Around 1:20 in the afternoon on Friday the 26th, I sat with my back against a wall at the edge of Hoboken while I waited for the gates to open and launch the stampede to the Pier A stage. Other people sat alone or in twos or threes to either side of me; I was the 15th or 20th person from the front of the line. A man pushing an empty stroller ambled past us followed by his tiny flaxen daughter. She stopped, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed, in front of nearly every one of us who sat facing the street and she returned every smile we gave her by ramping up her expression of expectant wonder. I realized that all of us sitting down came to just her height and when had she ever seen one friendly adult after another after another who was her own size? That was the last agreeable encounter and completely relaxed moment I had for the next 10 hours. This is my fault. For me, the point of GA shows is that nothing but my will and effort prevent me from getting as close to the stage as possible. If I can’t get in the first rows of a seated concert, I submit to fortune and fate. But there is no fortune in General Admission, there is only the art of war–the back of the field is for the weak, the lazy, and the contented pacificist. I respect the pacificists and sometimes believe I can go to a GA Bob Dylan concert with just that Zen quality but when the day comes, the fire burns, and I suffer for it.
See, I want whatever passes for readers in centuries way down the line to understand that AmericanaramA, or any summertime general admission Bob Dylan concert, is not all about whether Charlie Sexton showed up (he did), or whether the new arrangement of She Belongs to Me is more majestic than playful (it is), or whether Duquesne Whistle is a little disappointingly too fast (it is). How are these vacuum-sealed comments, all these considered and sensitive responses, plausible when I’ve stood in the sun, then under stars, on lumpy grass for 10 hours? The stiff limbs and the tension of staking and defending my tiny square foot of ground against barbaric invaders whose banners always read “My friend’s holding that space for me.” How after a while I begin to feel that the world has always contained nothing at all but a cluttered stage curtained in cheap black fabric, and the My Morning Jacket t-shirt and Celtic tattoos on the man–too old for either–who is only inches from me and has for years and years been only inches from me. The three young people inches behind me are able to keep up their arch banter for so very long, as though in a contest to see who will run out of irony first. A middle-aged couple, discussing where they parked their car, is in front of me at the rail, with their son who’s about 14. The boy is trying to look not unhappy. He has shaggy hair which likely makes more of an impression in Scarsdale than it does here among ear gauges and body art. He’s in a tough spot–this is technically a rock concert, and he still has to spend the entire day with his parents in full view of other teenagers smoking pot and talking about Jim James. A woman on her own, about my age, stands her ground right next to me and reads the Times with patience and dignity. She owns her spot. I would love to befriend her but she’s mastered the noli me tangere of the concert pro and although I think of myself as a pro, I’m too high strung to be noli me tangere. A fat girl holding a can of beer over her head shoves past me and I look her right in the eye and say “Kiss my ass.” I am old enough to be her mother, I think. Unrepentantly.
Ryan Bingham was unexpected–I thought I’d just have to hold on through My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Mr Bingham’s got the alt-country hipster thing down and his first song expressed thoughts about heroin and depression in a big hoarse voice. It was a hard 45 minutes for me because the front of the stage was filling up with aggressive young Morning Jacket fans–I had to work hard to hold my inch of land without violence that would work against me. I was very surprised by Jim James. I knew him only from his appearance in I’m Not There. All this time I’ve considered his magnificent (no other word for it) version of Goin’ to Acapulco to be one of maybe 4 covers of Dylan songs of all time that I consider keepers. And here was this strutting leonine person with all these filters and echoes distorting a fine voice. When he put on that circus smock with the gizmo hanging around his neck he looked like a mental patient under the delusion of being a Con Ed employee. I did like seeing the fans around me in love with this, knowing every word, taken out of themselves. It’s a *festival* after all, and I high-handedly gave the children their moment.
I don’t know from Wilco, but I liked Jeff Tweedy’s stage self: this was clearly a man who’d been around the block and fallen down on the curb a few times and is still able to work hard and laugh about what he’s seen and done. My territory, though, deteriorated badly during their set. It takes only one tall pogo-ing man shouting the name of every song, and shouting along with every song, jumping and shouting, to hijack my tiny window of sight and sound.
Worn and thirsty and aching and tense from my selfish voluntary ordeal, I watched some people I recognized and some I did not setting up Bob Dylan’s stage. Up close, it is something to see how agilely and cooperatively the roadies and technicians work–never getting in each other’s way, and always generous about stopping whatever they’re doing to help a colleague with a glitch. I blinked and that whole piano was in place. I miss the portentous ritual of the Nag Champa, the Fanfare for the Common Man, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” but Stu’s entrance nowadays is always startling and makes for a surge of attention in everyone that’s exciting.
And after the collective awakening to the beginning of Dylan’s set, we disintegrated back into our bits of jostling and sniping and texting and photo-ing and jabbering. Everything Bob Dylan does reaches me through fissures. External fissures–when tall jumping people stumble enough for me to regain a sight line to the stage; when people stop shouting the name of each song to their neighbor so I can hear the lyrics. Internal fissures–when I can break away from my tired legs and thirsty head and foul selfish mood occluding the precious spaciousness I like to think I bring to Dylan concerts–when I can break away from my own occluding self and let the performance demand its space. So in these fissures and glimpses here is what got in:
- The *story* of the setlist is such a tug of war between Yes and No. He tells us right off not to want anything, he used to care but…. and describes with great care not caring. He tells us that being sick of love is being sick with love. He extols a woman for being free and self-sufficient. . .and who belongs to him. He joins a violent, threatening, anarchic band of kings and gets us to surrender to him waving our handkerchiefs in the air. He leads us into two very different intimate visions back to back, Hard Rain‘s prophesying and Blind Willie McTell‘s historical lament. Finally he pulls back the curtain and reminds us it’s all theater. Something’s happening. Don’t think you can name it and know it. But take it, you can have it, and good night.
- I feel about Duquesne Whistle the way I feel about Beyond Here Lies Nothin’–rocking beauties that say everything about that tug of war between staying and moving on. I’ve been waiting to hear him make Duquesne Whistle bite the air like he does with live versions of Beyond Here. But this was too fast and rushed for me, I lost the words themselves and then the delectation of the words that I love on the record. So that thing happened where the recorded version retreated in me into a protected space where the version Bob Dylan is singing right now for me can’t reach. You know when a live performance of a song gets farther in than the recorded version, and you know when it doesn’t.
- Early Roman Kings live has the what the hell is that? factor that makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan and everyone else everyone else. It’s not a song. It’s a whole show, a whole theater, a whole oratory. Every word hammers out that menacing and burlesque world and only Bob Dylan can control it.
- Don’t like the Jerry Lee Lewis standing at the piano thing. When he sits at the piano, there’s more concentration to his playing.
- Hatless, the ferocious mess of his hair is just right for the show’s energy.
The crowd for all its density dispersed so fast after the show. We couldn’t wait to get away from each other. The field looked like a landfill of crushed beer cans and food containers and newspapers and some trampled sunglasses and even cellphones. Some of us had to get home and prepare for Jones Beach the next night. A few on line reviews of that Jones Beach show guessed that we got no fun encore like Friday’s The Weight singalong because we didn’t deserve any. That we were a dull audience Saturday night and being punished for it. Well, a good few of us were very very tired.
Play on, Bob. On and on. Of course you have more moxie than all of us put together. We just try to keep up from our own tiny patches of this earth you’re roaming. Some of us are flawed creatures and keeping up doesn’t bring out the best in us. And as always: