Knockin' On Bob Dylan's Door

Page 5 of 6

Bill Graham, the man who has an answer for just about anything, was even equipped with the proper languages for this tour. In Montreal, at the end of the first concert at the Forum, after the encore, he told the crowd, in fluid French, that Dylan had gone and would not be back.

It was a bilingual crowd, you could tell by the chatter around you. But, the student said, "I read there are 6000 Americans here tonight." Because of the language situation, said Graham, Montreal was the only city to sell tickets through box offices, and thousands of people had crossed the border to get tickets and, a month later, to attend the show. "You should have seen the lines," the young man said.

One woman; who came to Montreal from Plattsburgh, New York, seemed disappointed with Dylan after "Lay Lady Lay." It was the new way he had of singing it, no longer country-comfy and inviting, but snarl-joking, stretching last words and snapping them off with a grit of his teeth.

"I liked the old Dylan," said the woman, an employee at the state college in Plattsburgh. "Here, on this song, I felt he was ripping me off, just singing a song to get through it. He's not sharing a part of himself with us." She broke into applause, minutes later, when Dylan went into "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and joined the ovation while Dylan offered two bows and a clenched left fist. She nodded her approval again as the solo Dylan worked his way through "Gates Of Eden." And when "Rolling Stone" came around, she was on top of her chair, standing atop her cotton coat and clapping along. (Dylan: "'Like a Rolling Stone' is just as real today as it was then. The audience is reacting the same as back then. It was always the one that got the best reaction.") And here, when Dylan returned for the encore, the ovation continued on and did not suddenly die, the way it had in the other cities.

"Always love to come back to Montreal."

While friends of Dylan said he had stayed off the road mostly because his family came first, he left his wife and children behind. With him on the first few stops of the tour was Louie Kemp, a friend of Bob's since the days in Hibbing when they went to camp together. Louie stuck close to Dylan, from hotel to hotel, and accompanied him wherever he went. In Chicago, they checked out a show at the Earl of Old Town. In Philadelphia, Dylan spent off-hours ice-skating. In Toronto, he planned to see The Exorcist at a local university movie house, then canceled out.

In Montreal, Dylan also took it easy, staying on a diet of vegetables, fruits, herb tea and distilled water. His one known foray into the streets — aside from shopping trips — was to pick up a loose No Parking sign to take back home.

On the scheduled day of the interview, I waited through the morning and early afternoon. When Dylan's supposed to call, you don't go running down to the newsstand to leaf through skin magazines. I decided to busy myself by going over my notes from the seven shows I'd seen, and compiling a list that would tell me, in case I ever got interested, just which songs Dylan was doing most often, and how many different numbers he had done in his concerts so far, at an average of 18 songs per night, with the Band adding another nine or ten.

It turned out that Dylan indeed had — and played — favorites. Of 32 songs he had tried, thus far, 12 numbers had appeared in, at least, six of seven concerts. In every show, he had performed "Lay Lady Lay," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "All Along the Watchtower," "It's Alright, Ma," "Like a Rolling Stone," and two from Planet Waves, "Forever Young" and "Something There Is About You."

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "It Ain't Me Babe," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and a new number, "Except You," had been done in every show but one, and "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" had been sung seven times in five concerts.

"I Don't Believe You" had been done five times, scattered out evenly, and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" was also a five-timer. "Times They Are A-Changin"' had been done twice, in Chicago, and once each in Toronto and Montreal. (Having stumbled through lines each time he tried the song, Dylan got a present from Bill Graham at intermission of the second show in Montreal: a set of cue cards, the lyrics to this, one of his best-known — if not by him — compositions written out in two-inch-high letters. Dylan laughed, then marched out and substituted "Blowin' in the Wind" in the "Times" slot.

The rest of the list included one-time acoustic shots of "To Ramona," "Mama, You've Been on My Mind," "Song to Woody," "Maggie's Farm," "As I Went Out One Morning," and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry)." Twice each, he had done "Rainy Day Women (Nos. 12 & 35)," "Just Like a Woman," "Hero Blues," "Love Minus Zero (No Limit)," "Gates Of Eden," "Girl From the North Country," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and the new "Wedding Song." Three times each, he had performed "Tough Mama," another new, gritty love song, "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," and one of his own stated favorites from the protest days, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

"It's more interesting for me to be able to move things around," said Dylan. "These are the songs that were important for us, for me, for people we knew. They're mostly songs that've been recorded through the years."

I hadn't heard any songs from New Morning or Self-Portrait yet, I said.

"Well, we'll do some from New Morning. We've got three or four numbers. But Self-Portrait, I didn't live with those songs for too long. Those were just scraped together." To, say, pay some sort of tribute to the songwriters you liked? Dylan smiled and nodded.

Dylan and I exchanged admissions of nervousness; soon enough, we were comfortable. He's been well-known to be antagonistic during interviews, challenging the wording of questions, offering totally evasive or fabricated responses. He does, in fact, give mostly half-answers, and one is not encouraged to pursue his replies. His face says to take a second to let it soak in, see the self-evidence for yourself. If he was putting me on with any of his responses — say, in his promotion man's dream of an answer about doing his old songs — then he was a good actor. And, as he said during our hour session, he's not a movie star.

Bob Dylan's Most Inscrutable Lyrics

The first time we'd talked, Dylan had mentioned a special enthusiasm for doing the Texas dates, in Fort Worth and in Houston January 25th and 26th, just before the five New York shows.

"Maybe it's just the Mexican influence," he said. "They're more receptive to my kind of music, my kind of style," said Dylan. "In the old days . . . " he paused. "I hate to call them the 'old days,'" he thought out loud, and laughed. "Anyway, I did New York, San Francisco and Austin. The rest were hard in coming."

The tour, he said, wasn't planned to take advantage of a lull in the music business, or to make a statement in a time of national crisis. "I saw daylight," he said. "I just took off."

Did he miss being onstage?

"Sure," he replied. "There's always those butterflies at a certain point, but then there's the realization that the songs I'm singing mean as much to the people as to me; so it's just up to me to perform the best I can."

What kind of feeling did he get, singing the "protest" and "message" songs again, especially considering what people might read in his decision to revive those songs?

"For me, it's just reinforcing those images in my head that were there, that don't die, that will be there tomorrow. And in doing so for myself, hopefully also for those people who also had those images."

In an earlier chat, Dylan had implied that it was a "new time," in which people were united in their political thinking. I mentioned a comment by a member of the Committee, that much of the country still needed turning around, as evidenced by the overwhelming reelection of Richard Nixon, after four years of fairly obvious nonsense, and by the underwhelming call, at this point, for his removal.

"Sure," Dylan agreed, "there's still a message. But the same electric spark that went off back then could still go off again — the spark that led to nothing. Our kids will probably protest, too. Protest is an old thing. Sometimes protest is deeper, or different — the Haymarket Riot, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War — that's protest.

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

What, I asked Dylan, had he been doing to keep his vocal chords in shape? Had he been singing regularly, at home, through the years off the stage? He said he hadn't. "We've been through the big tours before," he said. "Actually, I'd like to have a little club where I could sing when I felt like it."

What about the changes his voice and vocal style have gone through over the past few albums? Dylan looked past me, then out the window again. "That's a good question. I don't know. I could only guess — if it has changed. I've never gone for having a great voice, for cultivating one. I'm still not doing it now."

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