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Knockin' On Bob Dylan's Door

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By Philadelphia, Dylan and the Band had their show pretty well set. The cluttered-attic look of the Chicago shows had been modified; Dylan and the Band came out strong, with six straight Dylan songs, concluding with Dylan cool-jerking the piano for "Ballad of a Thin Man," followed by six Band tunes, Dylan returned for three more, finished up with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." An intermission of exactly 15 minutes was broken by Dylan's return as a solo acoustic artist for about five numbers, ending with "It's Alright, Ma." The Band came back for three or four more, finishing up with "The Weight" from Big Pink, and Dylan returning with a couple of newer songs, from Planet Waves, and the finale, "Like a Rolling Stone." And the encore was "Most Likely You Go Your Way (I'll Go Mine)."

In Toronto, Dylan began to open and close the shows with "You Go Your Way." Dylan explained, simply: "It completes a circle in some way."

By Philadelphia, the sound and light crews were in control of each show. Eighteen men were on the road for this one, under employment by Bill Graham's FM Productions. Now Graham is holding a post-concert session with lighting director Bruce Byall.

Graham has by now heard "It's Alright, Ma" five times, and each time, "Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" gets the biggest reaction of any line in the concert.

"Tell you what I'd like to try," says Graham. "When Bob hits that line, how about switching to reds from overhead" — Graham sweeps a huge left arm out and down — "blues from the sides, and white spotlights directly onto him." Bruce agrees to give it a try. And as corny as the idea may sound, it works, the colors spread out far enough apart to be subtle. It is, to be sure, a United States flag lit up by a thousand light bulbs.

Photos: Bob Dylan Through the Years

But Toronto, the next stop, greets the effect, and the line, even, with more detached amusement than determined agreement. Michael McClure has joined the tour now; together we will go after his old friend Bob Dylan, McClure is uncomfortable; in the snow-sludge slop-shuffle outside, he has lost his scarf, without which his neck is incomplete; he is seated just below the bank of speakers perched atop a tower at one corner of the stage, and he's got his ears finger-plugged to balance out the insistent highs. But he can still smell — "They're smoking rubber marijuana here," he says — and see. "You see how much cleaner these kids are?" No, I don't. The poet/playwright picks out a row of three boys in Pendleton shirts. They are indeed clean shirts. "See? Canada hasn't been fucked over by the War Machine!"

The Toronto audience is as respectful of Dylan as the States crowds, but even more attentive. There's less of the screaming of requests during pauses between numbers; less of the demands for Dylan while the Band is doing one of their own sets. But of course, this is Band territory. CHUM, the FM rock station, even embraces Dylan, referring to him as being "from Hibbing, Minnesota, very close to the Canadian border." Dylan himself, later, will admit a special feeling for Canada that gets him smiling a crack more onstage, gets him saying, twice in one show, "Great to be back in Montreal!" and singing a particularly strong and croony version of "Girl From the North Country." Dylan, later, will explain, looking out the wall-wide arched window in his hotel room, out beyond the office buildings, into the bleak woods: "Canada seems to bridge a gap between the United States and Europe. It's a certain flair. And this is where I come from, this kind of setting — lakes, and boats and bridges."

In Toronto, before the first of the two shows there, I call on CHUM and find a Dylan freak named John Donebie, who remembers that Dylan's been in town three times before, twice as a solo artist, around '62 and '63, and, in 1966, with the Hawks, who got huffly dismissed by one local critic as "a third-rate Toronto rock & roll band." In fact, the Hawks — and it's well-known — came up as the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas rockabilly singer who'd moved to Canada in 1960. (His hits were in '59 — "40 Days" and "Mary Lou.") The Hawks, all from Canada, except drummer/Arkansas native Levon Helm, got tired of the roads they traveled, mostly in Southern states and along a short stretch of drink joints on Yonge Street in Toronto.

"You know," says Donebie, "Hawkins is still playing at the Nickelodeon down on Yonge Street. He's always there — or whenever he wants to play there, anyway. Just about owns the place. You ought to check him out."

The Nickelodeon is an eat-drink-and-dance place, with pizza tablecloths, red flowery paper lamps, and a required coat check, just like in all the fancy restaurants in town. It feels like a hustler's hall, a singles spot where, if you don't score, there's always Jingles upstairs, where you can take pictures of guaranteed naked ladies.

At the club, in a cluttered storage room full of discarded chairs, Hawkins was as hearty and jovial as ever.

"I was over at the hotel last night and we brought back memories for seven hours," he said. And he saw the show tonight — "first time I've seen 'em play since they left in 1965" — and paid due compliments.

"They were always two years ahead of their time. Robbie was the first guy to get into white funk, in Canada or anywhere." Hawkins urged me to stay, see if Levon shows up.

Minutes later, at 12:30, an hour and a half since the end of the Dylan concert, the Nickelodeon broke into applause and cheers. Levon, and Robbie Robertson, and Rick Danko, and Bob Dylan, and friends, had passed the checkroom, all their coats, fur caps and mufflers intact. It was a nice little 39th-birthday present for Hawkins, and he leapt through the crowd to exchange warm greetings with Dylan, who wore shades and stayed mostly quiet through the night.

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