On October 17, 1981, Bob Dylan played his first concert at what was then known as the Brendan Byrne Arena which was close to brand new at the time which the out-going governor of New Jersey in an act that appalled and nauseated just about everybody named after himself. No one called it the Byrne Arena and now at the end of the 20th Century where everything is named after a corporation, it is the Continental Airlines Arena (I believe its second corporate name) which is only slightly better than the Pepsi Arena or the National Car Rental Center which doesn’t even sound like an arena but a parking lot. I am convinced that in the next century we will soon see cities and third world countries taking on corporate monikers as well and soon the only way anyone will know where they are is by what zip-code or area code which will probably be corporate as well. Either way, that particular arena will always be the Meadowlands to me.
The huge Meadowlands sports complex is built on a murky swampy bit of Jersey desolation, a sort of non-place rising out of nothing a bit North of the Mordor flames beneath the Pulaski skyway between Newark and Jersey City and between the more or less upscale North Jersey suburbs on the road that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel. The whole area has long been rumored to be a Mafia burial ground and some people insist that Jimmy Hoffa is part of the Meadowland’s foundation.
Bob Dylan’s 1981 concert at the Meadowlands was a monumental occasion, and I still consider it and probably always will in the top five Bob Dylan concerts I’ve seen. A 28-song show that found him fully resurrecting his older songs after two years of doing exclusively “gospel” material. He had one of his greatest and most professional bands featuring the stellar rhythm team of Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner and for the fall leg of the tour, none other than Al Kooper himself on keyboards who was only too happy to revisit his original organ parts on “Like A Rolling Stone” and “I Want You.”
Dylan was animated and in great humor that October night. Starting to introduce the band he said, “I wanna say hello to Mr. & Mrs. Kooper out there tonight. This is uh, their son.” Kooper who was I believe wearing a football or hockey helmet acknowledged the applause. Dylan, wearing his famous Wayfarer shades the entire show had lots more to say: “I’ve never seen no place like this before,” as 20,000 people cracked up. “I went into the dressing room and my mirror was black.” “There’s a lot of famous people here tonight. I just want you to know that you may be sitting next to somebody (in his most classic Dylan inflection) famous.” “There’s a lot of people from Rolling Stone here tonight. After the show, they’re gonna come backstage and interview me, then I’m gonna interview them. And before “Gambling Man,” which the trio of back-up singers sang, “Isn’t there a gambling town around here somewhere? What’s the name of that place? Atlantic City?”
But of course it was the music that night that was the most important. Dylan was into singing real high on that tour (the previous June he was into singing real low). Sitting in the farthest corner of the highest balcony, literally a dot on a stage that seemed a mile away he’d cut right through you with an achingly beautiful “Girl From The North Country,” and putting such intensity into the bridge on “I Want You” that every nerve in your body reacted. A slowed-down, spooky solid-rock that could stir Blind Willie Johnson in his grave and a solo till the last verse when the bass and drums kicked in “Times They Are A-Changin’” that instead of being its original call to arms seemed to summon up everything that had happened in the almost two decades since he wrote it–the war, the assassinations, the hopes and dreams lost, capped by a harmonica solo as eerie and lonesome as he’s ever played.
And so I couldn’t help but think of that concert long ago as Seth Kulick and I hiked across the parking lot next to Giant Stadium going to what must be around our 30th show together at least. We were sitting in different places but not far apart. Seth with his brother and I was with longtime RMD contributor Arnie and his wife whom we just visited. Arnie’s been listening to Bob just about as long as I have and he grew up in New York and I grew up outside of New York, and through e-mail we’ve discovered a shared history of listening not only to Dylan, but listening to same late-night radio shows and the same concerts and being in the same room at the same time and here we were after all this time attending a Dylan show together and I kind of felt like I’d known him all my life.
And again we were sitting in the back of the hall directly opposite the stage though not in the highest balcony pretty much surrounded by morons who talked through Phil Lesh and who talked through Dylan and I couldn’t figure out why they spent the thirty bucks plus for tickets not to mention another ten to park to go to a show they evidently had no interest in whatsoever since they weren’t listening and were barely watching and were talking about everything but the music. I just don’t get it, considering there were probably plenty of people who would have done anything to get a ticket to this show.
Bob Dylan’s second appearance at the Meadowlands seemed to be a summation of this tour where he has pretty much consistently surprised and delighted his fans by pulling out all kinds of songs, not just once a night but several. It could be called the “Anything Can Happen” tour or more accurately the “Holy Shit!” tour because judging by the net that seems to be most people’s reactions upon seeing the setlists. And so at this show at a place that is fairly centrally located on the East Coast that say people in Washington or in Philly or in New England would not think twice about going to, not to mention all the people in Jersey and New York, at the largest venue on the tour, he really did seem to have his fans in mind. And once again I wondered as have others during this tour particularly is someone keeping an eye on what’s going on on RMD? Because, at this concert he seemed to be saying, you heard about “Hoochie Coochie Man?” Here it is. You heard about “Song to Woody” and “Ring Them Bells?” Here it is. Of course I could be completely wrong about this and no one will ever know.
