An Autobiography in 19 Bob Dylan Concerts
A day before the show at the Beacon Theatre, I’m figuring this will be the last time I’ll see Bob Dylan perform. This doesn’t have anything to do with Dylan’s age — sure, he’s 73 and doesn’t play guitar in concert anymore, but he isn’t showing much evidence of slowing down. Just two years ago, he released “Tempest,” and although I didn’t go apeshit over it the way some critics did, it’s a solid record and, when I’m in certain moods, I’ll play a couple of the songs incessantly. In 2014, which saw the release of the exhaustive, six-CD edition of “The Basement Tapes,” Dylan played nearly 100 shows. This January, Dylan is releasing his 36th album “Shadows in the Night,” consisting of his interpretations of Frank Sinatra songs. To a longtime fan who gravitates toward Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics and his more aggressive material, this sounds like a snooze, but I’m sure I’ll stream it on Spotify and rationalize why it’s some sort of brilliant artistic, counterculture statement.
Still, though, seeing Dylan in concert? That’s gotten less rewarding. The unpredictability that used to characterize his performances (What will he play? Which Dylan will show up — the electrifying rock ’n’ roller or the distracted mumbler?) has been replaced by a dogged professionalism. Just a few years ago, Dylan geeks in online communities organized pools to guess which songs he’d play; winners scored bootlegs. Now, the set list hardly ever changes — 16 songs bisected by an intermission and followed by an encore of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and a cover of “Stay With Me,” not even the Rod Stewart and the Faces tune, but the one Sinatra sang. Plus, the game of anticipating Dylan’s idiosyncratic song arrangements has been killed by the Internet. How has he changed his interpretation of “Love Sick” this time around? In seconds, you can find out on YouTube. It all seems so rote now.
And, as for all the concerts I’ve seen, what do I remember of them really? A conversation I had on the way to the stadium. Something some guy sitting behind me said at the show. Maybe a transcendent interpretation of a song or two. Anything else? Of the dozen and a half I’ve seen, how much of them do I even remember? All those hours spent sitting on lawns or in bleachers, however much money I spent on tickets, what purpose did all of it serve? What’s that line Dylan sings on “Tempest”? “So much for these long and wasted years.” Yeah, I think as I look back, this will probably be the last show.
My first Dylan concert was the one I didn’t see. My interest in Bob Dylan was overdetermined — an older brother who blasted his albums and, when I was 4, took me to see the movie of “The Concert for Bangladesh”; a mom who listened to WFMT and “The Midnight Special,” which premiered “Blood on the Tracks” before it was released; a second-grade music teacher who was sort of a jerk but taught us “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man”; my own generally contrarian nature, which squared well with the vibe of songs like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Positively Fourth Street.” My brother and his college friend Darrell had an extra ticket. Up until about a week before the show, I assumed I was going. But I had never attended a rock concert before and the more I thought about it, the more leery I became. A boy in my class had talked about seeing a KISS concert and boasted that Gene Simmons had kicked a fan in the face before tossing a tray of joints into the crowd; some kid in Hebrew school mentioned setting off firecrackers at a concert when Kiki Dee came out to join Elton John; and my brother’s friend Darrell described how his head had started ringing after he’d gotten hit by a bottle during a concert at Chicago Stadium. I decided to stay home, but the next day when I read the review in the Chicago Tribune and saw all the songs Dylan played, I immediately regretted it. He closed the show with a new song called “Changing of the Guard” from the album “Street Legal.” I asked my mom for $5 so I could buy the record at Dog Ear Records on Devon Avenue. As it turned out, the record cost $5.19 and I didn’t have the change to cover the price. I switched price tags on it, but the store manager caught me doing it — one of the only times I ever tried to shoplift. I have Bob Dylan to blame for that.
