Three pm—sharp—on the outbound platform, I told him. He appeared at the top of the stairs, sauntered toward me in his tortured-but-hip way. We boarded the subway and emerged down the line into intense, unseasonable heat. We walked up my street in the breathless sunshine, me talking excitedly, and hurrying him—unsuccessfully—along. When we pushed open the sticky door to my building, we sighed. Cooler air.
I, of course, had a list, and I zigzagged from bedroom to backpack on the kitchen table to bathroom, unable to use one trip to accomplish more than one task, like a crappy waitress. He poured himself a drink and reached behind my sofa for the Czech guitar I have on loan until he has space enough for two guitars again. Plus, I’m meant to be learning to play.
“Where’s the pick?”
“In the case, I guess.”
I can’t understand,
She let go of my hand
And left me here facing the wall.
I’d sure like to know
Why she did go,
But I can’t get close to her at all.
The chords died in midair as I was surveying the cereal boxes in the cupboard. He walked over and said, “Oh yeah. I forgot: you should definitely go in with this.”
I caressed the cover, excitement welling up, and turned back in search of road trip food.
“You walk in with that clutched to your chest, he might invite you back.”
I spun round. “He invites people back?”
His eyes danced with knowing, and power. He smirked. “Maybe.”
“Give it to me.” I shoved it in the backpack.
“Their car better have air conditioning.”
We drank syrupy Irish Mist from juice glasses, eager to leave behind the abbreviated workday. He picked up the guitar again, and, our voices warm and smooth, we sang Love Minus Zero/No Limit. We exchanged looks and snarled the favorite line Bankers’ nieces seek perfection / expecting all the gifts that wise men bring. As usual we forgot and grasped for The wind howls like a hammer. I listened to my soaring voice buoyed by his—we sang it slow, drawing out the phrases—and watched his fingers seize the strings, cherishing the moment. He usually played songs I didn’t know. Whatever I requested, I seemed to get the same answer: “I need a capo.” I kept meaning to get one.
I knew this evening—this trip—was my way of saying goodbye. I sang and watched and said my first of many silent goodbyes, sunk it down deep beneath the notes.
We were singing so loud that when our ride called we missed it. I finally glimpsed my friend roaming confusedly up my street. He slipped the guitar back in its case.
We watched the city disappear and the highway loom up from the backseat. He lamented the heat. I rhapsodized about the promise of a smallish outdoor venue, a summer’s evening, about the latest album. I came prepared as only a good student could, with the set lists from the three previous nights tucked into a folder that also contained printouts of the lyrics to Modern Times. I had been reading them while listening on the train in the morning. We put in the CD.
My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see
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?
When my brother Scott began his ten-year headstart on Dylan indoctrination, strumming his guitar in our Michigan basement, I was too busy with other things. One frigid morning Dylan issued forth from our minivan speakers en route to high school, and I—I cringe to even say this—I laughed. I laughed and laughed at the grotesque voice and its mockery of everything I thought made the art of singing beautiful.
Scott didn’t even argue. I went back to Billy Joel and Garth Brooks and piano lessons and only years later turned back to Dylan, after my college graduation. And then a few years after that I fell down a well, and in the journey out I became utterly entranced by Bob Dylan. I watched the films, read and re-read the Robert Shelton book, printed out and pondered the lyrics in tiny empty moments of my day, and, slowed and sensitized by emotional healing, lingered indulgently in the 60s and 70s.
Scott regarded me with only slight exasperation, as if to say What took you so long? and not Didn’t expect you here. He could trump my enthusiasm—even any burgeoning expertise—at every turn, what with his three concerts attended to my none, his ability to play all the songs, the biographies lined up in his bookcase. But he inhabited his fandom with characteristic restraint; maybe his long association had worn off some of the sheen.
I went headlong at mine with the exuberance of a new love affair. I think it embarrassed him a little, or he felt embarrassed for me. But I felt hope for me, so I kept listening, wide eyes following the words like a lantern’s beam down a wondrous road late into the night. Grateful.
A concert-going novice, I had a small run-in (another post) with the Internet pre-sale and ended up with four tickets, the more treasured two in the seventh row. I considered the matter at length and concluded I really wanted to go with none other than Scott. I gave the remaining tickets to a friend and her roommate in exchange for a ride.
Scott had explained how Dylan changes the arrangements of the songs, how the real entertainment is to look round at the fans at the beginning and watch them puzzle out the song’s identity. To play a game with one’s companion to see who could recognize the most songs the fastest in one evening. He’d been underwhelmed by at least one Dylan concert in the past, and, despite his deep loyalty (or because of it), it seemed important to him to temper my expectations.
“Just don’t expect Dylan from 1965 to show up.”
And I said of course I didn’t. I knew there were many, many albums I was yet to discover—I had the late 70s and 80s and 90s—the eyeliner!—even Love and Theft to work through, but I didn’t feel too troubled by that. I felt like a kid purposefully leaving some presents unopened. But secretly I knew that all the anticipation leading up to June 26 was indeed fueled by my memory of that young man beetling about England sitting three to the backseat, clacking away on his typewriter, stone-faced and bouncy with brilliance, while Joan Baez mournfully—hauntingly—sang Percy’s Song.
