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
Bob Dylan performs at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
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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."

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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.

Happy and Artie are folk fixtures in New York – writers, composers, guitar teachers and performing artists. Happy, with John Cohen, did the excellent interview with Dylan in Sing Out in late 1968, then sang harmony on a couple of tracks that ended up in Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume 2 album: "I Shall Be Released" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." He visited with Dylan at Dylan's hotel, the Plaza, after the concert, and both Traums were invited to the St. Moritz party, but they chose to go back to Woodstock instead. (The party, intended as a gathering of Dylan's old friends, was, like opening night, dominated by celebrities, including Art Garfunkel, Cavett, Midler, Nicholson, and several music-biz moguls. Like the few other parties on the tour, this one was small and sober.) Later, we reached Artie Traum. Artie used to have to sneak into Gerde's (because he was underage) to see Dylan and liked Dylan for the "emotional quality about his performances" and for his long, humorous talks between numbers. At Madison Square – Traum's first time at a "big concert," he said – he was on his feet at the end of the show, "clapping along with all the teenyboppers."

He was surprised by his own reaction, he said. "When it started, the first three or four songs, I didn't like it, and then I realized why. I had expectations, and it occurred to me that if I'd just hear it as what it was – I got into it, and I thought it was fantastic."

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Still, Traum missed the Dylan of the Gerde's days. "I felt there was no emotion in the concert," he said. "It was powerful in a certain way. And there was some kind of emotion, maybe it was anger that I felt, which is very powerful, but maybe there was a lack of gentleness. But I'm afraid it really would have wiped people out, because those are the most powerful songs. Other than that, I was knocked out.

Tony Scaduto also saw Dylan, first at Gerde's, in Dylan's first paid performance, opening for John Lee Hooker. "He was terrible, trying to sing like a black man," Scaduto said.

"I turned onto him when he went electric." At the Madison Square show Thursday night, Scaduto saw a Dylan in much more control than he was during the 1965-1966 tour with the Band (then the Hawks). "The manic edge from back then was gone," he said. For Scaduto, the concert "worked marvelously, the new interpretations. Let's see: On 'Gates Of Eden' he was singing almost as if he was reading from the Bible. 'Baby Blue,' going through it quickly, like he was reading the New York Times, you know, saying, 'We've gone through all this before."'

Dylan's three concerts at Madison Square Garden were recorded by Phil Ramone, the engineer who previously recorded the Band's Rock Of Ages, from the Academy of Music concerts that featured a visit from Dylan on New Year's Eve, 1971. For Rock Of Ages, Ramone had been warned not to expect much rehearsing from the Band; this time, he had all of a ten-minute sound check at 5:00 PM opening night. The session was kept short so that the musicians could be fresh for the first concert.

According to Geffen, concerts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, were also going to be recorded, and a live album would be released – possibly as early as April, but only if the recordings were "really great," not just good. Meantime, Planet Waves shot to Number One on the Billboard album charts, just two weeks after release. While Dylan has received 12-gold albums, he had never reached the top spot before. Once again, while Dylan himself is avoiding publicity, forces around him seem to be doing their work.

In New York, media center of the country, Dylan granted no interviews. Reporters representing ABC and CBS had been jostling for position, but Dylan remained sheltered. The only media breakthrough was scored by WNBC-TV, whose crew somehow slipped by the guards at Nassau Coliseum and shot portions of Dylan's acoustic set. The footage was aired on the station's parent network, NBC, on two newscasts and on the Today show. Filming of Dylan had been forbidden, according to Geffen, and at press time, he was still threatening legal action against WNBC.

At Madison Square Garden, all security was calm. Outside, local promoter Ron Delsener, who worked with Graham, said security on surrounding streets was as beefed up as for, say, a Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin concert, but no more. Neither the promoter nor the Garden would give information on just how many guards were stationed, but wooden-sawhorse barricades were set up to screen out non-ticketholders and possible gatecrashers. We passed through three guards at three different points before being admitted. Inside, it was the usual complement of cops, guards and ushers for a rock concert. Audiences complied with Graham's request to keep aisles clear; a few people crept up near the stage to take a snapshot, but immediately went back to their seats. As Graham said, "They don't want to conquer that terrain. This is not a physical dexterity contest." Joe Cohen, a Madison Square Garden employee, said that there were fewer security personnel inside the Garden than there were at the Ali-Frazier superfight.

At the Garden, Jim Farber, 16, of Hartsdale, New York, sat in the third row. "I want to grab Dylan's respect," he said. "I don't want him to think that I'm a teenybopper. I want him to feel that his audience is intelligent."

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The only foul-up in New York was over tickets. Madison Square Garden announced, two weeks before the concerts, that they had several thousand tickets for sale, through city-wide Ticketron box offices, this after the announcement, in early December, that the Garden had received 20 requests for every seat they had and were returning tens of thousands of checks. The Garden, according to Graham, simply assumed that each envelope would contain requests for four tickets. Opening the envelopes, a month later, they discovered many requests for only one or two tickets, and announced the availability of tickets. The move angered thousands who had rushed their mail orders in and been refused. As Graham put it: "They say, 'Ticketron?! I took my envelope at 12:01 to the main post office. I spoke to my rabbi. I waited every day for my mailman. Now they're putting them in Ticketron!' It was so stupid and ugly. But it was their fuck-up."

Still, Graham, as tour producer, was ultimately responsible. "That's why I get these calls. 'Mr. Graham, I always had faith in you, and then you do this to me.' I should have stayed a waiter."

The Bob Dylan tour winds up on St. Valentine's Day at the Forum, where it all began seven weeks before, with the first formal rehearsal of Bob Dylan and the Band.

This story is from the March 14th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 156: March 14, 1974