Poplar Creek Music Theater
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
I live with my folks in Chicago but I’m a freshman at a public high school in Evanston — it’s a long story; let’s skip it. Bob Dylan’s in his born-again phase, which pissed me off for a while, but I’m pretty much over it. Sometimes, I mock the earnest Christian lyrics, but “Solid Rock” is a great tune. I was one of the first people in line at the Ticketron outlet at Flipside Records in the Lincoln Village shopping mall, but still I only got seats all the way on the left side in row VV. Poplar Creek is way the hell past O’Hare Airport, so my brother drives. As we head out, I ask him if he has the tickets. “Of course I do,” he says. I think you know where this story is going. Forty-five minutes later, we’re in the parking lot at Poplar Creek and my brother’s searching his car for the tickets. Forty-five minutes after that, we’re back at our folks’ house picking up the tickets we forgot there. Another 45 minutes after that and we’re back at Poplar Creek where the show is about three-fourths over. We get there as Dylan is singing “What Can I Do For You?” from the “Saved” album. The sound’s shitty, Dylan’s backup singers are drowning out his vocals, row VV is half-empty. It takes me a while to acclimate to the surroundings; whenever he plays a song, I keep wondering if it will be the last. For the encore, Dylan sings “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” just him, the guitar and the harmonica. It’s a sublime performance — beautifully played, perfectly enunciated, people are waving lighters — and then it’s all over. Dylan walks off, says nothing to the crowd. The house lights blast on. There’s something tantalizing and uncompromising about the ephemerality of the moment — “This is what you want,” Dylan seems to be telling the crowd. “But it’s mine and there’s no way you can take it from me.” I wish I’d gotten to see the whole show.
Poplar Creek Music Theater
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Same venue, different show, different band. I’ve got a serious college girlfriend and she’s living in Chicago for the summer. Sounded like a good idea but not so much — another long story, let’s skip it too. Dylan’s in his long-maned, dangly-earring, maybe-I’m-not-doing-coke-but-I-sure-look-like-it phase and he’s on the True Confessions Tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dylan is through with the born-again thing and I’ve read that he’s been hanging out with Lubavitchers. Petty and Dylan have been writing songs together, including “Jammin’ Me,” which will show up on Petty’s 1987 record “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” and features offhanded disses of celebrities including actress and anti-Zionist activist Vanessa Redgrave. In an interview, Petty says that he and Dylan were just throwing around random names. Uh, I doubt it. Anyway, the show’s galvanizing — raw, raucous, loud. Dylan seems energized by playing with the Heartbreakers and, to be honest, the Petty tunes are the ones I actually still remember. I’ll spare you the details of the breakup with the girlfriend; it didn’t happen for a while after that night anyway.
Poplar Creek Music Theater
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Dylan’s so-called Never Ending Tour is just beginning. I’m a couple months out of college, living at my folks’ home — freelancing, tutoring, doing whatever BS I can to make enough money to put down a security deposit for an apartment. I haven’t bought tickets but, as the date approaches, I call my college buddy Lester, who has one year left of school. Lester’s not a big Dylan fan, but he’s a big concertgoer, so he picks me up at my folks’ house and we drive out there, listening to Dire Straits on his cassette player. He has a flask of some sort of booze and we pass it back and forth when traffic to the concert gets heavy. We show up 10 minutes before show time and a guy sells us sixth row seats at face value. Dylan and his band, led by G.E. Smith, blaze through a searing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the intensity doesn’t let up through “Maggie’s Farm,” which closes the show. Lester is blown away — some major Dylan fans are sitting next to us and Lester keeps telling them how Dylan is “beating R.E.M. at their own game.” They look at him like he’s nuts for talking about R.E.M. After the show, we have chicken fried steak at Denny’s and talk about our futures. After he graduates from college, he’s going to move to L.A. and pursue a career in TV or movies.
Arie Crown Theatre
I’m living in a studio apartment by the lake, and Dylan’s one year into the Never Ending Tour. He’s just released “Oh Mercy,” arguably his best album of the decade. It’s Halloween and I don’t have a date — on Chicago’s North Side, it’s a whole lot easier to find women into 10,000 Maniacs or the Chicago Bulls than ones who like Dylan. I go to the show with a high school pal named Andy who spent some time teaching in Pakistan before moving to Chicago’s Ukrainian Village where every so often we drink beers and play chess. This chess phase is short-lived — it lasts far shorter then Dylan’s born-again phase. At the Arie Crown, Dylan plays a wicked set, heavy on “Oh Mercy” tunes. He’s on the verge of a major career renaissance that, in some ways, is still happening today, but other than me and Andy, no one I know in town cares much. Maybe I need to move to a college town. Or New York.
