Friday November 13th, The Wang Theater, Boston
This is not intended as a timely review of Bob Dylan’s show at Boston’s Wang Theater on Friday, November 13th 2009.
It’s not a review because I didn’t write it up the next day (for reasons that will become clear) and in all honesty I had no business being at a concert on that Friday night, but then, I knew that things were so dodgy with me physically that there was this certainty: I would either be taken out of the concert by ambulance or I would be in the hospital next day anyway, so it really seemed to me not that much of a difference. Either way I was going to be in the hospital for some emergency. You make choices when you are walking the razor’s edge. You can sit and wait for the ambulance or you can do what I did which is to get in the car and say the hell with it, I have tickets for Dylan tonight and no matter how much pain I am in, no matter how ill-advised this may be, against doctors’ orders and so on, I can be sick as hell in bed or I can be the same way at a Dylan concert and at least be entertained.
Some would argue that if you can make it to the concert you can’t be that sick. They are wrong. It’s just that simple. I was that sick. I think pain has a way of magnifying and intensifying life’s experiences. Perhaps that is part of what made this night so unforgettable. That and the fact that on this night, Dylan was so very right on.
I arrive in Boston after a shaky, snaking, and cautious slow drive along the winding, rocky coast road that leads from Salem and Marblehead through Swampscott by the beach where the waves crash up and over the rocks in great spumes and the rain blurs my windshield. It is not a night to be out unless you really have to be somewhere, and it’s certainly not recommended to be out at all if you are in my shape, but like I said, at a certain point it becomes a moot point. I’ve been living between Moot Point and Wit’s End.
It’s as if someone were to tell you that you had only six months to live. You could opt for some flimsy promise of chemo that maybe would buy you a few more months, or, you could take a more radical approach and get out of bed and have simple palliative care only and get out there and live, I mean really live like you never have before because death has never been so close. Trust me on this. Or maybe you know this because you too have been to this place, but when you are told your time is not timeless and you have to look life in the face it’s a bit like the way they used to announce Dylan at Newport, “The person who is about to come on stage has a limited amount of time…” When that person is you, you would be surprised at the things you choose to do and not do.
No, I don’t know if I have six months or more to live. I reckon I probably have many more than that, but I do know now and I certainly knew then that I was acutely ill as in emergency room status, I just could not be bothered with the red flare of the emergency.
Well, tears-in-a-bucket, as we say in the UK. I’m gonna see this Dylan show because I had tickets to see him last August and stupidly didn’t go because I was booked to lecture about him instead. Me pontificating some bullshit about Dylan when I could have actually gone and experienced Dylan, so what did I choose and would I make the same choice again? I would not make the same choice again, and I hesitated at the time, but I did what I did. The Lord works in mysterious ways: lecture gets canceled at the last minute so that is off but since I am booked to go to New York I now have a trip booked and have sold the very excellent tickets to the show. Gone Daddy Gone. I shouldna been such a violent femme.
You have to wonder, (because I do), what the hell was I thinking (read: not thinking) to make the decision to lecture about Bob Dylan (as if I am any authority in the first place, and in the second, as if anyone other than Dylan himself is really an authority on Bob Dylan). Who makes that decision when they have tickets to the real deal. Why listen to me when you can listen to Dylan. The real thing to have done would be to have taken everyone in that class to the show because that is the only way to know Dylan if there is any “knowing” of Dylan and I do not think there is. I think there is really only your or my emotional response to this or that song, to Dylan, and that is it and that is our understanding and shading of Dylan – our experience of Dylan is uniquely individual. We all have our separate emotional yardstick, likewise so does Dylan. Sometimes they jibe, but for the most part, it’s all about code and dialect. If we are lucky, sometimes we find a shared language where we meet, a confluence.
I’ve seen Dylan several times now at what has fast become my favorite Dylan venue – the baseball stadium tours and once near Northampton, Massachusetts at The Pines Theater, an outdoor theater with a sloping lawn and set up stage which was good but I still prefer the small baseball stadiums. Those end of August days that trail off into the Indian summer and that Dylan eases us into with a gentle croon and a harmonica train-whistle blow.
Dylan’s end of summer tours harbinger a more mellow autumn and this takes a bit of the bite out of winter, the same way the song “Winterlude” does for me because it makes me feel warm and brings to mind visions of picture windows and gently falling snow and roaring fireplaces: a warm snow-globe home. I am no-one’s “little apple”. I would be someone’s darling-dear if all were alright and right. Perhaps. Ask me come winterlude. Not now.
