Knockin' On Bob Dylan's Door

'There's still a message. There's always a need for protest songs. You just gotta tap it'

February 14, 1974
Bob Dylan on Issue No. 154
Bob Dylan on Issue No. 154

We are in Toronto, the third stop of the Bob Dylan tour. Locked in by snow and still locked out, so far, from the inner circles of Dylan and the Band, I'm reduced to television in my hotel room. I choose Channel 6 and get Channel 79, where a newsy-talk program called The CITY Show, named after the station's call letters, is on. For some reason, the moderator, a sporty-looking fellow, 50 or so, looks familiar, but the camera cuts to the program's "youth reporter," whose report this evening is an earnest attack on Dylan, the tour and tour producer Bill Graham. He is asking where all the money is going, he is characterizing Dylan as a "manipulator" of his fans and the press, secreting himself from the public after that convenient little bike spill and, now, exploiting his absence from the scene. He also has heard that Dylan's show is comprised mostly of older songs, and this, too, is a pisser for him.

The moderator, the man with those penetrating, close-set eyes I've seen before, comes to Dylan's defense: "I believe there's a freedom to just sit down if you want to," he tells the kid. "The public doesn't own Dylan; that's why he appealed to you in the first place."

As for Dylan's manipulation of the media, he continues, "You know I don't like to talk about my son too much on the air, but Neil has found that he's not dependent on all this damned media coverage, [Now I recognize the gentleman: Scott Young, Neil's father and a newspaper columnist in Toronto.] Just a line in the papers is enough.

"Dylan is trying," he says, "to reestablish that there still is a Dylan around."

The next night, I met Dylan, bumping into him in the hallway up on his floor, and he agreed to talk — later, in Montreal. Three days later, in Montreal, 33 floors up at the Chateau Champlain, Bob Dylan sat across the table, at ease, in white western shirt and jeans, still sleepy at 3 PM, but willing to talk.

He's always interested in what his audience is thinking, so I told him about the impression his new love songs seemed to be making. Critics — from Chicago through Philadelphia and Canada — were saying he'd mellowed out, "blunted his image," "drained the venom from his voice." He'd moved from urgent, surging metaphorical poetry to clinch-cliches, stereotyped images, and an emphatically-stated need for his loved one, a complete turnaway from his previous posture of independence, individualism and defiance.

Of course, he's played with such talk before. In "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," he rhymed "moon" and "spoon." In Montreal, just last night, between "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Gates Of Eden," he told the audience: "That was a love song, and this one's another love song."

With a wife and five children, Dylan is being called a family man, or, as Jonathan Takiff, pop critic for the Philadelphia Daily News put it, "a dutch uncle."

"Yeah," said Dylan. "But those things don't make a person settle down. A family brings the world together. You can see it's all one. It paints a better picture than being with a chick and traveling all over the world. Or hanging out all night.

"But," he maintained, "I still get that spark. I'm still out there. In no way am I not. I don't live on a pedestal.

"Fame threw me for a loop at first," Dylan continued. "I learned how to swim with it and turn it around — so you can just throw it in the closet and pick it up when you need it."

The turning point, he said, was in Woodstock, "a little after the accident. There I was, sitting one night under a full moon, I looked out into the bleak woods and said, 'Something's gotta change.' There was some business that had to be taken care of, that we don't have to go into." I nodded, not mentioning the breakup with manager Albert Grossman, but reminding him of the problems he'd had fulfilling contracts for a book and a TV special.

"It was too much," he said. "It finally broke the camel's back. Now it's the same old me again."

Whatever that may be.

One of the reasons for following Dylan around, even if ultimately you learn that he's just the same old him, is that so many people are looking for so much, from the drifter's return — for some kind of statement, either from the mere act of his reemergence or from something that the new Dylan may have to say. But too many of those that are filling up the papers and the airwaves with their Dylanologies never heard, really heard, the man in the first place, or refused to accept what they heard: "It's not to stand naked under unknowing eyes/It's for myself and my friends my stories are sung," he sang, in "Restless Farewell," even before "My Back Pages."

Dylan says he's touring only because he wants to play his music for the people. But the people, the papers say, want more than music. They want The Word.

"I don't understand that attitude," says Robbie Robertson of the Band. "I don't ever remember him ever delivering what they believed he delivered, or what they think he's going to deliver now. I mean, I heard a lot of terrific lines and songs. He certainly had a way of saying something that everybody felt, a way of phrasing it and condensing it down. But people have a fictitious past in mind about him."

I agreed. But even if I, for one, never saw Dylan as a messiah, idol, prophet, leader, or even a particularly great singer, I must admit, as have other journalists (whose style it is to not confess such things) that Dylan has touched me. And the nerve that was hit ties somehow back to the Sixties. During the second show in the Chicago Stadium, near the end of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," it hit. It wasn't the song, a simple enough affair over an even simpler acoustic guitar run, that did it. For me, Dylan made a statement through a tone he was painting with his bitter-truth voice, a feeling of knowing resignation, the uplift deriving from the knowledge that here was a guy who'd seen it all, saw through it all, and . . . well, had a way of phrasing it, of condensing it down.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

I watched this still-small, still-vulnerable figure, behind his guitar, looking up and bawling, "I got nothing, Ma, to live up to," and I shivered and thought of my brother Barry, a probation officer and community worker murdered in the summer of 1972, in the midst of the gang wars of Chinatown. He left a mother and father who cannot stop mourning, and when "It's Alright, Ma" pulsed through the verse:

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer's pride, security
It blows the mind most bitterly
For them that think death's honesty
Won't fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely

I found myself wiping away tears with an index finger and thinking something toward Barry, something excusably maudlin like: "Can you see? Bob Dylan, someone you heard and liked a lot, is here."

Later, talking with reporters from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, I learned that they, too, had had the chills. And in the next city, Jon Takiff — "Philadelphia's Mr. Cynical," the publicist for the Spectrum rock auditorium called him — would walk away from the press box and tell me that "Like a Rolling Stone" had made him cry. And all the lofty articles I'd read about Dylan, all the burdensome books, suddenly meant very little. I'd have to meet the guy for myself.

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