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Revisiting Bob Dylan
by Jeff Doran

Thanks to a friend of a friend at the box office, we had seats on what would be the 50-yard-line if a hockey arena had a 50-yard-line, and six rows up from the ice if there had been ice that night instead of folding chairs that no one was going to bother sitting in. The Metro Centre in Halifax, Nova
Photo by Duncan Hume
Scotia, was the first Canadian venue for Bob Dylan's summer tour, and people had come from as far away as Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, waiting two hours at the blockade of protesting crab fishermen on the Confederation Bridge to get here. As the auditorium filled, the pre-show music on the P.A. became strangely familiar. It sounded like, but it couldn't be, Aaron Copland. Then, as if an elbow had bumped the mixer, volume came up on the timpani introduction to "Fanfare for the Common Man," and then like the orchestra whipping up a frenzy for Elvis with "Thus Spake Zarathustra," volume came up on the trumpet fanfare, and then volume came up even more on the opening of "Rodeo" and I heard someone scream "Yee-haw!"

Then, out of chute number one, it's Bob Dylan! He's wearing a black suit with red stripes on the pants and red piping on the sleeves that looks like he stole it from a bellhop, a black cowboy hat, and oxblood cowboy boots. The band breaks into a bluegrass tempo and Dylan sings something I've never heard before, and the guitarists sing harmony that sounds like the Stanley Brothers, and it turns out to be "I Am the Man, Thomas" by Ralph Stanley, which turns out to be the song Dylan has been using for his opening number in concerts for years, which only goes to show how long it has been since I've seen him in concert.

Twenty years, in fact. And it was 20 years before that when I first saw him at Symphony Hall in Boston. I was in my first year of college and I couldn't find anybody who wanted to go with me. It was only my second time on the MTA subway, the first time being when I had found my way downtown (change at Park Street station, change at Government Center) to the Selective Service Office to register for the draft. I had a roommate who was a government major and had come equipped with a portable stereo and a collection of Johnny Mathis records. When he asked what kind of music I liked and I said folk music, he showed me his one Limelighters album. I had the first two Bob Dylan albums and I put on the first one and as soon as my roommate heard the opening chords to "You're No Good" he almost threw the record out the fifth floor window. I spent the rest of that year resisting the temptation to throw him out the fifth floor window.

At Symphony Hall, it was just Dylan on-stage with his guitar. Another Side of Bob Dylan had just come out and I had sampled it at a record store where you could take the LP into a listening booth like a telephone booth and play it on a turntable. If I told this to some of the kids who were at the concert in Halifax, Tuesday night, they'd think I came from a generation with bamboo needles for wind-up gramophones. I was wondering how those kids found out about Bob Dylan, and I was wondering who all the old people were at the Metro Centre, until I realized the old people were people like me who have been listening to Bob Dylan for 40 years. But I was a kid when I went to that concert in Boston, just turned 18 and vulnerable to the draft, with a roommate who would probably be my commanding officer if I went to Vietnam, and Bob Dylan alone on-stage with his guitar was showing me it was okay to be different. I remember there was a guy in a Boston College football jersey a few rows ahead of me who threw up his evening's consumption of beer during "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." I remember noticing that Dylan noticed the commotion, and immediately after the song he took a break. When he came back, the guy from B.C. was gone and the smell was almost gone and it seemed like it was just Bob and me.

I didn't see Dylan again until I was living outside Toronto on a one-year job exchange from Nova Scotia. I was married then and had two kids. I had been teaching high school English for twelve years. I was still listening to Bob Dylan. I had all the albums and I knew all the words - that was when they were still LPs and when you could know all the words without too much effort, especially if you were singing along - and again I found myself taking the subway alone, this time to Maple Leaf Gardens. I had given a lot of thought to what I was going to wear. I didn't want to appear your average, middle-aged Dylan fan who had all the albums and knew all the words. I wanted it to be just me and Bob, like the night in Boston when we both saw the guy throw up. So I wore my chambray work shirt and my brown bomber jacket and my blue jeans and my work boots. As the subway got closer to College Street station, I could tell most of the people were going to the concert, and as I went up the escalator to the arena, it looked like all the men my age were wearing work shirts and leather jackets and blue jeans and work boots. I had a seat as far away from the stage as you could get, but some people in my row had binoculars and they shared them with me. People in my row also shared joints and wineskins and frisbees. They were the age of the students I taught. They called me "Sir." Dylan had gone Christian and had just come out with Shot of Love, and I was starting not to know all the words. He had a gospel back-up group of black women in red chiffon robes. I was starting to think that I had just imagined all that stuff about it being just him and me. After the concert, as the crowd funneled onto College Street, some of the kids were walking across the tops of parked cars. As I took the subway to the end of the line where I took the bus to the suburbs, fewer men looked like me, and on the bus ride no one was talking about the concert. At school the next day the kids were excited to hear that I'd been to the concert, but they were disappointed that I hadn't got a T-shirt. I didn't know there was such a thing as a concert T-shirt.

