Happy Birthday Bob

Highway 61

Prelude:

I brought my pal Todd to my town to exhibit his show “The Legend of the Thirty Six” and do some concerts and teachings in the room where we hung the show. It was thirty six photographs, inspired by the legend of the lamed-vav-nik and the influence of the artist Ben-Zion on my pal Todd.

We found a way to hang the show in a tasty round room in the shul just as you enter the building that was outfitted with a system we brought from Minnesota that I saw used in museums that does not necessitate pounding into walls to hang framed pictures. On this, the first installation, we hired a fellow who knew the system and had installed it at the Art Museum.

He needed a helper, I was told. I can help him, I said, thinking to minimize the budget. I was told it would take one whole day. Ok, how about next Tuesday? Tuesday is good, he will meet you there.

I showed up Tuesday morning prepared to work. He was thin in overalls some simple tools hanging off a belt long hair tied in a tail angular face baseball cap. He didn’t speak. We went to work, he demonstrating how to help (it took four hands) and we went at it until about 4:00 PM. I’m naturally quiet, he was silent the entire day. Until the end.

We got the exhibit hung. It was like a day mediation, requiring some concentration just enough to pass the time well but not too much that interfered with dreaming. I worked all day respecting the silence and figured this was the deal until just before we were done, within the last hour of the work-day, between four and five PM he turned to me and said, “so – are you going?”

“Going where?”

“Dylan.”

“Ah. Well. I hadn’t thought about it. Where?”

“Cape Girardeau. Good. It’s a small field house. He’s doing small venues.”

“When?”

He told me a date in April. April! It was February when we had the conversation.

“I’ve never seen him,” I said.

“Gotta go.”

That was all the conversation we had. So I went home and bought some tickets. I bought four, thinking I would take my daughter and a couple of her friends. What the heck, I had never seen Bob Dylan live, though I used to sneak away from Detroit when I was fourteen, fifteen years old and steal off to New York City to inhale the music of the Village scene. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going and I went several times. In those days, I saw Dylan hanging around the Village, wearing a Mad Hatter’s hat he was known for, someone squiring him around in a convertible Corvette (from Detroit, I know cars). It was 1963, 64, I didn’t know much but I loved music and saw some great things in the clubs at the time: Gerde’s Folk City, Dave Van Ronk, Richie Havens, Dylan on the street but not in the club. It was time.

I Go To See Bob Dylan

I went to see Bob Dylan for the first time in 2001. Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I pronounced it the French way. It was in a field house, seven thousand seats. All my friends said, why do you want to go see Dylan? Someone told me he mumbles and can’t remember his songs.

I had never seen him, never saw him perform anyway, I saw him a long time before when I was hanging out in Greenwich Village. I was a kid.

In 2001 I took my daughter and two of her friends. We got seats on the second level. The concert was called for seven thirty. I had no idea how far away Cape Girardeau was, but we arrived at seven fifteen, made the will call window by seven twenty, in our seats by seven thirty, the concert begun at seven thirty two.

Nice stage, a small field house, we were on the second level, first row, good lighting, simple stage.

They began with amplified acoustic instruments, and switched back and forth during the evening between Stratocasters and amplified acoustic Gibsons and Martins. The bass player too alternated between the double bass and the electric bass. The lead guitarist doubled on mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and violin.

It was a basic rock and roll configuration: Dylan plus two guitars, bass, drums. Good guitar players, adequate not fancy bass, same with drums. Everyone solid, not fancy. The big surprise was that Dylan played most of the leads. Not flashy but adequate. The lead guitar was a good multi-instrumentalist: guitars, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, violin, everything he played tastefully. Still, Dylan was out front in every tune with his guitar, swiveling his legs in an Oklahoma oilman suit black with a white stripe down the side, black T-shape string tie, and a great pair of extravagant two-tone (black and white) cowboy boots. He played the leads in every song, picking out his small melodies carefully with the neck of the guitar pointed toward the ground, the expression on his face unmoved.