Alpine Valley Music Theatre
East Troy, Wisconsin
I’ve finished directing my first play in Chicago and I’m driving with one of the actresses to southern Wisconsin where we sit on the lawn. It’s not a date. Jane’s got a boyfriend who manages the bookstore where she works — just a few doors down from the bars serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was frequenting during the same general time period. I’m looking at the set list from the Alpine Valley show right now and it looks terrific — “Masters of War,” “John Brown,” “What Was It You Wanted,” “All Along The Watchtower” — but, to be honest, I don’t remember any of that. I remember Tracy Chapman opening the show with “Fast Car,” and I remember the bearded guy sitting behind us. He wore a denim jacket and he had a pair of binoculars and, when Dylan stepped on stage, the guy handed them to me. “Now see him for real,” he said. I watched for a while through the binocs, then handed them back. “Thanks a lot,” I said. “You can borrow them any time you want, on one condition,” the guy said. “What’s that?” I asked. “Don’t say ‘thanks.’” On the way to the car, I told Jane that I wasn’t a great night driver and that it would be great if she could keep up a conversation to lessen my anxiety. But by the time we got onto I-94, she was asleep. She slept all the way back to Chicago — like I said, not a date.
Tinley Park World of Music
Tinley Park, Illinois
I ditch the theater company, Lester moves to LA, Andy gets a job in education, my brother’s a physician like my dad; I hear my old college girlfriend is in law school, but I haven’t talked to her in a while. My new-but-not-so-new girlfriend, Beate, and I have been together more than two years. She’s from Germany, we met in Chicago, and now it’s a long distance relationship, which is irritating in multiple respects, chief among them the dubiousness with which everyone else views the relationship’s prospects (“You still with that chick from Deutschland?”). Berlin’s a long way to travel to find a like-minded soul, but whatever. Beate’s in town and Dylan’s touring with Santana. He plays a solid show. “Silvio” is sort of a stupid song but terrific live. Ultimately, though, who gives a damn — if you’re with someone you love, you’d be just as happy at a Bulls game or a 10,000 Maniacs show.
We’re in the long-distance portion of the long-distance relationship, so my brother and I are here. We stand in the mosh pit, which is probably the best place in the house — up close to the action and, since it’s a Dylan concert, you’re probably not gonna get rolled. I remember this as being one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, but the days of Dylan being an erratic performer seem to be over anyway. He finishes up with implied self-effacement (“What Good Am I?” followed by “It Ain’t Me, Babe”), but I’m not buying it. On the way out of the theater, I run into a college friend who I haven’t seen for a while. The last time I communicated with her, I was sending her a condolence letter after her father died. The other day, I was at the office of the magazine where I work and Chip, the associate publisher, was talking about a mutual friend of ours whose dad had died recently too: “It’s getting to be that time — folks are getting married, folks are having kids, people’s parents are passing on.”
I’m working on an independent film — a very, very long story, skip it. My brother and I drive out to see the concert with the film’s producer and assistant producer, both named John. Producer John is big into Dylan. Maybe Assistant Producer John is too, but I don’t know him as well; I know him better by the nickname that Producer John has given him (“Sex God”). During the concert, I walk in on him having sex with some Dylan groupie in the bathroom. Or at least, that’s how I remember it, but as I think more carefully, I realize that didn’t really happen; I just wrote that scene into a novel I was writing about a guy from Chicago making an independent film with two guys named John. Kenny Wayne Shepherd opens the show with some hackneyed blues guitar licks and Producer John starts cracking up (“I’ve never heard anyone play anything that sounds like THIS before,” he says). Dylan attracts a different crowd in Milwaukee — lots of biker dudes and Deadhead chicks. When Dylan plays “Rainy Day Women, #12 & 35,” a crowd of 20-somethings rushes the stage. A girl grabs Dylan’s hat, puts it on and starts dancing. “She grabbed his ass,” Producer John shouts. “Now I’ve seen everything; she grabbed Bob Dylan’s ass.”
I had two tickets
But there was a big blizzard
So I blew it off.
