Knockin’ on Bob Dylan’s Door
We are in Toronto, the third stop of the Bob Dylan tour. Locked in by snow and still locked out, so far, from the inner circles of Dylan and the Band, I’m reduced to television in my hotel room. I choose Channel 6 and get Channel 79, where a newsy-talk program called The CITY Show, named after the station’s call letters, is on. For some reason, the moderator, a sporty-looking fellow, 50 or so, looks familiar, but the camera cuts to the program’s “youth reporter,” whose report this evening is an earnest attack on Dylan, the tour and tour producer Bill Graham. He is asking where all the money is going, he is characterizing Dylan as a “manipulator” of his fans and the press, secreting himself from the public after that convenient little bike spill and, now, exploiting his absence from the scene. He also has heard that Dylan’s show is comprised mostly of older songs, and this, too, is a pisser for him.
The moderator, the man with those penetrating, close-set eyes I’ve seen before, comes to Dylan’s defense: “I believe there’s a freedom to just sit down if you want to,” he tells the kid. “The public doesn’t own Dylan; that’s why he appealed to you in the first place.”
As for Dylan’s manipulation of the media, he continues, “You know I don’t like to talk about my son too much on the air, but Neil has found that he’s not dependent on all this damned media coverage, [Now I recognize the gentleman: Scott Young, Neil’s father and a newspaper columnist in Toronto.] Just a line in the papers is enough.
“Dylan is trying,” he says, “to reestablish that there still is a Dylan around.”
The next night, I met Dylan, bumping into him in the hallway up on his floor, and he agreed to talk — later, in Montreal. Three days later, in Montreal, 33 floors up at the Chateau Champlain, Bob Dylan sat across the table, at ease, in white western shirt and jeans, still sleepy at 3 PM, but willing to talk.
He’s always interested in what his audience is thinking, so I told him about the impression his new love songs seemed to be making. Critics — from Chicago through Philadelphia and Canada — were saying he’d mellowed out, “blunted his image,” “drained the venom from his voice.” He’d moved from urgent, surging metaphorical poetry to clinch-cliches, stereotyped images, and an emphatically-stated need for his loved one, a complete turnaway from his previous posture of independence, individualism and defiance.
Of course, he’s played with such talk before. In “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” he rhymed “moon” and “spoon.” In Montreal, just last night, between “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Gates Of Eden,” he told the audience: “That was a love song, and this one’s another love song.”
With a wife and five children, Dylan is being called a family man, or, as Jonathan Takiff, pop critic for the Philadelphia Daily News put it, “a dutch uncle.”
“Yeah,” said Dylan. “But those things don’t make a person settle down. A family brings the world together. You can see it’s all one. It paints a better picture than being with a chick and traveling all over the world. Or hanging out all night.
“But,” he maintained, “I still get that spark. I’m still out there. In no way am I not. I don’t live on a pedestal.
“Fame threw me for a loop at first,” Dylan continued. “I learned how to swim with it and turn it around — so you can just throw it in the closet and pick it up when you need it.”
The turning point, he said, was in Woodstock, “a little after the accident. There I was, sitting one night under a full moon, I looked out into the bleak woods and said, ‘Something’s gotta change.’ There was some business that had to be taken care of, that we don’t have to go into.” I nodded, not mentioning the breakup with manager Albert Grossman, but reminding him of the problems he’d had fulfilling contracts for a book and a TV special.
“It was too much,” he said. “It finally broke the camel’s back. Now it’s the same old me again.”
Whatever that may be.
One of the reasons for following Dylan around, even if ultimately you learn that he’s just the same old him, is that so many people are looking for so much, from the drifter’s return — for some kind of statement, either from the mere act of his reemergence or from something that the new Dylan may have to say. But too many of those that are filling up the papers and the airwaves with their Dylanologies never heard, really heard, the man in the first place, or refused to accept what they heard: “It’s not to stand naked under unknowing eyes/It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung,” he sang, in “Restless Farewell,” even before “My Back Pages.”
Dylan says he’s touring only because he wants to play his music for the people. But the people, the papers say, want more than music. They want The Word.
“I don’t understand that attitude,” says Robbie Robertson of the Band. “I don’t ever remember him ever delivering what they believed he delivered, or what they think he’s going to deliver now. I mean, I heard a lot of terrific lines and songs. He certainly had a way of saying something that everybody felt, a way of phrasing it and condensing it down. But people have a fictitious past in mind about him.”
I agreed. But even if I, for one, never saw Dylan as a messiah, idol, prophet, leader, or even a particularly great singer, I must admit, as have other journalists (whose style it is to not confess such things) that Dylan has touched me. And the nerve that was hit ties somehow back to the Sixties. During the second show in the Chicago Stadium, near the end of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” it hit. It wasn’t the song, a simple enough affair over an even simpler acoustic guitar run, that did it. For me, Dylan made a statement through a tone he was painting with his bitter-truth voice, a feeling of knowing resignation, the uplift deriving from the knowledge that here was a guy who’d seen it all, saw through it all, and . . . well, had a way of phrasing it, of condensing it down.
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I watched this still-small, still-vulnerable figure, behind his guitar, looking up and bawling, “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” and I shivered and thought of my brother Barry, a probation officer and community worker murdered in the summer of 1972, in the midst of the gang wars of Chinatown. He left a mother and father who cannot stop mourning, and when “It’s Alright, Ma” pulsed through the verse:
While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the mind most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Must get lonely
I found myself wiping away tears with an index finger and thinking something toward Barry, something excusably maudlin like: “Can you see? Bob Dylan, someone you heard and liked a lot, is here.”
Later, talking with reporters from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, I learned that they, too, had had the chills. And in the next city, Jon Takiff — “Philadelphia’s Mr. Cynical,” the publicist for the Spectrum rock auditorium called him — would walk away from the press box and tell me that “Like a Rolling Stone” had made him cry. And all the lofty articles I’d read about Dylan, all the burdensome books, suddenly meant very little. I’d have to meet the guy for myself.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.”
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.”
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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.
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.”
As for the rearrangements of songs, the harder, snappier way he’s singing some of the older songs: “You’ll always stretch things out or cut it up, just to keep interested. If you can’t stay interested that way, you’ll have to lose track. But I’m me now, that’s the way it comes out.”
What? You’re meaner now?
“What? Oh, no. I’m me now.” Dylan laughed. He could just see the headline.
Is Dylan planning to stay in Malibu?
“No,” he said, “we’re just there temporarily. It was cold in New York and we didn’t want to go back there after Mexico [and the shooting of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid]. I can’t stay away from New York!”
How did he get the role of Alias in the Sam Peckinpah film?
“Just one thing into another. [Pause] They took me on because I was a big name. I’ve seen myself on screen; movies don’t impress me. That part didn’t scare me off at all. I just hoped I didn’t get shot during the movie.
“I don’t know who I played. I tried to play whoever it was in the story, but I guess it’s a known fact in history that there was nobody who was the character I played in the story.
“No, I don’t want to be a movie star,” he continued, “but I’ve got a vision to put up on the screen. Someday we’ll get around to doing it. The Peckinpah experience was valuable, in terms of getting near the big action.”
Would Dylan do more films before tackling his “vision”?
“The Peckinpah movie brought me as close as I’ll get,” he said. “I’ve been on sets of movies and TV shows, but they were small-time compared. They spent $4.5 million on Billy The Kid, had all the top people. So that was really heavy, gave me that vibration. When I finally do mine, it’ll have that vibration.”
What about his latest business moves?
Photos: The Evolution of Bob Dylan
“I don’t think about it,” said Dylan. “Just had to get out of some legal hassles from back in the old days.”
Dylan, in earlier announcements, had planned to have his own label, ironically named Ashes & Sand, the name of the holding company he’d set-up back in the old, Albert Grossman days. Dylan smiled, laughing at himself:
“That only lasted a quick few minutes,” he agreed.
What were the advantages to having his own label? Was Dylan advised by an outside party to form his own company? “I advised myself it was a good thing, and then I advised myself that it wasn’t. I just didn’t need it.”
Dylan does, however, maintain an interest in spotting — and helping — new talent. If Ashes & Sand were a reality, Dylan said, he’d want Leon Redbone.
“Leon interests me,” he said. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been this close” — Dylan held his hands out, a foot and a half apart — “and I can’t tell, But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.” Redbone has surfaced at various folk festivals in the past years and is every bit the mystery that Dylan indicates.
And the other Leon, Leon Russell, who produced only a couple of cuts with Dylan?
“Leon and I, we didn’t do that much.” Dylan couldn’t remember exactly what they’d done, beyond “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
“It went fine, it was as good as it could’ve been expected to be. But the producers that have meant the most to me are Tom Wilson, John Hammond and Bob Johnston. They were there. They were there when . . . well, it’s like a small group of friends.”
