Dylan Opens to Hero's Reception

The Big D kicks off a new tour and brings his music's timeless power

Bob Dylan
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Bob Dylan
By |

The woman, 25-years-old, screamed and shouted, rock & roll style. She'd been in high school when she first began to follow the words of Bob Dylan, and she'd been there the last time he played Chicago, in 1965. Now, as the man sang "Times They Are A-Changin' " and, from his first album, his "Song to Woody," the woman seemed to be re-learning her lines.

She turned to a friend, looking hopeful in the darkness and the marijuana mist. "It seems like it hasn't changed," she said. "It's the same kind of feeling."

Behind her a couple of rock freaks hung on the lyrics of "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." The first guy exulted: "Man, that song hit me," and his friend agreed: "Yeah, he got down!"

Later, the Chicago Stadium would burst into little flames, as many of the 18,500 first-nighters acclaimed "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" by striking matches, turning the hockey arena into a three-tiered crown of light.


Chicago – Bob Dylan, praise him, is back. On January 3rd, in the first winterlude of '74, he successfully kicked off his first tour since early 1966, when he completed the winter-long grind of a US and world tour and wrecked his neck in that motorcycle accident at Woodstock. By the time he finishes next month, he will have performed 39 concerts in 21 cities before a total of 658,000 people.

The tour, conceived last summer when Dylan and the Band got together in Malibu, the Southern California beach community, is more than what Dylan originally wanted: a chance to hit maybe a dozen cities, just to get out and play. Told by promoter Bill Graham that times had changed, that economic reality forbade short jaunts and that other realities made a small tour in front of small audiences impossible, Dylan agreed to a larger schedule, with ticket prices as high as $9.50 in some cities, bringing an expected gross of more than $5 million.

"I paid $40 for mine," said a young man after the Chicago opener, "and it was worth it. I was offered $50 for it."

Chicago saw a moving, 2-1/2-hour show, carefully planned – if not yet rehearsed down pat – to show off the Band as more than Dylan's backup, as it was in 1965, 1966 and at the Isle of Wight in 1969, and to show Dylan as a healthy, confident man at ease with all the identities and roles he has created and that have surrounded and sometimes saddled him over the years: protest voice, radical poet, absurdist folk-rocker, romantic loser, country gentleman, family man.

But Dylan, still refusing to play any role, did all the songs – folk, rock, country and pop – in one shockingly strong voice, the songs mostly rearranged into what might best be called basic Band rock, searing and soaring, unified and precise, on a bedrock of backwoods America. Excellent in itself; perfect as a support for Bob Dylan.

The careful planning has Dylan and the Band all together for an hour (therefore saving the Band the task of being the opening act, the stall before the arrival of a god, then Dylan by himself, the Band by itself and a group finale. Sound thinking and a full show. But a sample of reactions after the concert indicated a clear desire for more Dylan, less Band. As one woman put it: "Who came to see the Band?" No matter their quality, they were seen – and preferred – as backup.

On opening night, the first discovery for the audience was an attempted coziness on the stage, through props reminding one of Neil Young, Martin Mull and an Uncle Sol furniture sale. There wasn't just a rug, some candles, a sofa and a coat rack, but also a Tiffany-styled table lamp, a roll-top desk, an antique rocking chair, a set of conga drums, a bunk bed with frumpy blue mattresses, a multi-colored wood chest housing a fire extinguisher and, at the bottom of the stage steps, a mat reminding the stars to Wipe Your Feet. It was just Dylan and the guys playing their music for 18,500 drop-ins.

Dylan came out wrapped in a gray muffler, as if direct from the 13-degree weather. He wore a short black suede jacket, with a white shirt hanging out underneath, and blue jeans. He had an almost-growth of beard. His harp-brace was strapped into place, around the neck. He picked his way between the amps and the antiques and picked up his guitar. He said nothing as he received the first of numerous standing ovations, just strummed his electric guitar as the group moved into a rocking "Hero Blues," a little-known, on-the-highway song from the early days.

Dylan seemed edgy, staring out to a fixed spot in the rear of the arena, but he was easy in his stage movements, bending his knees with the beat, swaying easily, slowly, back from the mike between lines. The voice was reminiscent of Highway 61, the transitional rock voice, with less of the harshness, more of the confidence.

On "Lay Lady Lay," Dylan dropped the Nashville affectations, the country-boy softness, stretching out last words of lines, snapping them off, talk-singing notes. Now he seemed more aware that he was on a stage again. He assumed an early Elvis stance, legs wide apart, firmly planted, guitar diagonal. After a third number – from the new Dylan/Band album – the Band rolled into "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Levon Helm singing from behind the drums, Dylan facing him, his back turned to the audience, just a sideman. Rick Danko did "Stage Fright," with Robbie Robertson, shaven and looking like a better-fed Stevie Winwood, playing a weeping, sweeping lead while Dylan held down the rhythm.

Dylan then sang "It Ain't Me Babe," going back to a nine-year-old album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, doing the song more slowly, with a more pronounced beat, holding his guitar against his side, like a rifleman, for the second verse. The Band excelled, with Danko, Robertson and Helm taking turns on the fills. "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," circa '66, was done circa '74, humor intact.

Richard Manuel did "Share Your Love," with Dylan doing the fills on harp, and then it was "All Along the Watchtower," from John Wesley Harding, Dylan, crouching, animated, earning his third standing ovation for this, his third look back. On opening night he did songs from all his albums except Freewheelin', Self Portrait and New Morning.

