Music

Bob Dylan’s Opening Night

“It’s like two ex-lovers planning to spend a night together for the first time in seven years, this reunion of Dylan and his American audience tonight. Do they act their ages for each other or do they revive aging acts?”

by

Bob Dylan’s Opening Night: Most Likely He’ll Go His Way
January 10, 1974

CHICAGO – Brother Spider and his Side Buster. That’s what the hand-lettered sign on the fork-lift truck says. It’s 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon when Brother Spider, the man at the wheel, drives the Side Buster through the backstage gate of the Chicago Stadium with half a ton of red carpeting on his fork.

Brother Spider is part of the regular Chicago Stadium work crew. Most the winter they wax the floor for the Bulls or ice it for the Blackhawks. This afternoon they’re laying down red carpet for Bob Dylan.

And the Side Buster?

“The brother call it The Side Buster because one day someone don’t open up the gate fast enough for him and he bust a hole through it,” one of the stadium security guards explains to me.

I’m hanging around with the security guards in the backstage perimeter of the Stadium hoping they’ll think I belong so I can be around when Dylan arrives for his final rehearsal.

Workmen shoulder cases of fine wine into the dressing rooms on the left. The Side Buster passes through the gate with a fork-lift full of blue velvet.

And over the to right stands a strange cubicle looking fresh and delicate amidst grimy Bull and Blackhawk apparatus. The red carpet and the blue velvet were faded rental items, but this snow-white cubicle looks freshly built and freshly painted. TUNING ROOM says a sign on the side of the boxlike little room. The door is slightly open and inside I can glimpse tables set with white tablecloths.

I’m edging over to see what else is in the TUNING ROOM when the normal stadium din is pierced by the articulate roar of Bill Graham, Dylan’s guardian angel for his tour.

“I SAID I WANT ALL PRESS TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF THIS BUILDING UNTIL 6 P.M.,” says Graham, pursuing two camera men and a reporter he’s flushed out from the stage area.

“THAT MEANS STAY THE FUCK OUT TILL 6 P.M. IN ENGLISH,” Graham explains, pointing with outstretched arms the way out Gate 3 1/2.

Unwilling to jeopardize my lone hard-won press ticket (I had to stab at least one other Voice contributor in the back to make sure I got it), I retreat from the TUNING ROOM door and slip out Gate 3 1/2 myself.

That’s when I met Adam.

Adam Knyght is his performing name and once he sang with Bob Dylan. Well, not exactly.

Adam is a back-up musician. Last August down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Adam played back-up harmonica and sang back-up vocals for Barry Goldberg who himself does back-up work for Bob Dylan. Dylan was down in Muscle Shoals helping produce Barry Goldberg’s first solo album, and that’s where Adam met him, he says.

Adam became close to Dylan that summer, he says. Dylan tried out some new songs for him, Adam says, got high with him in his van. They had some heavy raps together last summer, says Adam.

This afternoon Adam is waiting outside the Chicago Stadium Gates in 12 degree cold, hoping to get inside to see his old friend Bob. He’s driven 1000 miles from his tem­porary home in Montreal to be here for the start of the tour, and it’s not hard to see he’s dreaming that Bob will invite him along.

When he sees me scurrying out of Gate 3 1/2, Adam asks me if Dylan is inside.

“No, the rehearsal won’t start for an hour or so, but Dylan’s asked Graham to keep all outsiders out,” I reply.

“That’s okay,” says Adam, “Once he sees me, Bob’ll remember me from Muscle Shoals. He’ll probably let me in,” says Adam. Adam is 20 years old.

Adam suggests we drive around in his van listening to Dylan tapes until rehearsal time. Adam’s van is equipped with a powerful cassette machine and a powerful lid of dope.

Adam turns on “Blonde on Blonde” and “Visions of Johanna” comes on. The van turns on Halstead Street and the dope comes on.

Adam turns out to have some interesting, if not entirely believable, first second and third hand tales to tell about his old friend Bob.

First the third hand story, because it’s the biggest if it’s true. There’s been a rumor going around that Dylan plans to give all his profits from this tour, every cent to Israel.

“Down in Muscle Shoals I remember Dylan tellin’ me how Israel is the only civilized place in the world,” Adam says.

“Civilized, that’s the word he used?”

“Yeah,” says Adam, “he told this story about how he was at this kibbutz and he would stand around outside and listen to them chant the prayers in the evening and wish he could be part of it.”

