I reached a place in 1991 after four years of floundering (or was it struggling? or was it drowning?) where I knew I had to make some changes before I could proceed forward. There were two defining events that helped me decide what I was going to do.
First I took a trip via Amtrak out east where I visited much of America's richest history in Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington DC. I did a lot of walking and writing on that trip. I would start off with a particular destination in mind and allow myself to drift into any area that looked interesting to me. By the end of the trip my knees were so sore from all the walking that I could hardly make it up a flight of stairs. Yet it was a liberating feeling knowing I could go anywhere I wanted, that I didn't have to restrict myself in any way other than to just go to where I felt safe.
The next summer Bob Dylan played five shows at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. Despite not having the kind of money where I should do such things, and still feeling a bit sheepish about being THAT big a fan, I bought tickets for all five shows. The performances at those five shows intrigued and inspired me. Dylan played fifty different songs over the five nights. It was if he was out to prove something yet at the same time the consistent quality workmanlike effort of all five shows was somehow comforting. None of the shows stick out in my memories from the rest but I do remember my favorite individual moments- there were breathtaking versions of Little Moses and Boots of Spanish Leather, a pensive Visions of Johanna and a truly eccentric Idiot Wind. I found myself each night sitting at the end of the show with an astonished goofy grin on my face.
It was at this point where I was beginning to understand a message in Dylan's, by then, constant touring. If there has been one constant in his career it is to expect him to do what is not expected of him to do. At times it's as if he wants to deliberately sabotage the lofty admiration his work has created with his fans. By hitting the road and performing night in and night out with very little publicity, Dylan found a way to maintain his own focus with what is apparently most important to him- expressing himself through his music. In other words he defused the hype by letting his music do his speaking for him.
This message inspired me. His determination to just be himself turned on a light inside. I realized instead of trying to constantly analyze what was and was not working in my life (and my own now painful immediate past) I had to just get on with doing what I knew how to do. There was also a feeling that if I was going to go down in flames, I had to do it on my own terms, which meant I had to stop listening to all the advice from well meaning friends, family, co-workers, doctors, clergypeople, politicians, analysts, writers, singer/songwriters and whoever else I had turned to for guidance. I had for whatever reason stopped listening to the one true voice that really mattered- my own.
Seven years later I have found myself at another crossroads of sorts and when it was announced that Dylan was playing his first ever show in Duluth where he was born and then the next night in the Twin Cities. I knew I was going to go to both shows if for no other reason than I had to get some time away from my routine to clear my head and decide what exactly comes next.
The drive to Duluth was rejuvenating in itself. It was a few weeks too late to enjoy the many colors of autumn, but the brisk fall air was mood altering and refreshing. Duluth of course is a pastoral city with its hills overlooking Lake Superior. I spent a few hours walking by the Lake watching the ripples of the water under a nearly cloudless sky. (Question: How come Lake Superior smells like apple cider? What is up with that?)
I went inside the DECC arena about an hour before the show. There was excitement in the air as people wondered how and if Dylan would do anything special to recognize the fact he was playing at his birthplace for the first time. The opening act, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men gave a scorching, foot stomping countryish set (Brush with Fame- they stayed in the same motel as me- and I found myself having coffee alone with Mr. Alvin the next morning). Alvin is a talented guitar player with a booming baritone voice. (Another little sidenote here: Wednesday morning I was driving to work when I noticed something happened to my voice the night before- and it was now about an octave lower than usual. It sounded so funky I wanted to turn around and go home and record a new message for my answering machine. That's the type of voice Alvin has).
"Thought I'd shaken the wonder and the phantoms of my youth. Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin' the hills of old Duluth..."
My seat was to the right of the stage about a hundred feet from the band. It was the best seat I've ever had at a Dylan show. (Trivia fact: There have actually been two shows I've seen where I never even really saw Bob. At the Metrodome show we had seats behind the stage and every now and then we'd get a glimpse of him as he wandered backstage. At Riverfest in 1989 I was at the back of a throng of people and occasionally when the crowd swayed and parted the right way, I'd get a glimpse of the top of his hair.)
Two years back the World's Greatest Toothpaste Orderer asked me on our way to Mankato why I liked Bob Dylan's music so much. "He has it right about relationships," I said knowing that didn't nearly capture the exact reason. There are just certain artists that reach you- that express themselves in a way that lets you know you aren't always entirely alone; that capture what is inside better than you yourself can. For me Dylan is such an artist. Great art doesn't necessarily make life make any more sense but it gives one hope that there is a sense to life.
Dylan and his band strolled on to stage about 8:30 and opened with a searing version of Gotta Serve Somebody. It was a wonderful opening song, much different than the boogie arrangement used in the early '90's. This was sermonizing blues with Bob stretching out the words in a most playful manner. "YOU KNOW you're going to have to SERVVVVE SOMEBODDY. It might be the devil, it might be the Lord but you're gonna have to serve SOMEBODY..." Other highlights? A wistful Tomorrow is a Long Time, rocking acoustic versions of Tangled Up In Blue, and Don't Think Twice, and a determined and dramatic Masters of War. An example of Dylan's impressive performing abilities was demonstrated with a lilting version of Just Like a Woman. The recently released Live 1966 which features a phenomenal version of the song was nearly matched with this performance although the mood of the two versions could not have been any different. In the 1966 live version Dylan sings it with such a weariness, a resigned sadness at losing his girl to a world he never knew. In the 1998 version he is more scornful, blaming himself for letting the other get to him as much as she did.
