control or judge.
It’s not the set list. It’s not what I know, and the fact that I know more than most people in the venue with me, and it’s not how all this quantity of what I know imputes value to whatever Bob Dylan decides to do that night. You have got to be a transparent eyeball that takes in the man in front of you who talks all during Forgetful Heart. So next time you get the chance to see him perform, take in everything, and remember that this is what a concert is.
And think about this too: it’s a common and fraternal activity, this decoding and tallying. But while all this tallying and decoding is going on, Bob Dylan is performing yet another set list consisting of yet more shifts in tone and texture, somewhere else he’s giving the crowd a pile-driving Highway 61 Revisited and then lulling them with This Dream of You. Somewhere else he’s being generous with his energy and his ability to communicate entirely different and potent emotional worlds as rapidly as some of us wish he’d toss off those hats we’re not so crazy about. How hard is it to see his touring schedule as an embarrassment of riches?
I also want to add what a great pleasure it was to see Stu back in front, and taking lead prominently and deliciously—he nearly made me love Honest With Me.
And this was my first Po’ Boy, and how wonderful to get that song with the vaudevillian timing just perfect. And a new arrangement of Blind Willie McTell, less of the dark swamp vision it’s been, more tuneful and majestic at the same time. Bob played the guitar on Cat’s in the Well, It Ain’t Me Babe, and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, with vigor that the sound system at the Marcus Amphitheater really did justice to. And he moved from the sorrow of Forgetful Heart, that could deplete a person, to a sturdy and rollicking I Don’t Believe You, with exactly the same triumph and blindness that people have been breaking hearts with since the dawn of time. “May the lord have mercy on us all.” Do you ever think the man might simply mean what he says?