On November 19th 1961, Bob Dylan was probably sitting at a table in his apartment, guitar on his knee, pen in hand deciding what songs he was going to sing at his very first recording session the next day. Forty years later he returned to what really is his hometown to conquer a sold out Madison Square Garden. Bob Zimmerman may have grown up in Hibbing Minnesota, and maybe Bob Dylan was born there or in Minneapolis, but Bob Dylan grew up in New York City. It’s the place he left his home for, the place where there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air, the place where his head was split open wide, and has been for more than 40 years the place he returns to for inspiration. It’s where he “made it,” where his first fans were, and for all his claims of not remembering, New York City is one thing Bob Dylan has not forgotten.
And so he returned in this scariest of times when there is a new fear every day, to this city that is like no other place in the world, to this city that has been wounded and forever changed, to this city that is trying its best to survive and heal, but will not forget what is missing from its skyline.
Riding into the city last night and standing outside the Garden on 8th Avenue, I couldn’t help but steal a few very quick furtive glances south. The cloud of smoke seemed lost in the haze of city lights, but I knew the fires were still burning.
Inside the Garden, you had to open your coat and spread your arms while some guy ran an electric wand over you and told you what you had in your pockets. This is the way it is now to see a music concert. You didn’t like it, but you moved on. Our seats were right at the stage, close enough to read the addresses painted on the anvil guitar cases, close enough to ask the guitar tech about those new black and white Martins, and it took a long time for the house to fill up, for all those thousands of people to be wanded.
And some time after 8 pm, long after the scheduled show time, the band in matching dark gray suits took the stage, followed by Dylan in what at first looked like a light gray suit, then a white suit, then a pink suit, and tore into “Wait For The Light To Shine,” and the ghost of Hank Williams hovered around that man in the gray pink suit, and the ghost of Bill Monroe and the music he invented flew out of Larry Campbell’s mandolin and you could almost see ancient funky tour busses on the midnight highways next to all them rebel rivers and a lonesome Cadillac on their way to Ohio and all that music that came out of somewhere from the South to the North and back again and it was about the music. But it wasn’t. Because this singer, whether he admits it or not, always has a message to deliver, and on this night, “Keep lookin’ for a sign,” came out of that craggy, but still strong voice that has seen too many cigarettes, that has traveled to too many joints, that has lived the profound truth that exploded, and on every chorus, every time it came around, that voice that somehow knows every mile of every road its walked down made sure that was the line you noticed, “Keep lookin’ for a sign.”
And then it was time for the trip backwards and forwards. “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a song performed on almost every tour, a song that’s been performed innumerable ways, the ultimate I’m not what you think I am or think you want song, a song defiant, angry, mocking, sad, tender, that’s been rocked and socked, and crooned and shouted, and tonight it was handled with care, almost caressed, and then he stepped back towards the top of his tan Fender Bassman, where the harmonicas lay, and as someone once wrote about Bob Dylan’s very first performance at Madison Square Garden, it’s not Bob Dylan till the harp comes out, and as he picked up the harp, he noticed, realized there were all these people sitting behind him and he put to the harp to microphone and blew those first notes right at them and the hundreds of people sitting there knew he was doing it for them, and this is where the singer turns into magician and master performer and he turned back to face the main crowd, with that crazy almost funny way he was of moving forward, knees bent, the notes ringing clear danced around the melody, up and down like a clown on the circus sands, twisting and turning, to a magnificent conclusion.
And then it was time for the masterpiece, the song like no other that came before, the song that held all the songs he didn’t think he’d have time to write, the song that announced there’s a new Poet in town, a song that was terrifying then and perhaps more terrifying now, and even though he’s been singing it at other stops on this tour and has been singing it across the world and back for four decades, you knew he had to sing it tonight in the city that’s been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And then it was back to a different graveyard, another time, another place, where bluegrass harmonies came through on ancient wooden radios that looked like Cathedrals on a parlor table on a Sunday afternoon, the words of a drunken cowboy poet who would sell his songs for another shot of whiskey, that had been all but forgotten till Bob Dylan started singing his songs again. This song about another war, from another place, but maybe it’s the same war. Maybe it’s all the same war.
And suddenly we’re back in the present, but maybe not. One time a King spoke in a most meaningful way, “Mr. Dylan has come out with a new record. This record of course features none but his own songs… ” And the tribal almost voodoo beat of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” began making its spooky voyage to the sun, the guitars echoing songs from long ago, recorded in midnight studios a few blocks away, when the words came in chains of flashing images, like they do on this song recorded in a studio probably a few blocks away where the words came again all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem, from somewhere down a rabbit hole to a brick and tile company, trusting their fate in police permits and the hand of God.