I have no idea if I saw this show or not, but I’m looking through Dylan’s set lists and I think maybe I did. Maybe I was drunk (seems unlikely). Or maybe I was in Germany (more likely). I would’ve liked to see him play Metro, though. That would‘ve been cool.
Beate’s doing research for her dissertation in Brussels and I’m here for a couple of weeks. I haven’t seen many shows in Europe and there’s a different vibe here. No assigned seats. There’s a waitstaff. A woman approaches us and we hold up two fingers — “Two Cokes,” we say and feel like dumb-ass tourists for speaking English. When the lights go down, no one says anything but everyone crowds in close — like Who fans rushing the line at a concert in Cincinnati. We hang back, drinking our Cokes. Dylan performs songs from his latest album, “Time Out of Mind” — one of his darkest, one of his best. I listened to the album with my mom back in Chicago where my dad has started talking about retiring. “It’s not dark yet,” Dylan sang. “But it’s getting there.” “It is,” my mom told me with a knowing nod. “That’s right.”
I finished the novel about the guy working on an independent film in Chicago. Doubleday was supposedly going to buy it, but they decided not to, so now it’s in a drawer. I’m producing and directing a play on the city’s near west side. I normally work the box office too, but I get someone else to do it because Dylan’s playing with Joni Mitchell. I’m attending with my German fiancée — we don’t really use that term, but it gives you the idea of how things have progressed. I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan, but this is definitely a Dylan crowd. During Mitchell’s set, some dude yells out, “Bah-beee!” Mitchell stops playing. “I’m just as good as Bob,” she snaps.
Tinley Park Music Theatre
Tinley Park, Illinois
I’m working on a start-up magazine with a dude named Jerome. We’re supposed to meet here with our significant others, but everyone shows up late. We don’t get into the theater until Paul Simon is done with his opening set and he and Dylan are singing “Sound of Silence.” I seem to be coming down with some mysterious illness. I’ve never done cocaine, but later in the show, when Dylan sings “Cocaine Blues,” the lyrics resonate — “Hey baby, won’t you come back here quick; this old cocaine is making me sick.”
Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
Today’s my mom’s birthday, but I’m living in New York now — to borrow from Jack Kerouac, I’ve just gotten over a long illness that I won’t bother talking about. I recently stopped going to the psychologist I had been seeing for about a year and a half. “I’d diagnose you with depression,” she told me. “Really?” I asked. “Well, I have to write something down on the forms,” she said. Beate and I got married; she’s adjuncting in New Jersey, and I’m editing the same magazine with Jerome in the city and working on a novel. Dylan’s still touring on the strength of “Love and Theft,” which came out on September 11, 2001, but some of his peers haven’t fared so well. Warren Zevon is ill; George Harrison, fellow Traveling Wilbury and Dylan’s co-writer on “If Not For You,” died last year. The show’s heavy on covers — The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Neil Young’s “Old Man.” Dylan dedicates some of the songs to his falling and fallen comrades. He plays “Mutineer” for Zevon, and closes the show with The Beatles’ “Something,” dedicating it to Harrison.
New York, New York
Beate and I went to this concert and I only remember two things about it: 1) The Waifs opened and I liked their music fairly well. 2) We were sitting in the balcony and the hallway doors were open, so light was streaming in the whole time. I’m looking at the set lists now for both shows and it’s not helping to jog my memory. Probably we were distracted by everything going on in our lives — I’d sold my first novel, but the magazine was going out of business; Beate got a good teaching gig, but it was all the way the hell in Bloomington, Indiana. My dad’s been in and out of the hospital in Chicago. That must be why I don’t remember the show; it couldn’t be that it was just kind of a lame gig, could it?
I didn’t think I saw a concert between 2003 and 2012, but now I’m thinking I actually saw one of these. My dad died two years ago at the age of 80. Beate and I had our first daughter a few months after that. We bought an apartment. We shuttled back and forth between New York and Indiana. I was about to publish a third book. Memories of that time are blurry. Who did I go with, did I go at all? I vaguely remember Dylan opening with “Cat’s in the Well.” I vaguely remember thinking it was good.
