As I stepped up my annual in-depth, pre-season study of the Minnesota Twins I noticed for the first time ever I'm older than every single one of the players. But that wasn't why I acted more goofy aloof at work this week than usual. Nope. Those who think they can understand something about me because of the coffee cup I keep on my desk (which happens to be a Washington County mug- a period of my life I'm sure many wish had never existed) or because my welcome mat at home is facing the wrong way (in essence telling people they are welcome to leave my house) have got another thing coming.
Everything you need to know about me is revealed by this- I panicked the first time I flew a kite. I didn't understand that as I let more string out, the kite flew further away. In the land of the Chalupa I never felt so separated from another, as if being told I had to eat more to weigh less. Soon that bright red kite with two smiling faces on it was flying far out of reach, way beyond the railroad tracks as what I held in my hands quickly unraveled. It was the first time I felt the world spin a little faster, the first time I sensed a soon to be recurring theme of being a discarded illicit listening device leftover from the Nixon administration, a nearly saturated sponge. It was like losing the ability to watch a new movie or read a new book because I couldn't take any more surprises. Or wondrously running across the equivalent of the opposite, a person that couldn't read a book or see a movie more than once, because she preferred not knowing how things turn out despite at the same moment confessing she fancied adding sugar to grapefruit to turn the sour into something sweet.
That panic was the same feeling I had about 12 years ago this spring when I descended down the Cheapo stairs to Al's basement office to inform him of my soon to be happening secret government mission. It only felt as if I was reenacting the final episode of M*A*S*H. Al was understanding and kind enough to support the mission. The setting was down in Rochester and lasted about a week. At the time I wasn't sure how long the mission was to last and as I was packing I just took with me one cassette tape almost as a prayer that things wouldn't last too long.
The tape was a bootleg concert of a Bob Dylan/Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's appearance in Australia. The music had a great deal of significance for me and it was probably the most important element in what turned out to be a life altering one week's experience. Just the sound of Dylan's voice on Dizzy Gillespie's "Lucky Old Sun" was more therapeutic than anything else that went on that week. "Up in the morning/Out on a job/Work like the devil for my pay/But that lucky old sun, has nothing to do/But roll around heaven all day."
Upon my release and return home the state's hottest chili maker, Johnny Baynes became more and more worried about my frame of mind. I was at the stage of forcing myself to find things to look forward to. The pinnacle of that force was the scheduled release of the newest Bob Dylan LP, Down in the Groove. I had reason to be excited- it was Dylan's first new release in over three years. I was anxious to hear what the man had to say. Days before the official release, Johnny and I were in the Down in the Valley in Golden Valley where they were playing an advanced copy.
The fourth track "Death is Not the End" seeped out of the store's stereo speakers. "Oh, the tree of life is growing/Where the spirit never dies/And the bright light of salvation shines/In dark and empty skies/ When you're standing at the crossroads that you cannot comprehend/Just remember that death is not the end/And all your dreams have vanished and you don't know what's up the bend/Just remember that death is not the end." Johnny looked over at me as if he had just seen a ghost, like I was inches away from jumping. I was just thinking that it definitely was Dylan, not the best of Bob, but good to hear nonetheless.
Ironically, 12 years later I actually work for the government for a living and the title on my business card is both in direct opposition and a defiant response to what was at the root of that mission all those years ago. Apparently I'm stronger than I look.
Why did all this flash across my mind Friday evening on my way down to Rochester to see Dylan with my favorite newspaper reporter and favorite attorney (where granted there isn't a whole lot of competition)? Perhaps it's due to the unwelcome but admittedly self-inflicted and deliberate but not liking it return of the heads down muddle through until you find the hopeful light at the end of the tunnel life approach.
No stop in Rochester is complete without a dinner at Zorba's Greek Restaurant. And when you're at Zorba's you must have the tasty spinach and lentil entree if you're in a rush. The Mayo Civic Center is similar to the type of auditorium you can probably find in Casper, Wyoming or St. Joseph, Missouri. It's the type of venue that would be equally at ease holding a Promise Keepers' rally as it would be hosting a KISS concert. A youthful crowd dominated the 5,500 seat arena anxiously sitting through the opening juggling act, Asleep at the Wheel, to see the man who on May 15 along with Isaac Stern will receive the prestigious Polar Music Prize from the Royal Music Academy of Sweden in Stockholm.
