For those of us who follow the set lists online, Dylan songs are like currency: They accrue or shed their value based on the number of times they are played on tour. “Summer Days”, for example, concluded the first set for so long that it was eventually trading for pennies on the dollar, which is why it has since been all but excised from the show. In its place is the more freshly minted “Ain’t Talkin’”, a monologue song that, I suspect, will tarnish long before the jump swing of its predecessor did.
Other songs defy the pundits. “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” have been played often enough that they should be worthless; yet, particularly with a catalog as rich as Dylan’s, there’s something to be said for crowd pleasers, which is why these two numbers maintain their (let’s call it) cumulative wealth.
Then there are the buffalo nickels. These precious songs divide into two camps: The songs that you know you’ll never hear though you hold out hope that this might be the night, and the songs that, if he’s in the right mood, actually have a chance to make the list. This first category includes “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Brownsville Girl”, “Idiot Wind”, and “Series of Dreams”. Scream all you want, but he’s not playing “Hurricane”. This second category includes “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Born in Time”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Gates of Eden”, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, “Masters of War”, “Vision of Johanna”, “Forever Young”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Love Sick”, and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, among a dozen or so other career-defining tunes.
This second list—these songs—this is why we go to his shows over and over and over again.
I first saw Dylan on September 1st, 1990, at an amphitheater in Lampe, Missouri, just outside of Branson. My parents came with me, my brother too. When he opened with a raucous version of “Tangled Up in Blue”, my mom said, “This is the guy who sings ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’?” I thought, “Where are we? Newport?”
This is not long after Oh Mercy was released; an album that I believe begins his renaissance in the same way that 1961 belongs to the 1950s. The rumor was that, in a tune-up gig, he had tried out over 200 verses of “Political World”, which somehow struck me as being more awesome than tedious. “The artist in action”, I thought. “Cool.”
KOCD advertised the show monster-truck style: “BOB DYLAN, DYLAN, DYLAN, DYLAN!!!” They spliced together snippets from his hits. Brimming with enthusiasm, I told my brother, “There’s no way to predict what he’s going to play. It could be anything.” “I hope he sticks to Biograph 1,” he said, referring to our shorthand for the first of the three-disc compilation. “I don’t know anything else.” “The one thing you can count on,” I said, “is that he’ll play ‘Political World.’ This we know for sure.” Looking back now, it’s a nice set list. The aforementioned “Tangled Up in Blue” is a crackin’ way to start, and “Silvio”, “What Good Am I?”, and “I Believe in You” are three quality buffalo-nickel songs. “Like a Rolling Stone” is there, as is “Watchtower”.
“Political World”, however, is nowhere to be seen.
Washington Heights is not the most conveniently located of Manhattan’s neighborhoods. Unofficially extending from, say, 168th Street to 200th, it hasn’t fully shaken the stigma that it earned during the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic, this despite a (by all accounts) jaunty new musical called In the Heights and at least two Starbuck’s. It is a bit of a trek on the A train, but if you’re looking for an affordable two bedroom or a really good Cubano sandwich, this is the place to be. I live on 186th Street.
As allegedly up-and-coming as the neighborhood may be, it is nonetheless still surprising that it is suddenly the home of one of the hotter live-music venues in the city. The United Palace sits at the corner of 175th and Broadway. It was constructed in 1930. Formerly a movie house, the United Palace is now the home of the Reverend Dr. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, affectionately known as “Reverend Ike”, and his congregation. The lobby is ornate to the point of being gaudy, gilded in that gold that octogenarians find so appealing. Outside, a sign says, “Come on in, or smile as you pass”. I’ve never attended a Sunday service, but I’ve smiled as I passed many times.
The appeal is difficult to pinpoint (the high-quality acoustics? the balcony that really doesn’t have a bad seat? cheaper rent because it’s so far uptown?), but for whatever reason, artists such as Van Morrison, Iggy and the Stooges, Arcade Fire, and Bloc Party have all played the United Palace on their way through town. A recent 20th-anniversary Smashing Pumpkins show was there. In December 2007, Neil Young set up shop for five nights.
Curiously, Dylan doesn’t always play in the city. A show at City Center a couple of years ago was viewed as exceptional. He’ll hit Jones Beach instead. Remarkably, last summer’s show at Prospect Park in Brooklyn was the first time he’s played in that borough. But, five weeks ago, his Web site announced that he would be concluding this latest leg of his never-ending tour (though he claims the never-ending tour ended long ago) with a show at the United Palace. Tickets were exclusively available through a password-protected online system. The password was “chortled.”
