Tangled Up in Dylan

Page 6 of 6

The "Every Grain of Sand" was especially excellent because that was what the seventy-eight-year-old blue-haired lady in Columbia, Maryland, said she wanted Dylan to play. Leaning on her cane, she said she'd gotten into Bob "about twenty years ago" when her son, who'd been living in the basement, "finally" moved out. Cleaning the place, she found dozens of scratched vinyls under the cigarette-scarred couch. "I always was afraid about what he was doing down there. When I heard this Bob Dylan, I felt a lot better about my son." Then, looking around at the gathering tribes, the old lady smiled and said, "It's so nice that he can draw such a crowd at his age."

"Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" was her favorite Dylan song, the woman said, somewhat surprising for a "churchgoer." But this being the anniversary of her husband's death, she was really hoping Bob would do "Every Grain of Sand," which contains the lyrics "I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me" and is described by Michael Gray, in his twenty-five-page chapter on the tune (complete with copious footnotes mentioning Edith Piaf, Frankie Laine, Cain, Abel, St. Matthew, St. Paul, Tony Bennett, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Bruno Bettelheim and the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, canon theologian of Liverpool), as a work that is "really about faith vs. doubt."

And, of course, even though Dylan hadn't done "Every Grain of Sand" a single time on the then-thirty-two-date-long tour, he did it that very night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Did it great, too — ethereal, elusive and pure, and not even that far off from the record.

This is how it is with Bob in these latter days, as he makes his fitful rounds of summertime music sheds and second-banana fall apple festivals. He is the gift that keeps on giving, a wish-fulfilling jukebox of high modernism, speaking, as always, in new ways beyond our knowing. Then again, Dylanology has always been a synchronicitous thing: the meaningful coincidence expressed via the mysterium of Bob.

How else to explain the message on the radio driving down the Jersey Turnpike, on the way to the Camden show? The announcer was talking about how then-Governor Christie Whitman was finally going to close Greystone Hospital due to "a series of patient suicides, assaults, unsanitary conditions and under-staffing at the 100-year-old facility."

Now, any cub of a Bobcat knows the story of how the first place Dylan went when he came east from Hibbing in February of '61 was Greystone Hospital in Jersey, to see Woody Guthrie. It says so right in the liner notes of the first album: Although Bob and Woody were "separated by thirty years and two generations, they were united by a love of music . . . and common view of the world." So how do you figure that after 100 years of understaffing, patient suicides and who-knows-whatever botched operations, the Governor of New Jersey picked that exact day to close Greystone?

And how do you figure that Dylan picked that night to play "Song to Woody," the 1961 tune in which D foretells to Guthrie a "funny ol' world that's a-comin' along . . ." that is "sick and hungry, tired and torn, and looks like it's dying hardly before it's been born," a heck of a bleak bouquet to lay at the hospital bed of a victim of Huntington's chorea, even a canny hard traveler like Woody Guthrie. Quite a vision indeed to behold now, forty years and three generations on the other side of all that, especially when you're stuck in traffic, and it's Jersey, too.

Access. If I was going to apologize to Dylan, to somehow erase my insignificant notation in Dylanological history, "the formation" was my best chance. It was something new this tour, with Bob and the boys — Charlie Sexton, Larry Campbell and good ol' Tony Garnier, in his purple suit, twelve years on the bass. When the set's over, the band stands there for a minute or so and stares back at the audience. They don't say anything, only peer off into the cold distance, like a spaghetti western. Bob keeps his hand on his hip, Bette Davis style.

"Bob!" I shouted from the edge of the stage. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry I said I wished you died!"

But unlike the cry of the "Judas!" screamer at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in July of '66, my words did not pierce the din. Dylan did not turn and call me "a liar," tell me "I don't believe you!" In Hartford, Scranton, Saratoga, Camden and Columbia, not once did Bob look my way. Eventually, a friend of mine told me to stop. My friend, a Dylan hand who knows these things, said if I kept insisting on apologizing, I'd be on the verge of becoming "a profile," which is what the "Dylan Office," in its well-rumored paranoia (paranoia being a hardy perennial in all things Dylanological), calls those who try to get too close, those who too aggressively attempt to break the plane between Him and us, who want more access than they deserve.

"If Bob wants to forgive you, he probably already has," said my friend.

And I thought of this a couple nights later, driving back toward New York with my wife. We'd thought we would be able to see Bob again that night, which would have made eight straight shows, but the holiday was over. So we headed home, reaching the Holland Tunnel a little after 7 P.M., about the time Dylan would have gone onstage.

"Get a Bob Dylan song on the radio," I said to my wife. This was no doubt a fruitless gesture because maybe thirty-four years ago Murray the K, stone mellow and on FM by then, but with the grease of pastrami still seeping through his veins (but really hip pastrami), said that "Like a Rolling Stone," seven minutes long, was Top Ten. But now there is almost never a Bob Dylan song on New York radio, if you don't count movie tie-ins like "Hurricane" (unplayed live by Bob since 1976).

But then there it was, as we approached the toll plaza, dim at the edges of reception but unmistakable: "Desolation Row." Dylan had revived the song on the current tour, performing it several nights in a row, third in the set list. There was a good chance he was playing the epic tune at that exact moment, on the muddy field of Waterloo Village in north Jersey. When Sinatra got old, he did "My Way"; when Elvis was near the end, he did "My Way," too. Bob Dylan does "Desolation Row."

The first time I heard the song was the first time he performed it, the night I booed him at Forest Hills. The New York Times, in a review I clipped, called it "a major new composition." Now the "Titanic sails at dawn" verse was fading out as we entered the tunnel. Was there absolution in this Cocteau-like visitation? Was this Bob's way of taking the curse off me? Who knew? In my time of Dylanology, it has always been like this. You forget about him for a decade or more, then he's back in your head, suddenly a matter of life and death, again.

Mark Jacobson is the author of the novels "Gojiro" and "Everyone and No one."

This story is from the April 12th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

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