Dylan appeared, after a Band number, with shades, took the piano for "Ballad of a Thin Man," and went back on guitar for "I Don't Believe You," pausing after the first line and accelerating the Band to match his mood: super-sneering, whipping out each line at this woman he seemed to be remembering so well from 1964. Another ovation, and funny, for this was the song that had drawn paper plates, cups and boos in August, 1965, at Forest Hills, New York, Dylan's first concert after the disaster at Newport Folk. With him in his then-new half-acoustic, half-rock show: Robbie and Levon.

Dylan addressed the audience for the first time. "Back in 15 minutes," he revealed, and the group left.

At intermission, Al Aronowitz, the New York pop critic and long-time friend to Dylan and the Band, glowed and gloated. Among the four Chicago papers, his piece alone predicted an outright Dylan triumph. Others asked "Can he do it?" – that is, live up to the various roles – and expressed hope, but with a touch of depression, at the thought of a man having to try and live up to a legend. Aronowitz, in whose house Dylan had written "Mr. Tambourine Man," called Bob a heavyweight with a career "just beginning," who had not deteriorated a bit. Now, as if he knew, he promised: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

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.
Chicago, actress Sarah Bernhardt said, is "the pulse of America." A burgeoning, changing city with a background of Al Capone and South Side blues, Chicago today, on the eve of the return of Bob Dylan, was paranoia, ignorance and small-time, small-town fanaticism.

The paranoia was in the papers – 864 murders in 1973, second only to New York, twice Chicago's population; more killings than in four years of war in Northern Ireland, the paper said.

The papers heard the word about Dylan through a local gossip column, then waited, like most people, for the December 2nd announcement. They dutifully reported the response: 37,000 tickets gone in two days, "thousands of requests unfilled." And yet, when three weeks later the Stadium found a way to squeeze in another 500 at each show, no one thought to advertise, and no one thought to offer them to those who'd missed out on the first 37,000. The sound and light crew didn't need as much room as they thought they would. Somehow no one placed any ads and only a last-minute announcement brought the ticket-buyers to the box office, some as late as the day of the concert. (Bill Graham even announced the availability of the second 500 seats at the end of the first show.)

In the weeks before the concert, the newspapers' coverage of the coming event conveyed little sense of excitement. Reporters grumbled about the location of the stadium: "You have to go past the wino district to get there," said one. "It's in this depressed black shit area, where it seems that there are rifle scopes looking down on you."

The last time Dylan played Chicago, in 1965, he played the Arie Crown. "That's when he was doing that half-hour show," said a woman who saw him there and, later, in Miami. "The purists booed him in the rock part. But not as bad as Forest Hills." Since '65 the Arie Crown has burned to the ground and been rebuilt.

Another spot might have been the Arie Crown Theater. But it was ruled out by Geffen and Bill Graham. "Chicago," said Geffen, "is one of the three largest cities, and it seemed unfair to play to just 8000."

This time Dylan came into town wanting anything but exposure. David Geffen ran down the turndowns: cover stories in "all the big magazines" including Paris Match and Der Spiegel; an hour-long Cronkite news special for CBS; a $3 million guarantee to let a major studio do a feature film of the tour; a $100,000 guarantee to sell buttons in the lobby, and "at least a dozen books." All together, Bill Graham said, the tour had received ticket requests amounting to $92 million via 5.5 million pieces of mail in 21 cities.

Dylan's reaction to it all, said Geffen, is "kind of amazed. He's flattered and he would've liked for more people to be able to see him." So he may tour again? "I frankly doubt it."

But one thing was certain, Geffen maintained: "He's not going to cater or pander to the media. He feels it's nothing more than a concert tour. He considers himself, still, a songwriter, period."

Bullshit.

"Well," Geffen conceded, "he's not being realistic. But then, he doesn't have to be realistic. I mean, he knows he's a big star, but all he knows is that every time he sees his name in print, there's some weirdness with it. At least if he says nothing, people won't misquote him."

At best the thinking is simplistic, and, in fact, by the day of the second concert things had loosened up considerably at Dylan's hotel. He chatted with one reporter from a news magazine and, lounging around, obviously at ease, asked another reporter about the audience – what the age range was. Told that some critics and fans had expressed disappointment that he hadn't done more of a solo spot, he shrugged: "Well, you can't have everything." But, he said, he'd add the reporter's suggestion "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." And he did. He also hinted at what did happen that night: A re-ordering of his set with the Band. As for the choice of "Hero Blues" as an opener, Dylan smiled: "Gotcha, huh?" In case you thought there was some significance to be found in the lyric.

Over the hotel phone, at two in the morning, Geffen summed it up: "This particular event," he said, "has drawn more response from the people than any event in media, bigger than Woodstock, Watkins Glen, any of those. You know, the Japanese chartered a jet here. A whole jetful of people, and I don't know how they could've gotten tickets, and now I've gotta go to radio stations and scrounge up tickets for them. I mean, they chartered a plane to get over here. I can't not give them tickets."

Who else, we asked, has asked him for tickets? "All the Beatles, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, Mayor Lindsay."

The Kennedys wanted a dozen tickets. Will they get them?

"Well, now," Geffen laughed. "You can't turn down the Kennedys!"

This story is from the January 31st, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 153: January 31, 1974
x