I was mesmerized that he dominated the music of his band. I had to get a look at him, I wanted to see his face and see exactly what he was doing on the guitar. “I’ll be right back,” I said to Sarika, and bounded down the bleachers to the ground floor. There was no separation between the second level and the ground level, as there is in the field house in my town. You can just walk down.

I ran down. Then once on the main floor I walked down the aisle next to the center section of the floor seats right up to the stage. I stood next to a guy who was sitting quietly, intently watching the show that was happening not ten feet from him. It was a pleasant place to watch, not directly in front of the speakers so the sound was not overwhelming. I crouched down so I would not obstruct anyone’s view, and I gazed up at the holy man, now so close I felt as if I could reach up and touch his guitar.

He was indeed playing all the leads, adequately, but not at all like the flashy standard that is set for the common rock and roll screaming lead. His leads were more rhythmic, a little labored, not very interesting harmonically, but always within the simple chord changes. He had been practicing.

He had a look of concentration on his face. He was not making contact, eye or otherwise, with his audience, but he was focused on the music.

He looked to me like a holy man. Small, a little grizzled, unsmiling but not unfriendly, concentrating on the material and the new role that he was taking in his own music: soloist, lead player, improvisational instrumentalist, with a stylized singing that made sense, lower registers than his former rasp, with more authority and confidence in his vocals than I had ever heard before. It was a much higher musical standard than I had expected.

After watching him for about three tunes in the place by the stage where I didn’t belong, the man sitting quietly next to me, a plain looking fellow dressed in casual golf clothes, short sandy hair, looked at me and said over the crowd, “I’ve been following him around for thirty five years. This is the best concert I’ve ever seen.”

Why he chose me to tell that to, I don’t know. It was clear that he needed to say it to somebody. I watched him for much of the rest of the show. He was alone, he didn’t move, he didn’t talk to anyone, he sat and watched as if he was observing science.

I went back to get Sarika and her friends. I wanted her to see what I was seeing. “Follow me,” I said to them, “don’t look back and don’t talk to anybody,” and I went bounding down the bleachers again to the main floor.

We ended up in the same place. The girls huddled next to my confidant, and I found a liberated seat across the aisle where I sat quietly, like him, and watched the rest of the concert. The standard did not altar, the entire concert was clean and straight ahead and competent and the only words the holy man spoke was “this is my band, the best in the land” and introduced them one by one as they were playing.

I don’t like concerts in large public places. I never have, so I have not seen many musical shows in arenas and theaters where great concerts have been staged. I like music in small rooms, living rooms even, theaters at the largest.

But this night was beautiful and important for me. I couldn’t avoid some sense of pride in a hero of my generation having made the transition to the next generation with authority, creativity, and confidence. Also, there was something of the original lyricism of Bob Dylan still in this 2001 version. I recalled all the impossible dreams and lyrical seduction of his music and folk poetry, and a measure of the original promise of his form of critique and commitment returned to me as I sat there listening to the songs. I suppose every generation has a music that takes you back to your youth. I sat there in the field house, Cape Girardeau, 2001, understanding the words even of the songs I didn’t know but more importantly I remembered what they were about.

I could not avoid also the lift that watching Bob Dylan gave to my own small but serious musical aspirations. At the turn of 2001, I had made a vow to play more music, make more concerts, produce a series of CDs, and tour with my music, stories, and teachings. I was not at all sure why this had become important to me, but it had, and I was doing it.

Sometimes late at night, after a gig, and I am dragging my equipment back to my car, I laugh at myself. Now I have the picture of the holy man, working out on Tangled Up In Blue, in that great suit and swiveling cowboy boots and that will help me not look back.

The last thing that was wonderful about the concert was to share this with my daughter and her friends. In the car on the way home, we talked about the concert, about Bob Dylan, about what he was for me and what he is for them, what we each heard in his music, and it was the same thing. I told them the stories of how I came to hear Bob Dylan when I was their age. They told me the same stories, different time, different characters, and then they fell asleep.

We sailed through the clear, fresh Missouri night on a journey of secret destinations, the next stop also wonderful.

Next: Truck Stop.