There is a difference to the acoustic set on this tour. Nothing is being casually thrown out there. Yes, he may forget lines–but I still prefer him messing up to using a teleprompter–he way skip verses (which he’s been doing for years), but he seems to be treating these songs as something to be cherished. The performances and understated and almost delicate. There is thought behind the singing and the arrangements and not just on Dylan’s part, but on the part of his excellent musicians, even on the songs where all three guitarists are doing little more than strumming. “Song To Woody” was so quietly and subtly performed that at first I felt this place is way too big for this to be appreciated. And I had to doubly concentrate having to block out the talkers around me.
There was a force and fire to “It’s Alright Ma,” which started out with just guitars, then the bass than the drums in the best ensemble arrangement I’ve seen of this song with the borrowed from “Wake Up Little Susie” riff of course being in emphasized, but not in the totally overblown way it was in ’78. I saw the very first live performance of this song in 1964 and it is one that I always want to hear, one that has great personal meaning for me and one that I consider one of Bob Dylan’s all-time greatest works. His own “Howl” set to music. He flubbed the lyrics (and laughed) at that first performance in New York City what seems both like centuries ago and yesterday, and he flubbed them last night and I didn’t care then and I didn’t care last night. Last night’s version, the version he did at Meadowlands in ’81 and that very first version were all great and all for different reasons. And the version last night was not the speedy let me get this over with as fast as possible version that I’ve seen at other shows.
And then the slow steel majestic intro to “Ring Them Bells,” started and I was happy, not only to hear it again, but happy that my friends Arnie and Seth and Dylan and Daniela could hear what I heard in Baltimore. “I’m in heaven,” Arnie said to me as it ended. And so into “Tangled,” but then another surprise, another acoustic song, “Visions of Johanna,” which worked much better than it did in the number three slot in Baltimore, where perhaps Dylan wasn’t quite warmed up enough to sing it quite the way he wanted to.
And then “Hoochie Coochie Man,” written by Willie Dixon, but as every Chicago blues fan knows, Muddy Waters’ signature song. And the band was tough with Charlie Sexton obviously into it and lovingly showing that he’s undoubtedly spent countless hours listening to and mastering the sound of who knows how many great Chicago blues guitarists and Dylan did Muddy proud, singing it straight, singing it true, lining out those images that stretch from the Delta all the way up Highway 61 to Chicago, that poetry of the blues, as musicologist Sam Charters once called it. The only thing that might’ve taken it higher was if Dylan had played the harp, and while the last thing I would every try to do is guess what goes on in Bob Dylan’s mind, maybe he just felt (he is a musician after all) that he could never do Little Walter justice (even though he came fairly close to getting the Little Walter sound in a few fleeting moments at the end of “Are You Ready.”
And then even deeper into the blues, all the way down to Georgia for “Blind Willie McTell,” one of his most remarkable songs. At once, a tribute to that remarkable blues singer, but at the same time a history of the South and a history of the world, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem indeed. And I thought of Seth a few sections away finally after two years of trying and missing seeing this song at last and next to me Arnie just couldn’t believe it was happening.
And then, even more blues. “Tombstone Blues,” with Sexton again stepping out, raw mean and nasty, Dylan’s own “Hootchie Cootchie Man” updated with John the Conqueroo updated becoming a dreamlike John the Baptist talking to the Commander-in Chief, where the delta has been replaced by the old folks home and the college. And hearing it, I remembered way back when Highway 61 Revisited was still pretty new and Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter were also on the turntable, listening to that song in some long lost NYC apartment and a friend of mine saying in reference to the Chicago guys, that stuff is great, but this (“Tombstone Blues”) that’s our blues.
From there it was into a shortened version of “Joey” a New York City song if ever there was one. No, not one of his greatest though one of his most controversial. Maybe he had the rumors of who’s supposed to be underneath the Meadowlands in mind. At one point he totally spaced on the lyrics. It didn’t matter. And yet another blues capped the night, a joyous rocking “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat.”
The encores were, well…. the encores. Phil Lesh came out for “Alabama Getaway,” (time to hit the bathroom) followed by “Rainy Day Women,” (I thought to myself two parking-lot songs in a row) and the last was the only song all night where the talkers finally shut up and yet they came back for “Blowin’” and “Not Fade Away.” And the houselights went down and stayed down for a long time and we wondered whether he would actually come back, but it was almost midnight and he’d played for two hours.
And so, did this match that previous time at the Meadowlands 18 years ago? It doesn’t matter. It’s another time and in a way another place. Will this show stay in my mind for almost two decades the way that concert did? I have no idea. I do know this much: Bob Dylan was being very generous to his fans last night.