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Knockin' On Bob Dylan's Door

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Hawkins jumped onto the stage with his latest congregation — a six-piece outfit that had Bill Graham nodding favorably — and told the buzzing crowd: "They came all the way from L.A. to hear me sing '40 Days!"'

Hawkins introduced a special number. "I remember Robbie called it one of Bob's best songs at one time," he said, and moved into a mellow country version of "One Too Many Mornings," one of Dylan's earlier true-love songs, from 1964. A couple of birthday dedications later, Hawkins was rolling through "Bo Diddley" and worked in a couple of verses of "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." Dylan nodded and smiled.

After Hawkins' set, the crowd was quiet, a Nickelodeon full of Dylan-watchers, picture-snappers. I got a good close-up look at him, for the first time, and he looked tired, in no shape to be club-nobbing, but not unapproachable. Later, at two o'clock, while the club tried to kick everybody out, Graham looked to be trying to set up a private jam session, talking soothingly to the people in charge. But they didn't go for it, and Graham resigned himself to the usual: a spread of food and wine on the artists' floor at the hotel.

Bob Dylan has had reason to avoid Rolling Stone; we'd been among the most critical about his recent albums; the most cynical about his motives for the tour, launched in combination with a new label deal and a new album. He didn't need the media, didn't want to do interviews, all reporters were told. And that word seemed to have spread effectively around the tour. In Toronto, one writer spent 18 column-inches describing how he chased the Band's equipment van from the Malton Airport halfway across town, at a sometimes furious, Bullitt-pace before giving up. And at the Inn on the Park, before the first concert, another reporter spotted Dylan, in shades, at the hotel newsstand, leafing through a pube magazine called Success. Dylan denied that he was Dylan, but let a photographer take pictures. The reporter hit him up again, and Dylan, exasperated, told him, "Look, man, I'm not him." Finally, a friend came and helped him escape.

Still, his most intimate protectors insisted, Dylan would be happy to have a chat — if you happened to run into him. Now, Graham invited us to join the postconcert nibbling and listening-to-the-new-album gathering, and at 2:30 AM, I entered the most boring hotel suite I'd seen since my own Holiday Inn room back in Philadelphia. McClure and Byall were having a chat on one couch; Barry Imhoff was eating a plateful of snacks, and a lone teenaged girl wandered around wondering what she was doing.

But soon enough, there was a burst of noise from the hallway and a gang of Band members and buddies were scurrying past, followed by Bob Dylan, still in shades. He made a turn toward the party room, stopped in front of me, and continued to yell, half-puzzled, half-joking, after the little mob.

My moment had come. I introduced myself, and he kept his smile on, as we shook hands. His was cold, offered downward, with not much of a grip. Then he excused himself, but promised, without my asking, "I'll be right back and we'll talk." Ten minutes later, at 3 AM, we sat side-by-side in couches and talked; he'd read some of my stories; I'd heard some of his songs.

We chatted, in idle, for maybe ten minutes . . . "How'd you like the show?" . . . "Well, you see, I wasn't feeling that great, I just had a flu shot today" . . . "No, 18,000 people yelling isn't that much of a thing. It's nothing new. See, I used to sit in the dark and dream about it, you know. It's all happened before" . . . and then I suddenly felt nervous, without a notebook and not quite sure what to say. I suggested an interview — say, maybe in Montreal, when he felt better. He agreed, and I made my escape.

The next night, still in Toronto, Dylan looked better onstage, sporting a hat for the first time along with his by-now regulation black suit, twisting his left heel in time with "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," working with organist Garth Hudson through "Ballad of a Thin Man," and leaving the stage with a spreadarmed curtsy. The Band seemed inspired, especially with a near-perfect reading of "I Shall Be Released" by Richard Manuel. As before, Dylan fluffed the second and third lines of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," but the audience waited and roared for the main lines. On "Like a Rolling Stone," the audience, in perfect unison, fast-clapped along with the song. This is the one song no one listens to, the Dylan anthem, the cause for celebration. The concert is marked down as the best since the second show in Philly.

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

And Toronto, for many of the Band, is home — or, at least, home enough so that the party after the show reminds one of Big Pink. In one room is a gathering of the next of kin, folks, stepfolks and friends. Full of etiquette — it is after midnight, after all — they are chatting and listening to Planet Waves on a cheap "compact" hifi borrowed from the hotel; "Tough Mama" is playing, and on the television (TV sets in touring rock stars' hotel rooms are always on, no matter what's happening in the room) is a movie starring Jimmy Stewart and some tough mama, a red fright-wigged woman wielding a shotgun, and as Dylan begins the final chorus, the woman blows up a houseboat, and Levon Helm and Rick Danko enter the room, listening to the music again, still loving it. Once again, Ronnie Hawkins and wife are part of the party; Gordon Lightfoot will drop in, too, and, out in the hallway, I run into Dylan again. I tell him I was thrilled, chilled again by his show; he mentions, again, how he'd had a flu shot and that's why the previous night wasn't so hot, and we affirm our plans to meet in Montreal.

The gathering is dissipating, and in another room, a drunken would-be groupie demands Dylan's presence. She staggers around, going nowhere slow, until Dylan shows up, asking for a blanket. She shouts at him, and Dylan goes into his 'I-don't-understand routine, slips into the bathroom and out again, before she notices. Later, Renee, a tall, blonde beauty, is talking with Robbie Robertson. Robbie, who looks years younger than he did in the Big Pink days, when his chin-thin beard, glasses and dark clothing gave him the look of a devout Russian Orthodox Jew, is listening attentively, like a priest. He seems to be humoring her, but no one can tell.

"I'm writing songs and I play guitar," she tells him.

Robbie, in a light fauntleroy hat, reddish-plaid shirt and bell-bottomed overalls, lets his sleepy eyes widen and his mouth open, as if the news may yet bowl him over.

"Really?" he says. "Gee, you and I do the same things. What a coincidence."

The woman has to leave. She has to go to work tomorrow morning. "But I don't want to be a secretary all my life," she tells Robbie. Robbie nods. He probably felt the same way 15 years ago, when he left school in Toronto to take up the guitar with the Robots.

I had met Robbie at the Nickelodeon; the next day, we met in his room and talked about the tour — how it started, exactly, how the Band felt being largely considered a backup, despite their co-billing and no matter how strong the applause at the end of each Band number and segment.

"We expected it," he said, "because we know who Bob is, right? And because we also knew that it had been eight years since he had ever done a tour, and we knew it was going to be an incredible level of anticipation for his music. We just can't . . . we have a job to do. You can't say to yourself, 'Oh, my god. Call Bob. Tell Bob he's got to get back out here.' The first time we played with him, when we walked out there, people would actually start booing and throwing things, so this is actually like a big, big departure. This is nothing, to have a couple of people yell, 'Dylan".

The Band and Dylan, said Robertson, have always thought about the last tour, in 1966. "We were going to do another one, and Bob had the motorcycle wreck. And for a long time it didn't seem like a good idea to us at all. All of a sudden it started to become clear. There was a space, an opening, a necessity, almost, that just pulled you into it. It was no clever maneuver on anybody's behalf to put the thing together, to expand our audience or get a few extra albums. Everybody just felt the same way at the same time."

The impetus was a rock concert — the all-time biggest festival gathering, the 600,000-populated Watkins Glen festival.

"There was something different about it," he said. "At Watkins Glen we were playing, and we would do little things, intricate, subtle things that the audience would react to that I'd never seen them react to before. There was an alertness to the audience that I could not believe."

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