“He didn’t take part?”

“He said he stood outside and listened.”

Now for The Second Hand Story. It starts with organ boxes and ends with love, but it’s really about Dylan’s wife Sarah.

“Sarah is wonderful,” Adam says rapturously, “She has such an aura. You know she’s the one who pulled him through after the accident. She’s got some incredible aura. She’s so mystical, and she’s into everything. I remember in Muscle Shoals she was talking about getting him one of those boxes for collecting cosmic energy — what do they call them?”

“You don’t mean an orgone box?”

That’s it,” says Adam.

“You know,” says Adam continuing, “that he’s writing all his songs for Sarah now. There was one he tried out for us in Muscle Shoals — it was the best love song he ever wrote — a new one, and when he finished singing he looked around and said ‘I wish she coulda heard it.’ ”

“What’s it called?”

“I can’t remember if it had a name then,” says Adam.

Finally the first hand story. Adam and Dylan were getting high together in the van at Muscle Shoals. “He opened up to me about his religion,” Adam says. “He’s getting into being Jewish and Bobby Zimmerman and all that, but he said his real religion was the sun.”

“The sun?”

“Being like the sun. Getting up every day. But then he said something about how his real religion was getting into himself, that he’d gone you know so far into himself to escape from being a star, he was so scared of being a star, wheels on fire and all that, that he’d gone so far into a hole in himself that he’s finally come out the other side.”

“Like a black hole in space,” I said.

“What’s that?” says Adam.

“A black hole is what happens when a star collapses.”

“A star collapses, huh?” says Adam.

“Some people say it’s a hole into another kind of universe. I don’t think it comes out a star on the other side, but then again maybe it comes out another kind of sun, or son but the sun is still a star and—”

“You been smoking too much, man,” says Adam. “Maybe we ought to head back and see if we catch Bob.”

He turns the cassette machine up. We start singing along at the top of our voices. By the time the van finds its way back through the West Side ghetto to the Chicago Stadium again we are hoarse from singing the rest of “Blonde on Blonde” and the entire “Greatest Hits Volume I” tape, the one that ends with “I Want You,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Just Like a Woman.”

Adam and I stumble around the back of the stadium and head for Gate 3 1/2. As we round the corner we can see the gate itself has been rolled down shut, but two huge vehicles have drawn up flanking.

On the near side of the gate a glossy black Fleetwood Limousine sits silent and immobile. On the far side of the gate stands a huge gold and white “Recreational Vehicle.”

A sign on the door of the big mobile home says “The American Camper: America’s Largest Indoor Showroom.”

“Bob’s in there,” says Adam.

I’m skeptical, but the camper does have California plates (306 GLC) and Dylan and the Band have been living in Malibu lately.

“When he comes out I’ll let him know I’m here,” says Adam.

The door of the camper opens. A couple of familiar looking musicians jump down and walk into the stadium through a small door beside the closed gate. No Bob.

But the camper door remains open, and there’s some shadowy movement in the interior recesses.

“He’s scared to come out, he’s petrified of doing this tour,” says Adam.

A figure steps out into the door­way of the camper. It’s Bob Dylan. He seems to be fiddling with his guitar case. He looks out. He seems to notice he’s being watched. He disappears back into the “Indoor Showroom.”

“He hates performing,” says Adam.

Finally Dylan steps out into the wintry sunlight, blinks his eyes, and heads for the gate, carrying his black guitar case. He’s wearing brown corduroys, he got a brown knit scarf hanging around his neck like a tallish, and he looks like shy and sulky little Bobby Zimmerman, trudging off to Hebrew school to rehearse his bar mitzvah speech.

“He don’t look happy,” says Adam.

He don’t look up. He don’t look back. He don’t look at Adam either.

“Bob,” Adam calls out softly from six feet away. Bob doesn’t seem to hear. In fact he seems to shy away from the sound, and hurry faster through the door in the gate. A p.r. man appears from out of nowhere, hurries through behind Dylan, and signals us not follow.

Adam and I take turns pressing our noses against the small glass window in the gate-door, but all we can see inside are security guards and fork-lifts.

Adam and I stand outside the gate. Adam is at a loss. He’s trying to explain to himself why his old friend Bob didn’t take him in. Then Adam decides why.

