He knew. Dylan returned by himself with acoustic guitar, in a white shirt-jacket, and, after a momentary bout of slurring over forgotten words, ripped through "Times They Are A-Changin'." Suddenly, clearly, we heard the old Dylan, sensed the old charisma, felt the old charge. He softened up for "Song to Woody" ("The world seems sick and hungry, tired and torn. It looks like it's a-dying and it's hardly been born").
The audience was getting a lesson. Dylan could still sing the "message" songs, and, like the best of poetry, they were proving timeless. "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," about the lawlessness of power in Maryland, hit hard, post-Agnew. Dylan went soft again with a love song for wife Sara, the only woman he'd try for, to live and die for; the only one who doesn't try to tell him or sell him anything. From there he hit a high point: "It's Alright, Ma," the crowd exploding after the lines: "Goodness hides behind its gates but even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked." The reading was powerful, the feeling, again, deja vu, the people responding, once more, as if one song, one singer, could make a difference. Dylan left the stage to the Band.
Robertson, Helm, Danko, Manuel and Garth Hudson huddled for a moment, while the three-minute ovation roared on over them. They finally broke out into "Life Is a Carnival," "The Shape I'm In," "When You Awake" and a ragged "Rag Mama Rag." Some people noticed the show of strength, the show of versatility and unity in an impossible situation. But it was an impossible situation, all the careful planning now in vain, as perhaps the best rock group in the country tried to follow Dylan's overwhelming, most compelling performance in too many years.
Dylan returned, the Band staying, and surprised again with a love song, a gentle communication to the audience, opening with the line: "May God bless and keep you always," and repeating the greeting: "May you stay far-ever young . . . "
Finally, in answer to evening-long requests, Dylan came up with another peak: "Like a Rolling Stone," the Band matching Dylan's every ringing sting. "Rolling Stone" was the 25th number of the night. The Band did one more, "The Weight," as an encore, and Dylan closed the night on a lighter note: "Most Likely You Go Your Way (I'll Go Mine)" and left to a final, loving, five-minute ovation.
He had done it: satisfied the younger listeners, who dominated the audience, with rock & roll and a primer of early Dylan; and moved the older followers with a taste of what he had been and, at least for the moment, could be once again.
(In the second show changes had been made. Dylan, with the Band as backup, did six songs in a row, including "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and his classical/rock piano performance on "The Ballad of a Thin Man." The Band then did a set of their own, six familiar tunes including "Long Black Veil" and "I Shall Be Released." Dylan returned for three more with the Band, including "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." His solo spot was followed by four more strong Band numbers, and for an encore he rocked "Maggie's Farm." Again, a peaceful, attentive audience. Again, Dylan's determined, businesslike silence between songs – except a "Don't go away" at intermission and a handshake with a front-row fan at the very end.)
Backstage Bill Graham pulled a cigar out of his mouth. "It's my second one," he said. "Thirty-seven to go." A cigar for every show. Or, as Graham put it, "It's a new baby every night."
"The Chicago date will be the shakedown date, almost like a rehearsal date," David Geffen had said. Geffen is the 30-year-old ex-mailroom boy at William Morris. Now, he's chairman of Elektra/Asylum Records, and he signs and records them. On the evening before the first show, he, Dylan and the Band – no wives, women or families – had stepped off the Starship One, the 40-passenger 707 that's been refurbished, rock-star style (bedrooms and lounges, bar and gourmet foods, video cassette system and electric piano). The aircraft is rented out to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Elton John, the Stones and, now, Dylan, at $5 the mile, $20,000 for a coast-to-coast round trip. For a big group, reasonable. For seven . . .
"Well," said Geffen, "frankly it was a mistake. We just didn't know how many people were actually coming." Geffen was calling to fill some of the Dylan information vacuum, to field rumors, answer questions, announce the latest Dylan changes.
For one, he said, Dylan has given up the idea of having his own record label and is now signed to Asylum. "He'll still do other projects – artists he finds he may want to help out. He'll just get them onto Asylum." Why the change? "He just changes. He just decided he no longer wanted a label. 'There are enough labels in this world.' That's what he said."
The album recorded with the Band is delayed two weeks, Geffen added, until January 17th. Also, there's a new title: Planet Waves. The delay, Geffen said, was due to the album cover, a painting by Dylan, "not being ready yet."
Dylan and the Band rehearsed in Los Angeles for two days – December 26th and 27th – at the Forum, where they will end the tour February 14th. The Forum, with 19,000 capacity, is just about the right size for rehearsals. Still, when the group reached Chicago, they weren't quite ready. The sound system, said Geffen, was wrong at the rehearsals, and an early morning sound check took place at the Chicago Stadium. The crew had laid out stage and light plans the afternoon before. Now, on concert day, at 2:45 PM, the musicians gathered together once more for a run-through. Two hours later, having gone over everything but the Dylan solo spot, they felt ready.
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