August 4, 2021

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11/13/02 Madison Square Garden, New York

It’s 1:20 AM, and I’m doing 80 on the Garden State Parkway and I got a hundred miles to go and it’s strange because I’m driving through all these towns where I used to live a long time ago, the towns where I first heard Bob Dylan, and followed him through all these changes from folk singer to rock and roller to some mysterious Catskill Mountain mystic and I’m wondering if any of those Bob Dylans was the guy I just saw at Madison Square Garden.  And I’m thinking that the guy who appeared on stage and launched into what was possibly the most rocking version ever of “Seeing The Real You At Last” with undeniable fire and maybe even vengeance could’ve been the guy I saw turn Forest Hills Tennis Stadium into a war zone, one chilly, windy night in August.  But that lasts until maybe the end of the first verse and I decide that the guy on stage is the kid who played the Hibbing High School piano so hard he reportedly broke a key, and the kid who brought a band in that was so loud, this quiet kid who probably sat scowling at his teachers in class, the weird kid in school, that the shut the power off.  And that kid was rocking hard tonight, wearing that crazy black and red suit that almost looks like bellhop or a doorman.  And just when you think he can’t rock any harder, he changes gears and is into a slow ballad, Van Morrison’s “Carrying A Torch” and it’s beautiful, and that kid who broke that piano key and blew out his high school talent show is gone and in his place paying tribute to another songwriter, from another land so far away, who traveled many of the same musical roads.  And then I have to turn around and give the look to the group of pea brains behind me who are talking about their best friend getting married or something, but back on stage, the guy in the black suit has switched gears again into “Tombstone Blues,” and he’s growling out the lines and the pea brains and still chattering about nothing that has to do with “Tombstone Blues” and it’s time to give them the I didn’t pay eighty dollars to hear you talk so you better shut the fuck up right now” which silences them for a truly wonderful, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and Larry Campbell is playing superb pedal steel, and the harmonies are perfect and they do the a cappella chorus and standing at the keyboard, he whips out his harp and blows this beautiful solo, the notes ringing clear, and the verse ends and you think he’s going to put it away, but he keeps going for another verse, and again you think he’s going to drop it, but he blows yet another verse and it is something.

And now I’m at the Union Tolls and right next to them is Rondo Music which has been there forever where some crazy reporter who knew the guy in the suit a long time ago, says he took the that guy to buy an electric guitar back before the world changed, but the guy on stage is snarling “I used to care, but things have channnnged,” but now he’s doing “Brown Sugar,” and it really doesn’t matter at all whether he does or doesn’t know the words or what the song may be about because he’s probably singing it because he always wanted to and he has the right band to play it and he’s having fun, and then he slows down again for “Forever Young,” and it’s nice, but it will probably never be as spooky as when he first sang it in ’74 before the album came out or maybe it’s just a set up for the Chicago blues song known as “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and it is a blues song and it always was a blues song, but things have changed, but the words are same, and he’s not just singing, he’s delivering each line like he wrote it yesterday instead of almost 40 years ago and I think back to some friend of mine saying a long time ago in some Morningside Heights apartment how these songs “were his blues,” and the “even the President of the United States must stand naked” line comes and the arena erupts.  And now the singer has an acoustic guitar around his neck, and he’s into “One Too Many Mornings” and after the second verse, he starts playing this almost wacky, bluesy guitar solo, but now he’s toying around with the melody, and it’s almost like he’s stabbing the strings with his flat pick, but now it’s 30 years forward and “Cold Iron Bound,” a song that once was a blues and kind of still is but it’s also something else and he’s stretching out the last word so it’s cold iron boouuuuuuuuuuuund and then it’s back 20 years but not really into “Shelter From The Storm” and what didn’t really work two nights ago is working now and he’s barely done the repeat of “shelter from the storrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm” and the harmonies are still ringing and he’s into the next verse.

Photo of Bob Dylan, November 13, 2002 courtesy of Andrea Orlandi. © Andrea Orlandi.

And then as he sometimes does, though not too often, though it seems to happen in this town, he starts talking, and he says something like, “I was talking to my buddy Al Gore and we got interrupted by this talk show host, there’s so many of ’em” and I realize that what he is saying is the exact opposite of what that talk show host said on his show the night before, and then he’s into “Old Man” and then back to the piano for “Honest With Me,” and then back to the guitar and right away I know it’s “Times They Are A-Changin’” but he’s playing something on the guitar at the beginning that sounds like a slowed down Irish fiddle tune, but more than that, he’s really singing it, again stretching out the last word so it’s chaaaaaaaaaangiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin’ and when he gets to the last verse he puts that special emphasis, and there’s no one better at special emphasis than this guy on “The first one now will later be last” and I realize that he’s still singing the news and this is followed with even more news on “High Water” and tonight the arrangement doesn’t matter, it’s the singing and the words that count, especially those last lines, “it’s bad out there,” “it’s rough out there.”

And by this time I’m long past the Garden State Parkway and even past the Trenton 30 miles sign which means I only have maybe an hour to go and this is the part where the exits come flying by one after the other and the guy on stage is singing “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” so gently, so soulfully, this sad song from a lost album hardly anyone paid attention to by a great songwriter and exit 7 flies by and now he’s singing about “all them rebel rivers” and “tobacco leaves” and strange people from some other place or maybe they’re not and the line “if you ever interfere with me or cross my path again, you do so at the peril of your life” seems to ring out over all the other lines (and I’m thinking how much I want to say exactly that to the chatterers behind me who started chattering big time again while cheering loudly at the end of all the songs they didn’t pay any attention to) and now it’s swing time everybody because those “Summer Days and Summer Nights are gone” and at times it’s almost like some huge band is on stage and the guitars go on the prowl faster and faster trading the licks back and forth and you think it’s never gonna end and then they’re done, and they’re all standing there in a line and then they’re gone and then they return and it’s news time again with “Blowin’ In The Wind” and the special emphasis is saved for “too many people have died” and then into Egypt land with the Exodus into “Watchtower”  and there’s a reason why he ends it now with “None of them along the line know what any of it is worth” and they’re gone, but the house lights don’t come up and most of the cheering crowd isn’t moving.  And all through this show I’ve been wondering is this just another show, or does this guy this master magician have something up his sleeve.

And by this time I’m lookin’ for this weird thing that looks like a battleship that the Navy stuck into some South Jersey cornfield because it means I’m almost home and lo and behold they’re back on stage and he’s talking again, this time about “his buddy George Harrison” and saying something about how he won’t be able to make the tribute so he’s going to do this song for George, and for the second time in a week it is I can’t believe this time because he is doing “Something,” (probably Harrison’s greatest song) and he is really doing it, singing clear, singing strong, singing with love and it’s enough to make you break down in tears right there, one of those once in a lifetime moments that cannot be repeated and you know you’re never going to hear it that way again.

And they stood in line again, except this time the singer’s head is bowed and then they were gone.

And then there was nothing to do but stand there and applaud, and then just stand there soaking up as much of the moment as possible, following the advice the singer once gave, “Take care of your memories for you shall not relive them.”

It’s 2:30 AM, I pay my toll and turn right towards the western skies.