“I know why,” he tells me. “It’s because of you. He hates the press. That’s why he turned away. He’s conditioned to look away when people say his name.”

But Adam is still optimistic. He takes out his ticket for the concert tonight.

“Look,” he says. “I got a box seat. Section B. That must be close enough. I hope it’s close enough. ’Cause if I can make eye contact with him during the concert, he’ll see me, he’ll give me a signal. All I gotta do is get his eye.”

Adam gives me a lift back to the Holiday Inn LSD, which is where we meet The Kid. The whole Dylan entourage except for Dylan himself is staying at the Holiday Inn LSD. (LSD stands for Lake Shore Drive, but several signs inside advertising the “Pinnacle Room” Rotating Rooftop Restaurant and the “Shake Rattle and Roll Revue of the ’50s and ’60s, featuring Las Vegas–style Tabletop dancing by Pierre and his Be-Be girls,” call the place “Holiday Inn LSD,” and the Maine restaurant is called “Mrs. Leary’s Barn,” so there’s reason aplenty to call it the “Holiday Inn LSD.”)

Adam is playing “Greatest Hits Volume I” on his cassette machine in the elevator (we have decided to play more tapes and smoke more funny cigarettes to get ready for the show) when The Kid walks in.

The Kid says he’s come all the way from Boston for the concert. He asks to listen to the tapes with us and promises he’ll bring some coke to my room.

The Kid is so young and clean-cut Boston Irish looking we’re not sure if he means the stuff you snort or the stuff you drink, but 10 minutes later he shows up with the real thing.

The Kid tells us he’s 18 years old and just about the only Dylan freak he knows among kids his age. He sent away for tickets to the Boston concert, but didn’t get his letter postmarked in time.

“I was goin’ crazy thinkin’ I’d never get to see him, then my old lady somehow gets me a ticket to the opening concert and puts it in my stocking for Christmas, and it was like a dream come true.”

“So how come your girlfriend didn’t come along with you?” I ask the kid.

“What do you mean, my girlfriend?” the kid asks.

“You said your old lady put the ticket in your stocking and—”

“Yeah,” he said, “my old lady, my mother.”

“Your mother? I thought you were using that dumb California term for girlfriend, old lady.”

“No,” he says, “my girlfriend isn’t into Dylan. It’s my mother who is.”

We’re getting ready for the show. “Highway 61 Revisited” is careening through the cassette machine, and we’ve decided to leave for the stadium at the end of “Desolation Row.”

We’re all feeling great childlike rushes of anticipation. We all agree “Highway 61” is the best Dylan album of all. We all agree we want Dylan to do “Like a Rolling Stone” for his final encore. We all disagree over which is Dylans best love song (the Kid says it’s “Just Like a Woman,” I say it’s “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” Adam says it’s the mysterious song no name he heard Dylan sing down in Muscle Shoals). But we all agree we are the three greatest Dylan freaks of all time.

Halfway into “Highway 61” the Kid begins to freak with anticipation.

“It’s not gonna last. It’s not gonna last. I snorted this coke too soon. I’m getting this great rush now — Jesus — but it’s not gonna last till we get there. We gotta leave early enough. Dial the time number. We gotta make sure. We don’t wanta get caught in traffic.”

The Kid explains how lonely it’s been for him, the only Dylan freak his age among friends who are all into Quaaludes and Deep Purple, how he discovered old Dylan albums, how he tried to tell everybody but could not get across.

“Yeah,” says Adam to the Kid, “you became a Dylan freak when it looked like you’d never see him in the flesh. Like he was dead for you, and now suddenly you get to see him.”

“It was like a dream come true when I saw that ticket Christmas morning. I still can’t believe it’s gonna happen.”

“Yeah,” I say to the Kid. “For us it’s like going to see the Second Coming but for you it’s like you never saw the First.”

“Hey why don’t we get going. It’s almost 6. We gotta beat the traffic.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It can’t hurt to be early.”

“We gotta stay through the end of ‘Desolation Row.’ All the way to the end,” says Adam. “Dylan did.”

***

There’s no big brass bed on stage, but there is a double decker bunk, the kind that sleeps two, separately. There’s a comfy-looking over-stuffed sofa up there too, and an old-fashioned roll top desk, and a nice little wine-cooler type refrigerator.