That main act's opening song, the jaunty bluegrass tinged "Roving Gambler," has never been one of my favorite Dylan covers. But this night was divine and the Dr. Drew like performance, particularly the vocal harmonies from guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton were particularly sharp. The song tells a tale of a woman who disappoints her mother by falling for the charms of a card playing hustler. The concluding punchline stanza struck me as more poignant than ever before. "Now I'm down in prison/I got a number for a name/The warden says as he closed the door/You've gambled your last game." Life can be a roll of the dice, and the conclusion hints at something (a sad end? an eternal beginning?) just around the corner.
From there the band segued into a lilting version of "My Back Pages" complete with the only harmonica solo of the night. Dylan's voice on the refrain, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," started high gliding down the scale of his vocal register. A dramatic reading of "Masters of War" was followed by the first delightful highlight of the evening, a cover of Roy Acuff's "This World Can't Stand Long." The country tune was given a cheerful vocal performance which contrasted with the harsh dark lyrics. "This world can't stand long/Be ready and don't be late/We should know this world can't stand/For it's too full of hate/A long time this world has stood/Get's more wicked everyday/The maker who created it/Will never let it stand this way." Dylan was clearly having a good time, much more animated than usual, throughout the show dancing with jiggily jiggy legs, or as my friend said, "happy shoes," with so much vigor it made even me want to wiggle in place. He primped, posed and vogued with a new move in his repertoire that I hadn't seen in 19 shows- holding the neck of his guitar above his shoulder like a guitarslinger.
Danged if each time you listen to Dylan you hear things in a different way. Obligatory performances of "Tangled Up In Blue" (which had a truly inspired phrasing of the refrain, "Ta-anyynnguld up in Blue"), "All Along the Watchtower" and "Highway 61" were performed tautly and with great vitality. Dylan has the uncanny ability to start his singing a beat, a bar late and being able to rush and stretch the phrasing to make the words fit just perfectly. I was moved by "Tangled Up in Blue" a song I've heard literally dozens of different version of, like I haven't been since the first time I really listened to the wonderful story telling of the song. "Then she opened up a book of poems/And handed it to me/ Written by an Italian poet/From the thirteenth century/And every one of them words rang true/ And glowed like burnin' coal/Pourin' off of every page/Like it was written in my soul from me to you/Tangled up in blue."
My favorite two songs of the evening were back to back rare appearances of two seemingly throw off efforts from Nashville Skyline. The playful "Country Pie" featured some wicked guitar licks from Sexton. And the absolutely stunning conviction of "Tell Me That Isn't True" left me mesmerized. "They say that you've been seen with some other man/That he's tall, dark and handsome, and you're holding his hand/Darlin', I'm a-countin' on you/Tell me that it isn't true/To know that some other man is holdin' you tight/It hurts me all over, it doesn't seem right." (Joke of the evening-while introducing guitarist Larry Campbell- "Larry hurt his toe so we had to call the tow truck...")
The opening set was concluded by a wistful "Make You Feel My Love" ("you ain't seen nothing like me yet," indeed) and a burning "Highway 61." The six song encore opened with the penultimate reading of "Love Sick" which was punctuated with theatrical lighting every time Bob sang "I'm sick of love... I'm love sick." The song to me has always been a flawed masterpiece, marred by a single line in the song- the intriguing juxtaposition of the inspired "Sometimes the silence can be like thunder" with the weird and odd fitting follow-up rhyme "I want to take to the road and plunder." Dylan thankfully changed the line to the much more fitting "Sometimes the silence can be like thunder/Sometimes I feel like I'm plowed under." Which fits the despair over anger tone of the song more appropriately.
More than one person absorbed a searing "Like a Rolling Stone" by marveling that we were there witnessing an intense performance of the defiant alienation anthem by the man who wrote it. Does the writer understand the impact the song has had on so many people? "How does it feel, to be on your own? With no direction home? Like a complete unknown? Like a rolling stone?" Good golly, when you stop and really think about it, to be in the same space with the man who created the song, is something to behold. Not all were properly inspired. The youngsters sitting next to us left long before the encores finished, having consumed their necessary quotient of beer.
On the triumphant if not sleepy return home I was surprised by not feeling at all let down. The fear of a post-Christmas like betrayal, actually allowing myself to look forward to the evening for a long time, dissolved inside my buzzing cerebellum. I also permitted myself for a rare moment to feel the approval of one who I know would have been happy that I relaxed and took the trip, and how far I've come in between my visits to Rochester.