Brooklyn, New York
We were thinking of moving to Chicago. We were thinking of moving to LA. Instead, we moved back to New York where we have two kids and barely enough time to do anything anymore. I like to think of my life in terms of Dylan lyrics, but I feel like I’m living in a song written by Harry Chapin. Thanksgiving’s approaching and the streets are packed with people who want to watch floats being blown up the night before the parade. I wasn’t sure I could find the time to see Dylan (and the $77 ticket price is steep), but this time he’s touring with Mark Knopfler. My LA pal Lester, who by now has written for a ton of TV shows, told me just a few months ago how much he likes seeing Knopfler live. Jerome and I take the subway down to the Barclays Center. The place has the feel of an airplane hangar, but the sound is tremendous. Dylan has just released “Tempest” and, when he plays with Knopfler, he seems inspired. But Knopfler leaves the stage after the fourth song (“Tangled Up in Blue”) and doesn’t return. From there on in, the show sags, never recovers. Jerome and I talk about grabbing a drink or seeing a movie afterwards, but he has two kids too and they all have to be at school by 8:30 in the morning.
The Beacon Theatre
New York, New York
It’s the last show on this leg of the Never Ending Tour. Beate and I were going to go, but we couldn’t get a sitter. My eldest daughter is just a couple years younger than I was when I declined the opportunity to see Dylan at Chicago Stadium. I asked her to join me, but she wasn’t interested. “Come on,” I told her. “It’ll be a meaningful cultural experience; it’s not like I’m asking you to see ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’” “At least that would be interesting,” she said.
My brother took early retirement, so he flies into town to join me at the show, but it’s really just an excuse to hang out. He has a wife and daughter — traveling’s a pain in the ass. We’ve already read that the show starts promptly at 8:00 p.m. and ends at 10:15 p.m. We’ve already seen the set list; we already know what Dylan will play. The seats aren’t great either — back row of the second balcony; other than that Ray LaMontagne-looking dude in the Phillips Exeter hoodie, I just might be the youngest person up here. In the city, protests are erupting over the Eric Garner case, but all that seems very remote.
And yet, despite the staid atmosphere, despite the luau-like nature of some of the steel guitar arrangements, despite Dylan’s odd new mannerisms, which, my brother accurately points out, seem reminiscent of those of Mae West, the show exerts a hypnotic force. In spite of the fact, or rather because of the fact that everything is so predictable, I’m drawn inexorably to the language and music. The guessing game days of the Dylan Pool are over, there are no indulgent guitar solos, Dylan doesn’t say a word to the crowd (he rarely said much anyway), and there’s nothing to distract from the songs themselves. “Pay in Blood,” a standout track on “Tempest,” is as vitriolic and heartfelt as anything he wrote in his 20s. I once read an interview with Dylan in which he said that being an entertainer was just “one cut above being a pimp.” And maybe that’s true, but viewed through another lens, you could say he’s just one cut below being a priest — uniting disparate people, connecting disparate moments.
Up there in the Beacon’s second balcony, I think about all of the people I’ve ever seen Dylan shows with. I haven’t talked to some of them in years, but I’ve heard stories about them or read about them on Facebook — marriages, divorces, kids, illness and everything in between. Lester died about a year and a half ago — depression, apparently. I wonder how I never saw the signs.
As Dylan segues into “Tangled Up in Blue,” I think of one of my favorite lines from it — “Some are mathematicians; some are carpenters’ wives/ Don’t know how it all got started; don’t know what they’ve done with their lives.” But, tonight he isn’t singing those words. He’s changing the lyrics: “Some of them are in the mountains,” he sings. “Some of them are down in the ground/ Some of their names are written in flames and some of them, they just left town.” Yeah, that line seems better suited to tonight’s mood. This concert seems predictable, sure, but underneath the surface, everything’s changing — aging, you might say, but changing nonetheless. You just have to listen closely.
Dylan closes with that Sinatra tune from the forthcoming album. And, though I sure would prefer to listen to “All Along the Watchtower,” the underlying plea of this song exerts its own power:
“I find to my wonder every path leads to thee,” Dylan sings. “All that I can do is pray, stay with me.”
And yes, I imagine I will.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor.