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Knockin' On Bob Dylan's Door

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The whole thing is especially ironic because the Band is almost as reclusive as Dylan, having not played any dates for a year and a half before Watkins Glen, choosing to spend their time with families, working on albums, and playing with Dylan.

"We didn't want to play Watkins Glen at all. We were in a mood; we thought tours, those things . . . it's only the money, that's the only reason that you do it. But we were talked into it. You know the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, really terrific people, and it was just one of those [Robbie puts on a painful, friendly, urging voice], 'Oh, come on . . . it's just up the road. You don't have to really go out of your way.' You know. 'Don't be a spoil sport.' That's what happened."

After the festival, an enthusiastic Robertson told Dylan about the new sensations he'd received. "And he went for it all the way. He asked me more questions. And then for a year or two I was planning on going to Malibu; I was ready to leave Woodstock. When I went out there we picked up on our talks and at this point it was more advanced, and we were coming out with a more positive attitude."

Now, on tour, did the Band and Dylan find confirmation for his feelings after Watkins Glen? "I don't think it's a similar situation," said Robbie. "I don't think it's necessarily the same audience. I also think that the audiences on this tour are not quite able to relax either. I think they're a little confused, a little nervous. I think they're waiting so much for something in there that it really distracts from that other thing that was in Watkins Glen."

Bob Dylan's Greatest Collaborations

But the Band and Dylan are nervous, too, said Robertson, and that partly explains the lack of communication from the artists to the audience, beyond the music and a wave, a peace sign or a clenched fist here, a nod from Robbie's guitar there. First, Robertson maintains, there's no need to talk. You say hello by showing up onstage; you play familiar music and don't need to introduce numbers. A new number from Dylan is obviously new. "So you're kind of . . . it's meaningless talk."

"Just remember, when Bob first started to play, he used to do more talking than music. He used to just talk and talk and tell stories, jokes and carrying on, you know. It's a different thing. And also, I think in his case, everybody takes it to such a degree that it's embarrassing, almost, to say anything. I mean, they start, you know . . . "

To analyze what he meant by "We'll be back in 15 minutes"?

"Right, they start counting to 15 backwards . . . they just take it and they get silly.

One critic in Chicago, a man with a background in theater, accused Dylan of holding back and concluded: "Maybe Dylan just isn't a performer."

Dylan, in Montreal, responded: "They just don't understand." He shrugged his shoulders. "It's got nothing to do with that kind of atmosphere. What the critics expect is what they expect. It concerns me more with getting it to the people.

"It's basically music, not a music-hall routine."

Another factor for the silence between numbers, said Robertson, is the group's required concentration on the music at hand. A song changes from one night to another, said Robertson, and Dylan loves to pull surprises.

"He pulled one out of the hat last night, that we had never played, or ran over, or even considered: 'It Takes a Lot to Laugh.' "

The Band and Dylan coarsely ran over some 80 numbers in one four-hour session, said Robertson, so that the show can change every night. But rehearsals, he said, were impossible. "For our situation and our mentality, it seemed so absurd to get into a room and run over 'Positively Fourth Street. We'd go, 'What is this?' Remember the kickoff? Who cares what the kickoff was?' You know. We just can't approach it like that."

Rehearsals began three months before the tour. "We sat down and played for four hours and ran over an incredible number of tunes. Just instantly. We would request tunes. Bob would ask us to play certain tunes of ours, and then we would do the same, then we'd think of some that we would particularly like to do. And when it was over, we said, 'That's it.' "

So, onstage, oftentimes a song will end quite abruptly; another may wheeze and fizzle to a tardy conclusion; Dylan will stop a number to change the beat.

Even while planning the tour, Dylan and the Band were nervous, said Robertson. "Not a real emotional nervousness, but also a physical endurance nervousness. Like Bob was saying, 'Shit, I haven't done nothing in eight years, all of a sudden I'm going to go out there and hit it for 40 'concerts?' We're not really outgoing people," Robbie said again, "we're just not the kind of people that can — 'Sure, turn us loose!' "

Enter Bill Graham, whom the Band had worked with for concerts, and David Geffen, chairman of Elektra/Asylum Records, now Dylan's label. When asked about how he got to know Robbie, Geffen replied: "He's just my friend." Robbie's version had less of the hangout aura to it: "He called me up once, about nine or ten months ago. Just out of the blue, he said he wanted to see me. I talked to him and found him interesting. I thought he was in tune with today, now. He wasn't relying on what it was, or he didn't have ridiculous theories on what it should be or will be." What triggered the call? Was it just to get to know you?

"No, it was a business move."

Robertson told Dylan about Graham and Geffen, Dylan approved, and the two went to work, convincing the group that if they were to avoid box-office riots, they had to play more than ten dates, and in larger-than-theater halls. It was also Graham who proposed the ticket prices (criticized in some cities as too high, averaging $8 and reaching a top of $9.50), and the Band and Dylan — who left all money matters to Graham and their various attorneys — agreed.

"The decision," said Robbie, "was made by Bill and David, and they put their logic together and explained it to us. We left it up to them because they could be a little bit more objective than us. They would say, 'Listen, Joe Blow gets $7.50. Just Joe Blow, so I would think you guys should charge that, and if there's two of you, then you should charge . . . and they had all kinds of reasons. If you don't, then people are going to think that something's wrong. Me? I just said, 'You know better than we do.' You have to give people room to move around in and do things. If you do it all yourself you go crazy."

And when the Band and Dylan were informed that the tour would gross $5 million and net at least half that, no one felt that it was a bit much? Or asked if it was really needed or deserved?

"No way do we feel we deserve it," Robertson replied calmly. "I think the whole thing is so out of proportion it doesn't make any sense at all. But I don't think a gallon of gas is worth a dollar, either. I think that the whole thing is so out of proportion, you couldn't just step in and say, 'Wait a minute, everybody.' That's not our job."

Dylan echoed Robbie: "I put it in Bill Graham's hands," he said. "I just let people know I was ready." He added: "Originally, I wanted to play small halls, but I was just talked out of that."

Graham himself said that he could have suggested a high of $20, and still sell out the tour, just to prove the point "that the market will bear it. But that's not what I was trying to prove. I tried to make it a decent price that I didn't think there'd be complaints on."

Each show in the first four cities was sold out; but in Chicago and Philadelphia, concerts were not sold out until nearly the last minute. In Chicago, last-minute shuffling of sound and lighting equipment made 1000 seats available for two shows, and they were sold on the days of the shows. In Philadelphia, at the time of the first show, at 2 PM, there were still tickets for the third show, the next night, available at the box office.

Graham maintained that it was an immediate sellout, dating back to the December 2nd placement of ads in every city on the tour. Thousands of ticket requests had been returned then, he said. But 99% of requests had been for the night shows, leaving day-show tickets unsold. Also, he said, just two weeks before (that would be around Christmas), it was discovered that some side seats, with "obstructed views," could be sold, and ads were placed announcing "obstructed" tickets for $8. But, according to a Spectrum employee, the 19,000 seat auditorium sold some 16,000 seats for each show in the first rush, and placed ads on WMMR-FM by December 8th.

Later we learned that Madison Square Garden, on January 17th, announced more tickets available for the New York shows. Graham and David Geffen had previously reported an estimated 1.2 million ticket requests in the New York area; now, for some last-minute reason, the Garden, which can hold 58,500 people for three shows, had seats to spare.

Every show ends up sold out, of course, and overall, the six-week, 20-city, 39-show tour will gross over $5 million and net at least $2.5 million, according to what Graham calls a "conservative estimate."

And in Philadelphia, the only city outside New York to have Dylan and the Band for more than two shows, writer Jon Takiff remarked: "It's pretty phenomenal to sell out three shows at the Spectrum."

Still, the facts seemed to make so much hype-confetti of Graham and Geffen's pre-tour claims of a nationwide, overnight, mail-order sellout.

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