Chris has seen Dylan some 30 times, which dwarfs what I thought to be a respectable 15 of my own.
“I waited online for over an hour to get this ticket,” he said.
“Me, too. There were problems with the system.”
“By the time I finally got through, the only place I could get two was way up there. So my wife said ‘Go, enjoy yourself.’”
“Mine, too. She likes Dylan, but. You’ve seen him on this tour?”
“At Asbury Park.”
“We were at Brooklyn.”
“You saw him the night before I did.”
“We didn’t see him. We just hung around outside. We were watching our money but I didn’t want to miss it. My wife was pregnant at the time.”
“She had the baby?”
“In 2003, my dad and I went to see him at Hammerstein. My twin boys were born the next day. We went into labor that night. Two o’clock in the morning.”
One of the great paradoxes of Dylan’s life and career is that he is simultaneously ubiquitous and inaccessible. Who else is even more mysterious after you have read his autobiography? He has no public life, yet on an average of every fourth night throughout any given year, he appears in front of thousands of people.
He is doggedly tight-lipped when it comes to stage banter, always at least introducing the band, sometimes saying “thank yooouuu,” and occasionally telling a joke (“Tony went golfing today and he took an extra shirt in case he got a hole in one”). He doesn’t even bow any more at the end of the show. He arranges the band around him, and they all just stand there at stare at the audience, more street gang than musical group. Occasionally, he points and “shoots,” like Paul Newman did when he asked David Letterman, “Where the hell are the singing cats?” But mostly he just looks badass; country-western outfit with a racing stripe down the side of his pants.
“What was that song he played earlier?” I ask Chris, “the one where he played guitar?”
“‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time.’”
I stare blankly.
“It was a single that only appeared on Greatest Hits, Volume 2. It’s a great song. You should check it out.”
Damn. That was it. That was the legitimate, bonafide rarity of the tour: The million-dollar song. And I missed it.
But “tight-lipped” hardly means Dylan is incommunicative. Consider the set list from November 4th of this past year: In Minneapolis that night—in what amounts to a hometown show for the Minnesota native—Dylan played “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, in addition to two anti-war songs, “John Brown” and “Masters of War”. None of these are particularly obscure insofar as his rotating list of songs is concerned, but that they all made the show on Election Night strikes me as being more than mere coincidence. (In Wisconsin on November 5th he played “Chimes of Freedom”.) Or look at November 2004 when, in the wake of Bush/Cheney II, “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” became a staple. Or, more poignantly, 2002, when his friend Warren Zevon was fighting cancer and Dylan regularly covered “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Mutineer”.
Me: “Pretty cool opening with ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’.”
Chris: “Sounded great.”
“Especially at Reverend Ike’s.”
The worst show I ever saw was Dylan at Kansas City’s Midland Theater on November 1st, 1991. We were in the last row, which might be fine for Phantom or Les Mis, but it is shit for a concert. As much as I want to blame the acoustics for swallowing up the sound before it even got to us, I can’t absolve Dylan completely. The worst that you’ve heard about him was true that night: A surly stage presence and new arrangements that rendered the songs unidentifiable, which was actually OK because even if I had known what he was playing I wouldn’t have understood a word he was saying anyway. I recognized “Watchtower”, of course, and “Man in the Long Black Coat”, but otherwise I was adrift in a sea of white noise. This was back when he would still do a single-song solo acoustic encore—“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on this night—but otherwise all I remember from the show was that I spent most of it concentrating really, really hard and wanting desperately to be getting what I was there to get. We had driven three hours from Joplin, braved the big-city traffic, for this man for whom I felt a great affinity but who I obviously wasn’t ready to fully appreciate yet. When Stephanie, my girlfriend at the time, turned to me three-quarters of the way through the show and said, “He sounds really good,” I wanted to cry. He doesn’t. She’s being nice. She’s being nice, I’m humiliated, and I want to cry.
It can’t be him, can it? It has to be me.
“Nice set list tonight,” I say to Chris.
“‘Desolation Row’ and ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ were a good one-two punch.”
“And ‘Things Have Changed’.”
“Right. Songs about apocalypse.”