All the Time Out of Mind songs (which I was hearing live for the first time) worked extremely well. Dylan snarled out the lyrics to Cold Irons Bound with such biting precision it was spooky. "There's too many people, too many to call. I thought some of them were friends of mine, I was wrong about them all..."Can't Wait my least favorite song on the CD was spellbinding with its hypnotizing riff. Til I Fell in Love With You expressed a sentiment I've felt a time or two better than I ever could. "I was all right 'til I fell in love with you." And Love Sick (the first encore) gave me goose pimples. "Just don't know what to do... I'd give anything just to BEEEE with you."
The trip back to the Twin Cities was full of anticipation. The second concert was to be shared with someone whose exposure to Bob's music was buying Time Out of Mind based upon my review. I so wanted to share my love of his music with her, and so afraid that she'd think it was all so silly. We bided our time through Joni Mitchell's set out in the Target Center lobby(?) where she educated me on what makes a good shoe (she determined there were many people wearing dreadful shoes). She also was the first to spot Norm Coleman riding up the escalator. Coleman was mostly left alone (and he was alone- what's up with that?) until some guys started chanting "Jesse! Jesse! Jesse! behind him. (Earlier I had spotted Chris Wright, Grassroots Party candidate for governor whose single issue platform is the legalization of pot.)
The song selection on this second night was disappointedly similar to the Duluth show. Dylan performed only three songs that weren't performed the previous night (It Ain't Me Babe, My Back Pages and Make You Feel My Love- the latter which I was strangely moved by like never before). My favorite moment was (of course) when my friend turned to me and said, "I love his voice!" She also was somewhat amused by my proclamation before the show that if he did Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35 (everybody must get stoned- indeed) I was going to walk out. So when the band blared into the opening chords, she giggled and sang along.
Bob has developed a set of impressive rubber leg moves since the last time I saw him. In Duluth he was having quite the time doing this heal toe- heal toe- half duck walking, half moon walking thing around the stage. At the Target Center he was doing more of what we called "marking time" in marching band (lifting up each leg in time). I made a mental note that I will have to add these steps to my own dance repertoire.
"There's some people that you can't forget, even though you only seen them one time or two..." In the middle of I'll Remember You I turned to my friend and told her that I was going to cry upon hearing the song again. She rolled her eyes most assuredly and I grabbed her sleeve and it was a moment I'll never ever forget. "In the end, my dear sweet friend, I'll remember you." It was a very special feeling to be with two of my favorite people.
I was paying close attention to my friend's reactions to the concert and the looks on her face were as usual, priceless (to the woman to our right who didn't bring a cigarette lighter to flash but rather one of those fire place starting ignitors; to the gentleman in front of her with five strands of hair standing straight up as if he had moosed them up for some reason).
She turned to me at the end of the evening and asked me (over the swirling techno music we were listening to) what Dylan song contained the lyric, "Don't know if I saw you if I'd kiss you or kill you..." She is such a good listener and I was so glad I asked her to the show with me. A blue eyed brown eyed girl who has all the right moves. She can crack me up with a simple look. She can finish my sentences correctly. The connection is wonderful. When I informed her we were to sing along to Blowin in the Wind her response was a great example of what I have wondrously found to be who she is. I sang the line "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" to her and she answered quite assuredly- "Four." Tee hee. Most impressive indeed.
FEELING THE POWER
Destiny is often a false idol. To believe that things always happen for a reason is to be deceived. Sometimes that storm door just shuts behind you and you don't have the key. You don't want to show your panic in front of those that would probably want to help out, but perhaps really cannot, at being locked out from your own home but you pray deep within that things will work out. Maybe the door is merely stuck and not actually locked. Things sometimes do work out.
One of the themes running throughout Dylan's work is the concept of stopping time by living in the moment (thus Time Out of Mind). During both concerts I sat there enjoying the energy of the moment and wishing it would never end. I made a conscious effort to try and remember everything- try my best to soak it ALL in so I could carry it with me wherever I end up next. Another lesson learned over the years? It's futile to run away from memories because there are always more just around the corner. At the same time to be able to share a moment with another is something we should never take for granted because it may never be again. Or in another's words: "So now I'm going back again, I've got to get to her somehow. All the people that we used to know are an illusion to me now. Some are mathematicians, some are truck driver's wives. Don't know how it all got started, don't know what they're doing with their lives. Be me I'm still on the road, heading for another joint. We always did feel the same we just saw it from a different point of view. Tangled up in blue."
A trip, a concert, a friendship, a piece of art, a song,- the long and winding path is often difficult to discern and distinguish. You don't want to make too much out of day to day events, but when something special happens along the way you just have to allow yourself to feel a little bit inspired. It's not always a bad thing.