The one with warm and playful smile playing It’s All Over Baby Blue, and the tiny penetrating cut of the eyes after like a fire in the sun that made me yearn. The casual hotel suite song leader with utterly captivated audience—one face battling stunned admiration with raging envy in the very same expression. He who stood small but mighty on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
I knew that he left all that behind so long ago. But I couldn’t just yet, and well, whatever he now is or all the things he has been since, he’s still—well, he’s still him—perhaps a silly philosophical notion enthralling more than just me—and I was going to be seven rows away.
We hurried through the field, unsure of our destination in the sizable Look Park. The silky grass tickled my urban feet in my flip-flops. We could hear Copland—of all things—coming from what looked like a theatre, but we weren’t sure it was the Dylan concert, and given our lateish arrival and the parking attendant’s (incorrect) declaration, “Bob’s already on stage,” I was coming unglued.
“Do you smell—pot?”
“We’re here.” Scott strode up to the shorts-and-T-shirt-clad security guard and ripped open the backpack.
I tripped after him through the chaotic lawn, glimpsing a tiny newborn baby curled compactly against his mother’s breast. I proudly displayed my Reserved Seating tickets to the ushers, and we walked up the aisle to the seventh row. And as I bent down to examine the label on the plastic chair, the crowd roared and I seized Scott’s forearm and looked up to see Bob Dylan standing amongst his band members, lingering in what would be the closest we’d get to a greeting or an introduction. None required.
Given my careful studies we were expecting Cat’s in The Well, but we got something else, and while we navigated the uneven ground—unsure of our bearings, all the familiar signposts gone—something down deep told me I’d been here before. The words were familiar, but the new arrangement was scrambling my receptors. It was like hearing a foreign language I’d spoken only in childhood.
I looked at Scott just as his face cleared. “Got it?” he asked.
I squinted. And then there it was . . . your brand new . . . Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat. I looked at Scott with triumph and then wonder: could that be right? That wasn’t on any of the set list printouts.
He raised his eyebrows, grinning, shrugging, shaking his head. That’s what he loves best about Dylan: you just never know.
With the next song—another departure—came the stirring sense that something special might be happening. I lifted my eyes up at the towering pine trees, their naked trunks straight and pitched like sailboats’ masts. I watched the sky drain of color and night fill it up again. Behind us, a seated sixtyish man rested both his hands on his cane and repeatedly yelled “Bobbbbbbby!” over the applause.
I gazed through my theatre binoculars, unable to shake the guilty sense that I looked like I was on safari, in search of some exotic reclusive animal. Was I? Was that fair? I drifted over the Mardi Gras beads hung on the drum set, the feather in his hat, the downward gaze of the lead guitarist. And I lingered over Dylan’s sacred hands, swollen and veined with age.
“You want to look?”
We handed round the binoculars. No diamond ring.
“Look at his hot pink sequined . . . what do you call it?” I inquired of Scott, touching his collarbone.
“Um, the strap?” He smiled. “That’s the technical term.”
The songs piled up on one another in a blur—so many favorites—and I can’t tell you about the intricacies of what was happening. I was branded on the spot, standing, then sitting, standing again. Dancing. The scars on my heart pulsed as he played an exquisite Shelter from the Storm. I sang, despite the unfamiliar melody, a strange sensation to have those well-worn words feel tentative and new in my mouth. When we escaped to the foreign country, to Some day I’ll make it mine, I raised my arms and cheered. There was that Hope. I could feel Scott grimace, but he let me be.
We gleefully spit out Des-oh-lay-shun Row! We marveled at just how hard Highway 61 Revisited can still rock. Our faces went shiny in the stifling heat, our senses thrummed in surroundings reminiscent of a deep woods Southern revival. We caught Dylan’s smiles like lightning bugs, happy to see him enjoying himself.
When he came out for the encore he punched his fists through his jacket sleeves and flared his fingers high over his keyboard. He lifted his hat off his head and dropped it back in place.
Well there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go.
I was looking through the binoculars when he joined his hands above his head and the place went dark. They moved to the front of the stage. And then they were gone.
The crowd cheered, the house lights stayed down just long enough to stoke our hope. But then they came up, and Scott grasped the backpack.
“It’s over? Sure?” I frowned.
“There he goes . . .” a man nearby answered, pointing over my shoulder. I turned and saw the high red taillights of the tour bus slithering through the pines.
Ten days later Scott moved off to New York City, a dream he’s had since around the time he found Dylan in our basement.
I know that every night is different—special—because that’s the point. But this one was mine, so I will tell you with innocent, fervent sincerity that this one was magic, supporting my case with the fact that he hadn’t opened with Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat in a very long time.
And I will ask, What of that night in Florence? And how many hearts can one man mend?
And how many shows. . . before you call her a fan?
Thank you, Bob Dylan, for dispelling and deepening the mystery. For freeing us—even when we fought you, begging back our chains—to find and ask our own questions. And to whisper them where we might get our answer, right into the wind.
Update: Scott (who I called Sam when I first published this) eventually moved from New York to LA, wrote some hilarious original songs channeling Bob Dylan, and performed them on NPR’s Studio 360 in 2010 and 2011. I’ll never, ever be as cool as him:
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