Monday, February 20, 2012

A Special President's Day Post

Minneapolis, Minnesota 11-04-08
Excerpt from Tangled Up in Tunes: Ballad of a Dylahead

As showtime neared, anticipation and expectation swelled inside Northrop Auditorium. The Prodigal Son had returned. This was Dylan’s debut concert on the campus of the college he had dropped out of to claim fame in New York. Dylan’s past was present: folks from his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, who knew him as Bobby Zimmerman; peers from his Dinkytown days; academics and professors who scrutinized his oeuvre. The poet laureate of American music, our Jewish homeboy from the Iron Range, was serenading the faithful on the evening that an African American born in Hawaii would break the ultimate color barrier.
I settled into my twentieth-row seat. Right behind me were two affable young ladies in Minnesota Gopher attire. They were studying biophysics, and I was studying them. Their approach to this concert was simple: they didn’t know any of Dylan’s tunes, but they were psyched to see a legend. I told them I was from Manhattan, and I was writing a book on Dylan. They just might be impressed by a mystery man on a scholarly quest. How else could I smoothly explain why I’d traveled cross-country to see one Dylan concert when I’ve already seen ninety-two?  I was thrilled these girls were my friends for the evening. They looked like cast members from the Real World: one a natural California blonde; the other a sultry Asian beauty. One smelled like magnolias, and the other banana bread. My scalp was bare, but with my baby face and sturdy physique, I hoped to pass for thirty-five.

The sultry Asian student with jeans torn at the knees placed her dainty fingers on my shoulder, leaned over my neck, and whispered, “We’re, like, so excited for the concert, and that’s, like—ah, so cool that you’re writer and you live in Manhattan. We don’t have any ID. If we give you money, can you buy us beers?”

I refused the money with a nonchalant wave of my hand and returned with three jumbo beers as the lights dimmed.

Dressed in black with a wide-brimmed, white top hat, Dylan exuded alpha maleness despite his slender frame. His bandmates wore fine tailored suits, Obama pins, and serious expressions. The audience cheered lustily when they identified “The Times They Are-A-Changin’” and “Masters of War.” Playing keyboards most of the night, Dylan aroused the crowd whenever he grabbed his harmonica and blasted away, tip-toeing across the stage. Rapturous applause erupted at the beginning and ending of Dylan’s idiosyncratic harp solos.

The reality girls yahooed and shook their hips as Dylan twisted away behind his keyboards to the electrified swing of “Summer Days.” The blonde one tapped me on the shoulder, cupped her hand to my ear and said, “This is sooooo amazing.” Her tongue ever so slightly grazed my earlobe. Good vibrations surrounded me. I was relieved that these college cookies were digging the groove because Dylan’s voice was gruff like an old carnival barker at the end of a double shift. Either you were drawn to the rumbling or you were repulsed, but everyone listened. Dylan’s mysterious web of charisma hypnotized the audience.

Dylan muffed some lyrics and his vocals were more jagged than usual, but the audacious fifteen-song set made up for any performance hiccups. Hopscotching across his canon, Dylan offered sketches of America that represented all five decades of his career. When Bob grunted, “Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked,” it sounded more like a warning shot for Obama than a eulogy for Bush. Revolution was in the air. It was the sentimental “Shooting Star,” however, that jingle-jangled indelibly in my mind.

A backdrop of a star-cluttered sky unfurled behind the band as they glided into the opening chords. “Shooting Star” is a sacred song that Dylan only breaks out once or twice a tour. Dylan sang with a gentle caress: “Seen a shooting star tonight, and I thought of me. If I was still the same. If I ever became what you wanted me to be.” If ever a singer became his words, Dylan did that night. He was Minnesota’s shooting star. Trekking down memory lane, Dylan moseyed from the organ and snatched an electric guitar. The crowd showered their North Star with love as he stood like a toy soldier and plucked an awkwardly authentic solo.

My mind left the action in Minneapolis when Dylan crooned, “Seen a shooting star tonight, and I thought of you. You were trying to break into another world; a world I never knew.” I reflected back on my twenty-one-year fascination with Dylan’s music. “Shooting Star” is the final tune on Oh Mercy, Dylan’s gloomy 1989 masterpiece. I skipped all my college classes at SUNY New Paltz that semester and held daily Oh Mercy listening parties in my ground floor crash pad. The baby blue house I rented bore a striking resemblance to Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing. Some folks settle down, but some of us are shooting stars, restless strangers, in a constant state of becoming—lonesome and a long way from home.

