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Bob Dylan's Star-Studded Homecoming

The singer returns to New York welcomed by friends from the past

Bob Dylan performs at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

NEW YORK — In Philadelphia, he'd told the audience, "It's great to be back in Philly!" In Montreal, he'd said: "It's great to be back in Montreal!" In Atlanta, he'd said: "It's great to be back in Joe-jah!" Three years ago, at the Isle of Wight, he'd told the British: "It's great to be here, sure is, sure is."

So it's always great. Bob Dylan loves it everywhere, even if he did tell the New York Times, in one of his five rare interviews, that being on tour was "like going from nowhere to nowhere."

But in New York, at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, January 30th, when he said – you guessed it – "It's great to be back in New York," and added: "You're a great New York audience," there had to be much more going on inside Dylan's head. It had to be more than a perfunctory comment. And at the end of the matinee show that Thursday, he'd even added a promise that no one around him could confirm: that "we'll see you next year." He said that to a crowd that had rung the Gardens with a five-minute ovation and refused to leave, even after a second encore, "Blowin' in the Wind."

Previously Unseen Bob Dylan Lyrics From 1965

In other cities, Dylan would have loped down the wooden stage stairs, out through the backstage area and squeezed into a limousine or the tour's camper van by the time the audience had been applauding for a minute. This time, tour producer Bill Graham brought him back. Already changed from his black belted-back jacket into a blue and white Toronto hockey jersey, he took a final bow and made his promise.

(David Geffen, head of Asylum Records, on which Dylan's Planet Waves album was released, interpreted Dylan's statement as "a warm gesture to his audience." There are no plans as yet for a US tour next year, although a European tour has been discussed and remains a possibility.)

The matinee was possibly the high point of Dylan's New York dates – he performed twice at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and three times at Madison Square Garden – and New York itself had to be the high point of the entire 21-city tour.

Anthony Scaduto, 41, author of the most intimate biography yet of Dylan, last met with Dylan two years ago, when Dylan was still living in Greenwich Village and had taken an interest in Scaduto's book. Scaduto, now completing a book on Mick Jagger, got a free ticket and watched the subject of his book through 7 × 35 binoculars Thursday night. "It was outrageous," he said. "I'm not really a Dylan freak, but for me this was the most outrageous thing since the Stones in '69, just before Altamont."

Was there a homecoming feeling to Dylan's concert in New York? "Yes," Scaduto said, "there was a feeling he was performing for his people." The local CBS station, Scaduto said, did a three-part series on Dylan for its 11 o'clock news, and gathered some of Dylan's old Village buddies, among them Dave Van Ronk, at whose home Dylan stayed when he first hit New York, and Barry Kornfield, musician and record producer. Scaduto's summary: "Everyone seemed to be creating the feeling that . . . Bobby's home."

Dylan, in his recent interview with Rolling Stone (February 14th), suggested that New York would still be his home, that Malibu was only a weather-wise stopover, after his role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. "I can't stay away from New York!" he'd declared.

But even though it was clearly a homecoming, 14 years since his arrival and soar to fame here – almost two years since he drifted off to Mexico for the movie and then up to Malibu – the Village folkies who came to see him were outnumbered by the pop and political stars attending opening night, Wednesday, January 30th, at Madison Square Garden.

Almost from the start of the tour, in Chicago, January 3rd, there had been rumors about a "superstar jam" in New York, the likely jammers being the four ex-Beatles, Leon Russell, Mick Jagger, and a few other "friends." As it happened, the only jam that took place was in the aisles, before showtime, as common folks stopped to gawk at the likes of Yoko Ono and Maureen Starkey (without their husbands), Carly Simon, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Johnny Winter, Dick Cavett, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson and John Kennedy, Jr.

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(Another opening-night, offstage star, Bette Midler, returned to see a second show the next day; later, after attending a quiet party for Dylan and the Band at the St. Moritz hotel, she reported to a friend: "He's just fabulous. I even pinched his ass.")

Some of the people who were close to Dylan in the early Sixties were also at opening night. They included Mike Porco, original owner of Gerde's Folk City, where Dylan first performed in the Village, on Monday audition nights; it was Porco who hired Dylan for the stay in September, 1961, that drew Robert Shelton from the New York Times and resulted in the review that led to his recording contract with Columbia. Along with Porco, there was Mary Travers, whose group, Peter, Paul and Mary, brought mass attention to Dylan by recording "Blowin' in the Wind." And Marjorie Guthrie and her daughter Nora. Marjorie Guthrie first saw Dylan in 1961, as a charming, "odd-looking boy" who'd come to her doorstep in Queens, looking to visit her dying husband, his idol, Woody Guthrie. And there was Allen Ginsberg (whose relationship to Dylan is recounted in Michael McClure's article this issue, page 32) and Happy and Artie Traum.

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