There’s a crystal ball resting on top of the organ, candles flicker tastefully around it; Tiffany lamps illuminate it with a stained glass glow; and except for three tons of electronic amplification equipment the stage inside the Chicago Stadium looks like an intimate little living room. Or bedroom.

It’s like two ex-lovers planning to spend a night together for the first time in seven years, this reunion of Dylan and his American audience tonight. Do they act their ages for each other or do they revive aging acts?

Dylan comes on acting about three ages at once. He chooses to begin with a song he wrote 10 years ago when he was 22. It’s called “Hero Blues” and it’s about a woman who’s “the screaming end,” a lover who keeps demanding him to go out and perform more and more heroic feats for her, keeps pushing him closer and closer to the grave to provide her with entertainment.

It’s a song from Dylan’s acoustical folk day, but backed by the Band, he does it like a hard rock number from his pre-Accident electric period when he was 25. And behind it all is the sensibility and confidence of a 32-year-old post-Accident father of five warning his audience that no amount of screaming on their part is going to drive him to his screaming end again.

As for the audience, well, not even yours truly Mr. Jones here is paying attention to any of that shit about warnings at the time. The song’s obscure, we can barely make out the words, but we’re all sighing with relief and exhilaration: It’s really Dylan — he may have become an entirely different being in the past seven years but he can still remember the old times fondly enough to do a good imitation of himself back then. We begin to relax.

Then he does an electric “Lay Lady Lay” and the sighs of relief turn into sighs of pleasure.

He continues to play with his ages. He’s not singing “Lay Lady Lay” in the laid-back countrified way he did as a 29-year-old back in 1970. He’s doing it as a hard-rocking “Highway 61” type song, the kind he did when he was 24. It’s a lovely synthesis that lets him have his country pie and eat it too.

But having made his swift and effortless conquest of the audience Dylan suddenly seems to get cold feet. (A good part of the audience was also beginning to get cold feet about that time, but for a different reason: The main floor had been laid down over the hockey rink and if seems they don’t bother to melt the ice first.) Back to Dylan’s cold feet. As soon as he finished “Lay Lady Lay” he withdrew from the spotlight, retired to the rear of the stage near a hat rack, and played inconspicuous back-up guitar for several numbers by the Band.

After a while it began to look like Dylan had decided to do the rest of the concert as if he were just one of the boys in the Band. Having been promised so much by the first two numbers, the audience began to act a little restless, peering into the shadows to see if Dylan had disappeared. He was wearing black, and was hard to see back there. Scattered calls of “Where’s Bob?” could be heard.

Then something very nice hap­pened. The Band chose this moment to sing “Stage Fright.”

It’s a song about the fear “deep in the heart of a lonely kid/who suf­fered so much for what he did”; about how ever since the kid won “fortune and fame/Since that day he ain’t been the same.”

When they reach the refrain The Band seems to lean in and sing in the direction of the hat tree, where Dylan appeared to be hiding out:

Now see the man with the stage­ fright
Just standin up there to give it all his might
Now he got caught in the spotlight
(©Copyright Canaan Music)

The whole thing might have been ­staged for all I know, but I thought it was wonderful and whatever it was, it worked. Dylan steps back out front and center and starts singing again. And the song is “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

If it ain’t him, who is it? It ain’t shy little Bobby Zimmerman who’ stepped out of the mobile home this afternoon. It ain’t even the frightened tough guy Bob Dylan who wrote “It Ain’t Me Babe” when he was 23. It ain’t the “Win­terlude” dude of his most recent “Self Portrait” either. No it’s all of these rolled up into one 32-year-old guy who finally seems to know enough about who he is to play with who he was. After all, he was so much younger then, he’s older than that now. )

At this point the music starts to get very good and the whole evening begins to take off. Having warned us not to demand too much of him, Dylan proceeds to give us more than enough.

He does a short crackling version of “All Along the Watchtower” that’s meaner and rougher than the harmonic whine version on the “John Wesley Harding” album, but retains enough restraint to distinguish it from the thunder­storm abandon of the electric “Watchtower” Jimi Hendrix did before he died.

Then Dylan strides over to the electric piano and does a breathtaking version of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the most wrathful melodramatic version I’ve ever heard. He seems to be reveling in the sheer malevolence of the song, piling snarl upon sneer into every­ curl of a line, looking like the Phantom of the Opera standing hunched over the piano pawing at the keys, overdoing it just enough to let you know he’s fooling around a little too, so that despite the anti-audience, anti-reporter, anti-per­former viciousness (“You hand in your ticket/And you go watch the geek…”) it’s impossible not to love him for the sound of it alone.