And now we’re back inside the rain of “Just Like A Woman,” and I think of how I heard Bob Dylan from a few feet a way tell a reporter in a hotel ballroom a few blocks north how this was his favorite song, and that even though it was recorded in Nashville the music was sort of from that other Tennessee city to the west, but the rain, the fog, the amphetamine the pearls and Queen Mary couldn’t have been anywhere else but Manhattan, and then I notice that he’s answering each line with little licks on that custom-made cream-colored Fender Strat, and there are no throw-away guitar licks, and guitar tone is just right and he doesn’t stop and it keeps building and then he’s doing that backwards sort of dance and turns around to get the harp and again the crowd behind him goes nuts and again the first few notes for them and he turns around and crouching down he just goes crazy, the Isis harp dance, 30 years later and crowd is going nuts and he knows exactly what he’s doing, and then the intro to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and you know why he’s singing it and it’s a special gift and everyone who realizes is just waiting for that one line. And I think back to the time I first heard it, the first time it was performed on a freezing August night in a tennis stadium somewhere off the E train as a cold wind blew and cops chased teenage boys in and around the musicians on stage who never stopped playing and how that was the song that night that really hit me and then the line came and you had to cheer, but it’s time for more blues. “Lonesome Day Blues,” that starts off so simply you think it’s gonna be nothing except it’s the way he sings it. It’s always the way he sings that really makes a song matters, and the verses keep coming and suddenly it’s “My captain he’s decorated, he’s well-schooled and he’s SKI-ILLED, and there’s no mistaking the snarling sarcasm, the total menace in his voice and suddenly the man on stage is filled with the spirit of every blues singer that journeyed on Highway 61, got cut in bar fights and sang on street corners. And then it’s deeper into the blues, the song for the blues man who might’ve been the scariest of them all, Charlie Patton, “High Water,” but it’s not only the blues, there’s that banjo in there and maybe half a dozen other old mountain tunes, and maybe it’s about a flood, but then maybe it’s the just a flood, because the words ring out a warning, and maybe in a sense this is the ultimate American roots song but again this is a singer who always brought the news: “Things are breakin’ up out there.”
Then Larry’s fingerpicking takes us back to another time, an album cover of snowy streets, when a chain store or a MacDonald’s in that part of New York was unimaginable, before the Disneyization of America, and I thought of another time, another concert, my first time seeing him in New York City, in a then pretty new concert hall, where no folksinger had played before, and how he shouted this song as loudly as he could into the mic, and brought that very shiny Nick Lucas Gibson right up to the mic between the verses and it was funny and great and new, and then let loose with a harmonica solo that chugged like a train and could only be described as crazy and now for the third time he’s going back for the harp as I hoped he would but didn’t at shows the week before and picked up that harp and let loose a solo that went all the way back to that chilly October night, that last solo New York concert where people felt free enough to shout out requests and he’d actually answer them and there was no doubt in my mind that that harp solo was his little gift to New York, but then we’re standing on the highway with that kid on his way, with dreams and tales of carnivals he’d been to only his mind and blues singers he never played with, but someday would, and he’s in high gear, a raging Mustang Ford, and the delivery is staccato syncopated charging against the rhythm, and suddenly we’re on a battlefield alone, the soldier who didn’t know what he was getting into, the mother in for the wrong surprise, the hall is hushed and it’s all about the words and there’s no doubting what this song is about.
Then just as the mother is leaving the station with the medals in her hand, the scene shifts entirely and we’re into a super-charged “Summer Days” except the summer days are gone. And as he has been all night, Dylan is really singing, nailing each song and the nails are going down hit hard by the three guitar assault and all is quiet for “Sugar Baby,” done slowly, carefully, eloquently, and just as you’re recovering, wham, into a more than hard rocking “Drifter’s Escape,” and in the middle out of nowhere comes this very funky guitar solo that takes the song even higher, and it’s not noodling and it’s not searching, it’s just going and going and it’s not Charlie Sexton and it’s not Larry Campbell, it’s Bob Dylan and he’s riding it for all it’s worth and he is absolutely determined to show everyone that yes he can take that Stratocaster and make it lift up its glass and sing.
The familiar intro to “Rainy Day Women” lets you know the show’s almost over and you don’t want it to be over and the band seems to be jamming on this one more than they did in DC and Philly and it’s time for the band introductions, and just like on every other show on this tour, Dylan starts, “Ladies and Gentleman, I wanna introduce my band, the best band in the land,” and then he paused for just a second and he said, “Most of the songs we’re playin’ tonight were written here and those that weren’t were recorded here. So no one has to ask me how I feel about this town.” And then he went on to introduce David Kemper as the only drummer who’s better than no drummer at all. Make no mistake, it was a highly emotional moment.
On the way off the stage, Dylan paused for the people in the back, reached up started shaking hands and autographed a CD or two.
The encores were just icing on a very rich cake. “Rolling Stone” was notable for the way he sang “everything everything everything he can steal,” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Forever Young” were packed with emotion and, “Thing Have Changed,” “Watchtower” and “Honest With Me” all rocked hard. Donning a black hat as he left the stage, he again stopped to give autographs and acknowledge the people who watched the show from the rear.
Bob Dylan came home last night, and while the set list might look very much like every other set list on this tour, in everything he did, every word he sang, every little gesture, let the audience know how much New York means to him.