Monday, July 18, 2005

Halfway to London

So I was sitting in the twilight in Midway Stadium Tuesday night with a belly full of Vietnamese soup listening to Willie Nelson close down his down to earth set with a wistful "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." I didn't know what time it was and the scoreboard clock had been stuck at 5 o'clock during Willie's entire time on stage. Sitting along the first base line where the Saints' play their home games, it suddenly occurred to me that the Major League All Star game was likely beginning and this was the first All Star game I had missed since I had become a baseball fan back in my youth (which means back to the late 50's or early 70's depending if you count in all the Chinese New Years).

The All Star game has always marked a highlight of summer for me no matter how many times the American League got beat or how few Twins make the team or make any difference in any of the games. I grew up watching Rod Carew struggle to get a hit and Bert Blyleven be uncharacteristically wild and the games were seldom close but I loved the whole thing from watching the players introduction and the fans reaction to various players to the usually awful rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner."

Sitting in this very minor league park on this particular night none of that mattered much. It was a beautiful night out, a little warm and sunny, but with a nice breeze to cool things down a bit. I was with one of my best friends, the blue-eyed editor, and we were waiting for Bob Dylan to hit the stage.

The blue-eyed editor asked me what song I wanted to hear and it took me a minute or two to answer. I've attended enough Dylan shows over the years where he doesn't surprise me much anymore. It's not like the late 1980's when he would do a great off the cuff cover of John Hiatt's "Across the Borderline," or the mid-90's when he would make my soul hurt with a scorching "In the Garden," or the late 90's when he pulled out "Blind Willie McTell" arguably one of the greatest songs from arguably our greatest song writer, or the early 2000's when he started doing the silly jazz sendup "If Dogs Run Free" or country romp of "Country Pie." Nope the setlists these days tend to rely on the same predictable songs night after night.

Ultimately my answer to the blue-eyed editor was I wanted to hear "Shooting Star." That's because in less than a month I'm going to see someone I haven't seen in ten years and that particular song has come to represent the arch of all my feelings for her from beginning to now. When Alex left town in 1992 "Shooting Star" had been around for three years. It was around then however when I got the sheet music for the song and started singing my own version. The last verse whether it be listening to Bob on CD or screeching at the top of my lungs banging on my keyboard almost always brought a tear to my eye. "Seen a shooting star tonight, slip away/Tomorrow's gonna be another day/Guess it's too late to say to you the things that you needed me to say/Seen a shooting star tonight, slip away..."

I didn't quite recognize the first chords, the first few strums of the guitars on the fourth song of this Midway Stadium show but when Bob started to croon "Shooting Star" my heart stopped.

See I was sorta in the second or third wave of Bob fanatics. My first Bob show was in the echo chamber of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in 1986 and even though it was hard to decipher exactly what song was bouncing around I was hooked right there and then. I loved how Bob somehow was able to reinvent each and every song on the spot, how he was able to cast something he wrote years ago to fit into the current moment somehow managing the illusion of stopping time. By this time there were Bob fans from the early 60's already quite hooked on what I was only then discovering. And here I was nearly 20 years later listening to a song I had just told my friend I wanted to hear and I wanted to hear because I'm about to do some time traveling and I guess maybe you had to be there with me to feel the weight of the moment and the joy in Bob delivering a stellar version of the song.

The people around us were some of the other kind of Bob fans- the kind that have heard a particular song or a particular line and have adopted it as part of the soundtrack to their lives (can I mention here that the hippie generation hasn't exactly aged particularly well?). "How does it feel?" "You make love, just like a woman... but you break like a little girl..." "Even the president of the United States sometimes must stand naked..."

So when Bob sang "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Just Like a Woman" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" these people stood up and cheered what they recognized even if they spent most of the rest of show jabbering amongst themselves. They seemed to pay attention to killer versions of Bob's most anti-war song, "John Brown" and his most anti-war perpetrator song, "Masters of War" and probably made a connection between the drama of the performances of both songs with our current national situation and that probably was enough.

Which if true, is too bad. Because they missed a menacing version of "Lonesome Day Blues" that showed off the tightness of the current band, and lead guitarist Stu Kimble's subtle yet effective playing. I loved the performance even though Bob messed up my personal favorite, or personal "I relate to those" lines, "I'm forty miles from the mill/I'm droppin' it into overdrive/Settin' my dial on the radio/I wish my mother was still alive..." The omission can be forgiven however because Bob sang the lines, "Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months/Don't know how it looked to other people/I never slept with her even once..." with if not passion, with such eccentricity that he seemed to truly enjoy the sentiment once again as if it was brand new.

The opening notes of "Under a Red Sky" were crisp and clear and I was delighted that I got to hear the song. I made sure I glanced over at the blue-eyed editor when Bob nailed the line, "Someday little girl, everything for you is gonna be new..."

There was also a nice little moment at the beginning of "Bye and Bye" where Bob's keyboard wasn't working so a technician was frantically trying to plug in a new one. Bob grabbed his harmonica as the band played the intro and he improvised a melodic little solo. The song ultimately fell apart as Bob sat down at his keyboard and seemed to stumble on some of the words but in many ways this is why he is such a charismatic performer. After all these years he isn't (most likely by choice) polished in his singing or his playing or his delivery (this band seems particularly adept at stretching the meter of the songs to accommodate Bob's somewhat erratic phrasing) and he seems to strive as a live performer on chaos and this keeps his remarkable songs living and breathing and makes each show somehow exist in the moment. I don't know of any other live performer so skilled in this ability.

So I walked with the blue-eyed editor, who was seemingly impressed by the show, back to her car parked in the lot of a strip mall that strangely houses a nice little authentic Vietnamese restaurant. It was a long walk back but it's not like we weren't used to that. We once walked from the State Capitol to a McDonalds down the road so I could get some mini bobble heads. We also once walked over to the Historical Center where we saw a Mariachi band playing. And on another nice summer evening we walked from her parent's house to the Minnesota Zoo to see Lucinda Williams.

I somewhat doubt that in asking her to see her first Bob Dylan show with me that I have started her down the same path I began all those years when I was about her age when I saw my first Bob Dylan show at a pseudo-baseball stadium, but I'm sure that over the next few years she will listen to Bob a little more closely. And I'm quite sure that in doing so her life will be enriched, just as mine has been, and she will discover a song or two that will change her life, her way of thinking, just a little bit. Bob's quite good at that. His music is like an element- water, air, blood- that once you hear it, and really listen to it, it just won't let go. It grabs you by the soul and by the heart, and fills you up just as it leaves you wanting more. And that's quite the idiosyncratic trick.

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