This winterlude as I pull my car into the parking lot nearby the Wang Theater, “Wigwam” is playing through the speakers: a little tango to turn the wheel of my Mini. I drive as if I were dancing a tango written by Carlos Gardel: hip-twist to “Por Una Cabeza”, a song that has the same four-by-four beat as Dylan’s “Wigwam”, both with the hesitation step and both coy songs of seduction. My friend says, “A hesitation waltz.” Yes, a hesitation, for the bride’s hesitation step. Have you ever heard Dylan’s .52 second “Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues”. “A foreign song I learned in Utah,” he says cheekily, then performs a down home version, punctuated with an all-out Dylan yodel-aay-hee-whoo.
This is to be a night of contrasts. Perhaps this is what happens when you are sick. It is easier to sort out what is important and what is not important. It is not that anything is black and white, never that. It is more that the shading becomes clearer or some things are brighter, lighter. This happens when there is an absolute need to filter because your brain is like a power plant. Too much and it will go on overload with too much wattage and spark bright electric epileptic blue.
On this night of stark contrasts I am the farthest thing from a bride. If I am anything, I am a widower. I am grieving love and I am wrapped in blackest grief, yet the radio still blares the Dylan could-be wedding waltz. But me, I, I am dressed in black and I am ill and I look love sick. But I’m in the thick of it. And yes, “I’m so sick of it.”
I have to filter. I have to simplify. I have to break it down which means to do the math: life’s perfect calculus. I love the science of our world; the beauty and simplicity of the natural order of things. How fabulous is it that the Fibonacci sequence repeats with such exacting precision again and again: synergy and synchronicity.
The Wang Theater is situated in Boston’s old theater district. It’s an odd and old sort of palace right near the corner on Tremont. It has that dilapidated elegance that you see in old Roxy Music videos and that Palladium in NYC had in the mid to late eighties. You remember the sort of clip; like the music video for the song “Avalon” with his then wife (?) or girlfriend anyway with the long, blonde hair - Jerry Hall - who was eventually married to Mick Jagger for a while.
The walls of the theater are dark and detailed with lots of deftly carved marble, all smooth and sinuous: grapes dripping into the mouths of semi-nude men and women who look vaguely as Greek gods and goddesses and who lock limbs in reaching arches above l doorways and pillars. Their legs intertwine, they support each other; they sway. It’s all very old baroque and sweeping romance. You almost expect Bryan Ferry to emerge from one of the upper balconies out from behind a red-velvet curtain. He’d coolly sweep his dark hair off his forehead in that “Slave to Love” way he seems to constantly exude.
There are swirled carved ribbons are crafted and carved into delicate bows, carved urns and the like everywhere as a decorative motif. The stage curtains are heavy draped crimson, a real theater dark scarlet for the curtain pull, all heavy velvet drama. When the curtains do pull we – the preview: the instruments waiting impatiently for their players and a long view of the Dylan Chagall-blue stage light that bathes the entire stage floor and space around it - a rich watercolor wash of cobalt-indigo blue. You drift in this blue and the familiar smell of incense that is familiar only from every other Dylan concert I have been to and once, and one time only, I smelled the same distinct smell coming from a house at the end of my block. But that was once and once only.
It’s difficult to see properly from the seats we have which are toward the back right of the theater. More, people are talking too much even when Dylan sings, which makes me wonder why they bothered coming at all. If they really want to talk about Aunt Ruth’s pleurisy couldn’t this have been done at home or at least, in the car on the way home after the concert and not in the middle of “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, but then, maybe that’s absolutely the appropriate song so Kismet, baby.
Regardless, nothing changes the impact of Dylan appearing on stage and the rush this brings because he looks good and ready steady go. He opens with “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”. Speaking of hats, I like the hat he has on tonight. It’s still a cowboy hat but more of a gaucho hat. He looks younger than when I last saw him about a year ago at the MGM Grand. His hair is cut but still long enough that it curls soft and darkly from underneath his hat and up his shirt collar. His black trousers have smart piping down the side. Dylan the cowboy, always the outlaw, but the outlaw who is on your side: unless you’re dishonest because to live outside the law you must be honest. You know this. He told you this.
Don’t say you have not been warned.
The set-list this night was unexpected and fresh. I had written an article a year or so ago for Dylan.com that was featured requesting some songs that Dylan hadn’t played (it seemed to me) in ages. It’s good to hear him play some of the songs from the list like “Lay, Lady, Lay”. A striking version of “Girl From The North Country” . One hates to say sincere, as if any other version were more or less sincere, yet on this night it seems to me there is more resonance. In the documentary “No Direction Home” Dylan says of his old girlfriend from Hibbing, Echo, that she brought ought the romantic in him. Someone is bringing out the romantic in Dylan these days as evidenced by Together Through Life - an album with such a terrific sense of forward motion and optimism.