Intermission time. The lights are up and I’m standing in the aisle talking to a magazine reporter. She says there’s something wrong with the audience, but she can’t figure out what. She says they don’t seem to be responding very passionately to Dylan, at least they aren’t making much noise.

I argue that what’s happening is that the audience is so passionate about Dylan they don’t want to let it show and scare him off the stage for another seven years. The audience is being tender and protective, not unresponsive. He’s warning them to keep certain distance and they’re responding with a kind of impassioned restraint. No need for yelling and wailing and wallowing when something like “Ballad of a Thin Man” stuns you into entranced silence.

She’s not convinced. She thinks the audience has outgrown Dylan or Dylan has outgrown the audien­ce.

Dylan must have visited the TUNING ROOM during intermis­sion: Or maybe an orgone box. He’s taken off his black sweater and put on a snow-white jacket. He looks a little like the ghostly Dylan who appeared in white at the Isle of Wight Festival back in 1969.

But he looks incandescent, rather than pale tonight. He appears to radiate that Reichian “light about the body.”

He starts heading backward in time, doing “The Times They Are a Changing,” then an astonishing “Song to Woody” from his very first album (” ’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a comin’ along/It looks like it’s dyin’ but it’s hardly been born”) and “It’s All Right Ma” ‘(“He not busy bein’ born is busy dyin’ ”) from “Bringin’ It All Back Home.”

If you remember “It’s All Right Ma” from that 1965 album you’ll recall how Dylan barely had con­trol over the torturous path of the overwrought lyrics. I used to hate the song, think it was the worst he wrote. But tonight he has so much control over it, he does it with such rolling, declamatory authority that even the most awkward and pretentious lyrics seem suddenly graceful.

A reporter for the Manchester Guardian has been sitting next to me and we have been sharing dope and scotch throughout the concert. After “It’s All Right Ma” the Guard­ian man slaps his pen down on his note pad and says, “Uh, he is so fucking superb, I can’t write another bloody thing.”

Everything is falling into place now. It all seems so well timed. First the black-garbed, half-seduc­tive half-paranoid opening, acting out his ages and playing with them. Then the white-garbed trip back to his “Ma” and his ghostly Pa (Woody). And finally the new love songs.

He sang three of them, and the last one, I was sure, was the mysterious Song With No Name Adam told me Dylan had sung for Sarah last summer; the song has a name now. It’s called “Something There Is About You” and it’s the best love song Dylan’s written, I think, since “I’ll Keep It With Mine.”

Most of the other new stuff is a little too restrained and mature for my taste now. Maybe five years from now when I’m 32 I’ll like “Forever Young.” Ask me then. I like “Something There Is About You” right now. I don’t know much about maturity but I know what I like.

***

It almost ended perfectly. For his second encore Dylan put his black sweater back on, came back, and did what everyone had been waiting for him to do all evening. He did “Like a Rolling Stone.”

He didn’t do it as well as he’d done “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but he did it and that’s what counted.

When he finished all that restraint was abandoned. The place went wild.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a louder noise,” said the man from the Manchester Guardian.

A totally satisfying climax to the evening. Nothing could top it. Dylan and the Band walked off stage. They should have been al­lowed to call it a night and leave in peace.

But then something spoiled it. That impassioned ovation for “Like a Rolling Stone” began to turn into a demand for another encore. Instead of being allowed to die a natural death it swelled into more foot stomping, more match burning, more compulsive clap­ping — a lot more.

Finally some spotlights came on again. Dylan and the Band walked back on stage. Slowly, this time.

We had put them in a position where they couldn’t refuse — they couldn’t afford to appear ungenerous on the first night of the tour. And yet we were supposed to have grown old enough to know when we’d had enough and when they’d had enough. We didn’t.

They did. They acted slightly sul­len, I thought, as they prepared for their final number. Dylan had trouble strapping his electric guitar back on. And the farewell song they played turned out to be an ill-tempered, discordant, mean-­spirited version of a fairly obscure song from “Blonde on Blonde.”

It’s called “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine.”

“I can’t do what I done before,” Dylan sings, but he knows that he will.

“It can’t be this way everywhere,” he pleads, but he knows that it is.

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