San Francisco – Sunday, December 2nd, was D-Day for millions of Bob Dylan devotees in North America, their first chance to mail in ticket requests for his milestone, 40-concert tour with the Band in January and February.
It lasted about an hour. Here's what happened:
In San Francisco, traffic was backed up five blocks from the Rincon Annex Post Office as the clock struck 12 Saturday night. Requests postmarked before that moment would not be honored, according to instructions published in full-page newspaper ads that day; and most fans realized that requests postmarked much after that moment would arrive too late for consideration. The scene resembled the income tax deadline hour and the Post Office parked a special truck in front with a sign reading: Drop Dylan Requests Here, Honest.
In Montreal, the only location where tickets were not handled by mail, people lined up four abreast for three blocks. They appeared to be mostly teenagers.
In New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, post offices on Tuesday were asked by tour producer Bill Graham to deliver no more requests to local box offices. He had them mark the envelopes "return to sender."
Nationwide the response was unprecedented, despite ticket prices that reached $9.50 in some cities and never dropped below $6.50, even in college towns. Graham estimated that 1½ to 2 million envelopes were received before he phoned the post offices, that most fans requested four tickets – the maximum allowable per person – at the top price. Thus all concerts were immediately sold out, with tickets going to the lucky first 658,000 applicants. "It was," Graham said modestly, "uh, rather monumental."
In all, it was a lucrative week for a revitalized Bob Dylan, whose career now appears to be entering a more determined, creative and commercial phase than anyone could have predicted. As the ticket requests poured in, David Geffin, 30-year-old chairman of Elektra/Asylum Records, finally confirmed what had been strongly rumored for six weeks: that he has signed Dylan away from Columbia Records, under terms that give Dylan his own label – Ashes and Sand Records – to be distributed by Elektra/Asylum. And that a record of all new Dylan material, backed up by the Band, will be released on that label January 3rd, the day his tour kicks off in Chicago.
Meanwhile Columbia Records, forced to finally concede the loss of its most prestigious popular artist, went ahead and issued Dylan, an album of old out-takes – mainly Dylan singing other people's stuff – said to be so unspectacular that Columbia reportedly hoped to woo Dylan back by promising not to release it.
In Hollywood, Geffen was unusually eloquent in describing his joy at winning the fight for Dylan's recorded soul. "It's always been my dream to sign him," he said, "so I guess you could say this is a dream come true. I'm thrilled and honored."
But he turned more guarded when pressed for details. Could the music on Dylan's new album, for example, be compared in style to any previous album?
"There's no point in discussing that; just wait till you hear it, that's all. It's great. As far as I'm concerned, it's as great as any album he's done."
Well, then, how long a period does this new contract cover? How much did it cost you?
"I don't think I should be discussing Bob Dylan's contract. This is his deal . . . I'll say this: His decision to come here was not based on money. I think he likes this company, I think he likes our attitude."
Apparently money was an issue in Dylan's final break with Columbia. At a party last week, Goddard Leiberson, the urbane, gray-haired president of CBS Records Group, Columbia's parent company, said bitterly: "The trouble is, Dylan doesn't seem to realize that we're not a nonprofit organization."
How much Dylan was offered by Columbia, or Elektra/Asylum, or any other company during his year-long label shopping, remains a dark secret. But in his new position – as head of his own record company, about to release what promises to be a very exciting album, about to embark on a tour that should make a profit of some $2½ million – Dylan would seem to know the difference between a profit and nonprofit organization.
Most music lovers would agree that America owes a great deal to Bob Dylan. And now Bob Dylan apparently is ready to collect.
This story is from the January 3rd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.