In Philadelphia, in 2006, Dylan killed. The Raconteurs opened up, and Jack White gave a blistering performance that made the cavernous Wachovia Spectrum suddenly seem very small. Their version of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” was so electrifying, so passionate, so rock ‘n’ roll that it literally left my wife and me slack jawed. Until that night I had always thought that it was between White and Conor Oberst to determine the true heir apparent, but after that performance there was little doubt.
Then Dylan played.
I don’t know what to say other than some nights you feel that he feels it and some nights you don’t. Modern Times had just been released, so songs like “The Levee’s Going to Break”, “Thunder on the Mountain”, and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” felt fresh, and hearing “Nettie Moore” live made you realize that it was the best song not only on that album but on the last three. But it was especially confident versions of “To Ramona”, “Desolation Row”, and, especially, “Tangled Up in Blue” that demonstrated just how fine a form he was in that night.
My wife Leu has a theory. She thinks that Dylan heard the Raconteurs win over the mostly classic-rock fans that night. She thinks he heard the ovation and got his haunches up.
“Oh yeah, motherfucker,” she thinks he thought. “Watch this.”
My mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, even our friends Jim and Laura: They all thought we were going to name Jonah “Dylan”.
We didn’t. We named him “Jonah.”
“I was so sure of it”, Mom said. “So sure.”
“I’ve been watching him play the keyboard since 2002, and this is the most comfortable I’ve ever seen him.” This is Chris again, during “Thunder on the Mountain”, the first encore. “He used to just kind of feel his way around. Now he really plays it.” He’s right, as he has been all night. There are solos and accents, moments that sound like Ray Manzarek on “Riders on the Storm”. On this night, Dylan plays with—there’s really no other word for it—flare.
But so too is it more than that. He plays well, sure. But also he leans into it, rolls his shoulders to the beat. He’s in no danger of performing the patented Money Mark keyboard handstand, but he’s playful in his own way. During “Things Have Changed” he experiments with the cadences. He gives each word equal weight when he speak-sings “I’m-locked-in-tight-I’m-out-of-range”. From time to time he even un-tethers himself from the hulking keyboard, comes center with his harmonica during “Gotta Serve Somebody” or with his guitar during a revamped version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the night’s finale.
So what if the ticket stub says “Live Tonight on Stage: Bob Dylan and His Band.” He’s always defined himself as a solo musician—save that period with the capital “b” Band—which means he’s never had to be much of a front man, per se. He’s no Mick Jagger, no Bono, no Axl (thank goodness). But he has his moments, and because he’s more stature than anything else, a moment doesn’t have to be much: Lifting his left hand from the keyboard and playing only with his right, moving that jimmy leg like he’s stomping out a cigarette. This is what we take because this is what he gives. And we love it. This 67-year-old man; still with more swagger than most.
My friend is a Greatest Hits Dylan fan—maybe he has Blood on the Tracks too—but he’s curious so, trying to give him some different looks, I hook him up with Blonde on Blonde and Love and Theft.
“I’m envious,” I tell him. “You get to hear these songs for the first time.”
He takes to Blonde on Blonde well enough, particularly “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which he likes in part because it’s long enough that it doesn’t get stale when he goes back and listens to it again. But he’s having none of Love and Theft. He’s a smart guy—exceedingly so, which could be part of the problem—and I respect his opinion about most things, so I listen patiently to his qualms. He’s a musician himself, of course, and he doesn’t think the songs themselves are particularly good. I’m most definitely not a musician, so I can’t refute the point on his terms.
Then he says, “And let’s face it, his voice has never been any good.”
That’s it. That’s the end of the conversation as far as I’m concerned. He might just as well have told me that he doesn’t vote.
When the lights come up at the United Palace, the middle-aged women in front of us say to Chris, “With over 500 songs and constantly mixing the tempos and the quality of the sound, it’s almost like name that tune.”
Chris nods politely. Thinking of the Midland, I help him out: “You have to wait for the chorus to know the song.”
It doesn’t sound like they’ve seen him before, and it sounds even less likely that they’ll see him again. Which is OK. There’s no shame in seeing Dylan just to say that you have.
You heard “Like a Rolling Stone” live and “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Make You Feel My Love”, one of Leu’s favorites, doesn’t make the cut every night.
There was something happening here, even if you didn’t know what it is.
We grab our coats. I extend my hand. “Kirby,” I say.
“Chris,” Chris says.
He gives me his card.
“I write for a Web site,” I tell him, and I give him the name. “Check it in the next couple of weeks. There may be something up.”
“Oh. You’re a critic?”