What about the Dylan album, the collection of Self-Portrait outtakes Columbia had released on the eve of the Dylan tour, after Dylan split from the label to go with Ashes & Sand, and then Asylum? Dave Geffen had charged Columbia with holding the album over Dylan’s head, threatening to release it unless he re-signed his contract. “That’s when they sealed their doom,” he said. Geffen, speaking on Dylan’s behalf earlier in the tour, had characterized Dylan’s response to the album as utter repulsion. “He disclaims it,” Geffen said. “He doesn’t know that Dylan.”
(Columbia’s vice president of A&R, Charles Koppelman, denied Geffen’s allegations. The album was delayed, at Dylan’s request, during contract talks, he said, but Dylan had never expressed disapproval with the album itself. “He called Goddard [Lieberson, president of Columbia] and said he didn’t mind us at all putting out the album,” Koppelman said. The executive couldn’t offer much explanation for the sloppiness of the album: the lack of information on dates of recording, backup musicians and even composers’ credits. “We had a lack of information ourselves,” he said. Columbia, Koppelman said, will continue to release Dylan material. “We have a fairly good amount of tape,” including live concerts and “a group of tapes where he performed with other well-known performers. We have a good few albums,” said Koppelman.)
Dylan described the material on Dylan as outtakes, sung “just to warm up,” he said. “They were just not to be used. I thought it was well understood.” But, he said, he couldn’t understand all the critical downgrading of the album.
“I didn’t think it was that bad, really!” he said.
Dylan said he thought Clive Davis, the president of Columbia Records, fired last May for alleged “financial malfeasance,” was “a scapegoat.” But even if Davis was still at Columbia, he said, he would’ve left the label. “It was long overdue,” he said. “Just a gut feeling it was time to go on. I suspected they were doing more talk than action. Just released ’em and that’s all. I got a feeling they didn’t care whether I stayed there or not.”
As for David Geffen: “He’s there.” What does “there” mean?
“Whatever it takes to be there.”
Has he signed a contract with Asylum, as Geffen said?
“I’m not so sure we signed one. I don’t sign anything these days.”
It’s been a tour of luck and coincidences, running into Neil Young’s father, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan himself. But there was also the leaflet I picked up outside the Nickelodeon, blood-red headlined: 40 Days! And Nineveh Shall Be Destroyed. It was dated November 12th and distributed by the Children of God, a local religion franchise. “40 Days,” of course, was Ronnie Hawkins’ first major hit, dated June, 1959.
Here, sitting with Dylan, I also thought about the headlines that had surfaced upon his arrival in Philadelphia and Toronto. In Philly, the Evening Bulletin carried a story: “Fewer Jews Reported in Philadelphia Area” (population decreased 7% in the last year). In Toronto, Dylan was greeted with this headline in the Globe and Mail: “Apathy, Alienation Reported Rampant Among Young Jews.”
“It is not the slightest bit surprising (but nonetheless shocking and depressing) that no less than 88% [of converts to Christianity] consider the Jewish religion ‘valueless,”‘ said the report issued by P’eylim of Canada, a Toronto Jewish organization.
Religious images have long been part of Bob Dylan’s music. In 1971, he visited the Wailing Wall in Israel. Now, on tour, he was rumored to be planning on handing over his cut of the profits to the Israeli cause; that he was an “ultra-Zionist.”
“I’m not sure what a Zionist really is,” he said, putting down the rumors as “just gossip.” As for the religious images that surface regularly in his music, he commented, after a good pause: “Religion to me is a fleeting thing. Can’t nail it down. It’s in me and out of me. It does give me, on the surface, some images, but I don’t know to what degree.
“Like da Vinci going in to paint the Last Supper. Until he finishes it, no one knows what the Last Supper is. He goes out and finds 12 guys, puts them around this table, and there’s your Last Supper. Or Moses. He found a guy and painted him, and, forever, that guy will be Moses. But why Moses or the Last Supper? Why not a flower? Or a tree?”
Dylan had earlier mentioned an astrological influence on his return to active performance, the removal of an obstacle, Saturn, in his planetary system. I asked him to elaborate.
“I can’t read anybody’s chart,” he said, “but the thing about Saturn is, I didn’t know what it was at the time, or I would’ve gone somewhere away. It’s a big, heavy obstacle that comes into your chain of events that fucks you up in a big way. It came into my chart a few years ago and just flew off again a couple of months ago.”
Who’d clued him in on Saturn?
“Someone very dear to me.”
This story is from the February 14th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.
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