New Paltz was my first home away from my parent’s house, but I’ll always remember that town as the place where I was seduced by Blood on the Tracks while driving north on Route 32. After hearing that tape, my brain went berserk. I scored every Dylan album and felt immediate connection to a level of experience that could only be accessed through his songs. I’d seen the Promised Land, and I tried sharing my vision with everybody in town. Time spent studying Dylan played a part in my academic dismissal from SUNY New Paltz. Also factoring into my “downfall” was a predilection for debauchery and hedonism. Many years later, my interest in Dylan’s lyrics brought me back to the classroom. I finally earned an undergraduate degree, and I was now working on my Master’s in creative writing. “Shooting Star” slipped away—nothing left but an illusionary sparkle. Dylan rolled on to his next performance, preaching, “He not busy being born, is busy dying.”

Jimmy Carter quoted that line when he accepted the Democratic Party nomination for President. It’s a daily struggle: either you’re living or you’re dying. Many days you’re on a treadmill, vacillating between the two, no matter how hard you strive. Dylan then warned, “Money doesn’t talk; it swears.” In the midst of a vicious recession, the relevance of Dylan’s poetry was uncanny.
After introducing his band, Dylan offered a rare comment: “I was born the year Pearl Harbor was attacked, and I’ve seen some pretty dark days since then. It looks like things are going to change now.”

Dylan’s declaration was a nod to Obama, even though the statement was vague. When you’re Bob Dylan, every statement you make can and will be scrutinized for eternity. I suppose that’s why Bob lets his songs do all the yapping. However, there was nothing ambiguous about his final entrée of the evening, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Inspiration can strike in the strangest of places. I respect this anthem, but I’ve never before detected an emotional connection between the singer and his iconic song. Like so many times before, Dylan asked, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” On this momentous night for America, Dylan answered with a resounding, “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wiiiiindd!” The answer seemed tangible, at least for now. There was boundless optimism rippling through this rendition—a sense that this song, which has meant so much to so many, had finally resonated with its creator. The crowd was frenzied when Dylan came out for his final ovation. With a wild smile, the Prodigal Son opened his arms to the faithful as if to say, “How about that? What a night!” Tears of triumph slid down my cheeks.

I was lured into a photo shoot with my fabulous reality girls. They hooted and danced all night while I double-shuffled and plucked air-guitar. One of our neighbors took a snapshot of us. I then posed with each girl individually as they snapped away on their iPhones. Ahhhh, the sensuous smell of magnolias and banana bread. It had been a while since I’d practiced the art of seduction on a twenty-year-old coed, but I had an early flight back to New York. I teetered on the ledge of temptation. I wondered if they lived off campus.

My musings were interrupted by lusty screams and a rumbling roar from the halls. Jumping Jesus! Bob Dylan must be outside greeting fans. As I stepped into the lobby, the hollering and cheering felt biblical. I looked up at the big screen, and there was the face I’d seen all day—honest and promising. The scoreboard read: Obama 297, McCain 188. NBC News had just projected that Barack Obama would be the 44th President of the United States.

Delirious students flocked from the dorms to the front of the auditorium, joining revelers who had just seen Dylan. The tribe chanted and danced as one: “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma.” I floated into the surging celebration and soaked in the primal exhilaration. It was unlike any group euphoria I’d experienced. It was as is if the crowd had given collective birth. I knew Obama was going to win, but I never envisioned this.

Separating myself from the spontaneous soirée, and forever ending my chances with the co-eds, I walked to the far end of the courtyard and peered in at the ruckus through the tall feather reed grass. The students bounced and howled as one in the warm North Country night. Choked up with emotion, I watched in silence. This was their glory. I shared it from a distance. This land is your land, this land is my land. I’m skeptical of politicians, especially those who reside in the White House. I liked Obama and enjoyed the rush of historical significance, but I didn’t share the unbridled optimism of the students. I lurked in the background until the surreal scene dissipated into the evening haze.

When Dylan stood on the stage on Election Day 2008, the announcer’s intro had reminded us that Bob was “The voice of the promise of the ‘60s counterculture.” Seconds after Dylan took his final bow and disappeared into the darkness, a slice of that promise had been realized.

You might think that traveling from Manhattan to Minneapolis for one Dylan concert is extreme, but as I devoured chicken wings at a Dinkytown dive, I was glad I’d followed my musical instincts again. In the midst of analytical commentary on Obama’s decisive victory, a news agency had projected that Republican Norm Coleman was re-elected to the senate in the tightest race of the night. I was following this contest because Norm’s opponent, Al Franken, of Saturday Night Live fame, was a Deadhead. Chalk it up as another Election Day media blunder. But, after a recount which included absentee ballots, Minnesota elected Franken, a Deadhead Democrat, to represent them in the U.S. Senate. Well, well, well, you can never tell.

Tangled Up in Tunes available in paperback or on Kindle:

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