Dylan plays “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” ” He sings, “I feel a change comin’ on, and the and the fourth part of the day's already gone.” I always thought he said “first” part of the day, but according to bobdylan.com he says “fourth”. He also doesn’t say “You are as Horus as ever,” which is what I would swear I had seen before on the site lyrics and that I hear, but the site lyrics read, “You are as whorish as ever.” Go figure. “Whorish” would not win over my heart, but then Dylan’s not trying to win over my heart. If someone told me I looked as “whorish” as ever, I’d say “Buggar off”. If someone said I looked as “Horus as ever” I’d know exactly what that meant and it would be a “good” thing. Horus the sun king, Ra, son of Isis and Osiris represented by the giant eye of Horus, of Eye of Ra. Apparently, however, this is not the word he used. So any talk here of Horus or the giant eye of Ra (another name for Horus) and how it so very much looks like Dylan’s giant concert banner, which I’ve said before. But no, the word according to the site is “whorish” as of April 2010.
Whatever. There’s a great harmonica riff in this number, and I’m partial I will say, to Dylan on the harmonica. I like it, unlike the opinionated lanky youth in the documentary “Eat The Document” who calls the harmonica Dylan’s, “Wretched mouth-organ.” He just can’t “stick it”, he tells us.
What I really want to tell you about is one song because it was the one song that stood out from all others, which is saying a lot since it was a helluva show. So, that said, take it as a given that the other songs were all incredible and I could wax on about each and tell you why and how each was in its way different from x, y, or z time and debate various merits and such because Dylan was really on this night and the play between Dylan and the band was just magnetic and magic, but there is still this one song that shimmers white-light white-heat and that is “Workingman’s Blues, #2”.
Dylan stood center stage, single spotlight lit. A single beam of white light that formed a cone that ended in a circle that encapsulated Dylan. Everything behind him was dark, a black velvet forest. It was Dylan and me and that was it. That’s how it felt. We could have been sitting by a campfire perhaps. It felt as if we were somewhere other than where we were. The auditorium of the Wang, the great theater seemed empty for this time of all people except for me and for Dylan. I felt I was sitting listening him, like a carnival barker; a side of the road entertainer in the old west telling folk and cowboy tales and now telling me a story. As he sung, really crooned is the perfect word as my friend Phil says, Dylan used his hands to illustrate the words to convey. He puts his back into it. He puts his body into it.
“Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues.”
There was everything intensely personal about this moment. All that mattered was what Dylan was saying. He stood front and center of the stage and testified: “Come sit down on my knee / You are dearer to me than myself / As you yourself can see.”
I could hear the “night-bird’s call”. I could almost feel a lover’s breath in the dark. But I knew and I know well enough I need my boots and shoes. I know, you know too all about the workingman’s blues. Beck said it well with his song “The Fucked-Up Blues”, albeit a different spin; “I got the fucked up blues…” but then all blues speak to some or other screwed-upness, some thing that is out of sorts, that’s what the blues are about. Dylan though, he spells it out in a way that brings me to my knees because he gives word and voice to pain for which I am otherwise at a loss. I do not know how to express this things: I feel them through Dylan.
I can see for myself that the sun is sinking, how I wish you were here to see. Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking that you have forgotten me…” There is not a wasted line: Dylan’s economy of language. What he did that Friday the 13th was hand deliver a letter. I heard and I watched and I felt only one tunnel of connection and it was a tight one - between me and Dylan. I didn’t see or hear anyone else. Strange how so many people, a packed house, they ceased to exist. Guess I really have, and had then, the “workingman’s blues”.
Why bother with this story, it’s not a review of the concert. Take it as an offering: a sharing of some magnified moment. Magnificat. Life hinges at certain times. It happens incrementally, so slowly, you do not realize it at first. This was one such time. Dylan was right at that hinge, just as the hospital was at the other end of the line the next morning. Dylan could hear my night-bird call alright, and in the morning I awoke to the mourning dove’s coo and the red flare of emergency.
Thanks for listening,
1 Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2 Girl Of The North Country
3 Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
4 Just Like A Woman
5 High Water (For Charley Patton)
6 I Feel A Change Comin' On
7 Cold Irons Bound
8 Spirit On The Water
9 Honest With Me
10 Workingman's Blues #2
11 Highway 61 Revisited
12 Ain't Talkin'
13 Thunder On The Mountain
14 Ballad Of A Thin Man