Now I'm wearing my T-shirt from the concert as I write this, and I wore it to the record store (a "music store," I guess, since they don't even sell cassettes, let alone records, although "music store" makes me think of a place where you buy sheet music and reeds for your clarinet) when I went in to buy Love and Theft, one of the many Dylan albums I don't have, because in the concert not only did I not know the words, I didn't even know the songs. The T-shirt has a picture of the Young Dylan (there were choices, just like the Young Elvis or the Old Elvis on postage stamps). The kid at the music store counter saw the T-shirt and said, "Were you there? I heard it was awesome!" and, without even trying, I said, "It rocked!"

It was like seeing Elvis, which I never did. The older Dylan gets, the more he looks like a sharecropper photographed by Walker Evans, but on this tour he has a George Raft pencil line moustache that makes him look like Django Reinhardt, but with his cowboy suit he looks like Hank Williams, but he wiggles his left knee just like Elvis. Charlie Sexton on guitar looks like Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy and Larry Campbell on guitar, violin, cittern and lap-steel looks like Mephistopheles, but they wear suits like the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. Tony Garnier on bass wears a Hassidic hat. The drummer George Ricelli has his cap turned backwards for speed. When they play acoustic with the stand-up bass, they look like the big draw at the County Fair, but then Dylan and Sexton squat and almost do a Chuck Berry duck-walk and they look like rockabillies at the roller rink, and when Campbell gets handed an f-hole hollow-body, they could be the Hot Club of France. I did a doubletake when it looked like Garnier had picked up the quintessential fat guitar of a mariachi band, but it was a hollow-body cello-shaped bass.

After three acoustic numbers following the bluegrass opener, I thought the whole evening was going to be unplugged, but then in the shadows when the lights dimmed between songs we could see the electric guitars being handed from the wings where they were racked like rifles at a stockade, and a Bo Diddley rhythm started and Dylan rapped "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with Ricelli smacking drums and cymbals as if he were fending off attacking wolves. Just as I was coming to terms with permanent hearing loss, the electric group played a number that was soft and sweet and I thought must have been another tribute like the Ralph Stanley, but by Hoagy Carmichael. I later found out it was "Moonlight" which is on the new album and sounds just like the way they did it in concert, except that Dylan's voice was limited to a one-octave range, which should give you all the notes you need, except he used only two. In nearly every song that night, he spoke or chanted the words and then on the last word of each line he went up one octave. The effect would become trancelike. Then like a P38 diving out of the clouds his voice found another note that came full throttle from between his hard palate and the bridge of his nose, just like the Dylan that drove my freshman roommate crazy. A lot of people in the audience recognized "Blind Willie McTell" which must be on some bootleg album other than the one I have with the hole drilled slightly off-center, and they put me to shame by applauding the intro to "Lonesome Day Blues" from the new album. Then the band went acoustic again for "Mama, You Been on My Mind," "Masters of War," and "Forever Young" and I could sing along again. The electric guitars came back out for "Summer Days," which I think is the perfect song for a new album and a summer concert tour, and which made me want to grab my partner and jump over the railing and jive in the aisle, and I would have if I didn't have to jump the railing. Last of all, we were destined to hear "Rainy Day Women" #12 & 35" and we all shouted out the tag line. There was even a stray, lonely whiff of marijuana, like memory of a Nehru jacket and granny glasses.

We cheered and hooted and whistled and clapped and stamped and we weren't going home without an encore. I wondered what it sounded like backstage; it must have sounded nice. The band came back with what has become an encore anthem for us 40-year fans, "Like a Rolling Stone," for which they turn on the houselights so we can cheer an answer to "...How does it feel?" "Honest With Me" settled my mind that I was going to get the new album as soon as the stores opened. The acoustic version of "Blowin' in the Wind" sounded more like "Wildwood Flower," but we all heard the words and didn't have to be prompted to applaud the line "How many times must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned?" I was thinking this would be a good way to end the night.

But I didn't know that we could count on getting four encores just like all the other audiences so far in the tour, and in the shadows I saw the electric guitars coming back. Then, like the elbow that I had thought nudged the opening fanfare, an arm swept all the meters on the sound board to 11 out of 10, and it was a rampaging stampede of sound like nothing we had ever heard before, but we all knew it was "All Along the Watchtower," a nightmarish panic attack of words with guitars like red-hot knitting needles and the bass enough to crack a sternum and the wolf pack leaping at the drums. All I could do was shake my head and grin and swat my hands in time like a crazed chimp. And when it was over, all Bob Dylan could do was sit on the edge of the drummer's platform as we were on our feet with a sound that came back to the stage like the joining of the Red Sea. Dylan and the band stood together and took a bow without bowing as the sound went on and on long after they had left the stage for the last time.

"If there's a better band playing now, I've never heard them," Bob Dylan said. It was the only thing he said to us that night, except to name the band members. But now I think that all these years he has been saying something to each of us that only each of us knows. All along, it's been just the man with his guitar alone on-stage and alone with us.

[© 2003 Jeff Doran]


Jeff Doran is a writer, musician, and retired high school teacher living in Nova Scotia. A past winner of the Canadian 3-Day Novel Contest, he celebrated his 50th birthday by driving the length of Route 66.

Comments? E-mail the editor at djohnson@folklinks.com.

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