Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday the 13th Deja Vu: Dylan in the Beacon Theatre

Excerpt from  Dylan and the Grateful Dead: A Tale of Twisted Fate 

Dylan’s run at the Beacon began on October 10, 1989. That night I was at Shea Stadium for a Rolling Stones concert in support of their new album, Steel Wheels. The Stones were also playing Shea Stadium on the 11th, but I picked the right night to be there. Eric Clapton joined the Stones for a mind-blowing blues assault on “Little Red Rooster.” It was a phenomenal show with an elaborate stage production. Steel Wheels was their most rocking album in a long time. Even though their set lists didn’t differ much, I could have gone to see this show five nights in a row.

The Oh Mercy songs debuted on the tour’s opening night at the Beacon Theatre were “Everything Is Broken,” “Most of the Time,” and “What Good Am I?” This trio was also performed the following two shows. These were strong shows that I enjoyed very much, but my memory of them was obliterated by Dylan’s astonishing performance on Friday the 13th. Dylan stormed the stage in a gold lame suit and pointy white boots. My evening unfolded like a surreal dream as I watched the proceedings from the front row of the balcony with my Woodstock friend, Blaise. We smiled all night as we watched Dylan and his bird nest hairdo wiggle away below.

Dylan opened with the Empire Burlesque rocker “Seeing the Real You At Last,” which segued into “What Good Am I?” Possibly influenced by his time with the Dead, Dylan was segueing songs more than ever before. Dylan went to Infidels for his third song, “Man of Peace,” and followed with his live debut of “Precious Memories” from Knocked out Loaded. Dylan infused the night with a breathless pace as he stood and delivered his newer songs without regard for what people may have wanted to hear. Aware of the city he loved, Dylan turned the clock back to his Greenwich Village days with an acoustic set that began with “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” and one for his hero, the man who drew him to New York. “Song to Woody” was a loving gesture, and it struck the right emotional chord for those on hand.

“Everything Is Broken” filled the Beacon with bawdy rock and roll again. There could be no mistaking Dylan was sentimental on this final night at the Beacon as he followed with “I’ll Remember You.” The final three electric songs came off like a communal exorcism. The stacks of speakers hanging like worms in front of the Neo-Grecian d├ęcor were smoking from G. E.’s nasty blues leads during “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Earlier Bob played one for Woody, now he pivoted into one for Jesus, “In the Garden.” I hadn’t seen this one since the Radio City shows. Dylan blitzed through “Like a Rolling Stone” to end the set. It was hurried until he neared the finish line, and then the Transcendent One lingered in the triumph of his consecrated anthem by tacking on a three-minute harp solo before departing.

It was too much to process as I sat there in the front row of the balcony for the world premiere of “Man in the Long Black Coat” as the first encore. The pulse, vibration, and rumbling force made me feel unsafe in the front row of the balcony. Pure ecstasy might catapult me into the orchestra pit below. This is where things got weird. In the thick of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Dylan placed his guitar down, sang a verse, and then grabbed his mic and went for a stroll while playing harmonica. Bob stepped to the front of the stage and got down on his knees while keeping the harp solo alive. Suddenly, he dropped the harmonica to the ground like a Wise Guy dropping a gun after a hit, and nonchalantly walked off the stage and into the crowd. He shook hands with a few stunned fans in the front row and shuffled out the exit door to the right of the stage onto West 75th Street.

 The house lights stayed on as the band continued to play, and I’m pretty sure that Dylan didn’t inform the band if he was coming back. The jam stumbled to a confused ending and the crowd applauded, and wondered if Bob would return. But there was not a word heard; goodbye, not even a Shabbat shalom. Folklore states that the man in the gold lame suit hopped on a bicycle and pedaled to his Manhattan apartment.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Madison Square Garden 1983: St. Stephen and Slipknot! Revisted

 I can’t recall why I was late, but ‘Jack Straw” was smoking as I entered Madison Square Garden on 10-11-83. I was oblivious to the fact that the Dead opened the show with “Wang Dang Doodle.” With my accountant by my side, I found my seat and swayed to a hot “Loser.” It’s hard to get excited about an Uncle > Mexicali combo, but this was an insane “Mexicali.” I thought we were halfway through the opening set as Jerry noodled through a tantalizing “Birdsong.” “The set abruptly ended with “Hell in a Bucket” and “Day Job,” two new tunes that pissed me off. In fact, when the lights came on, I yelled, “You guys suck.” Perhaps this was a sign that I was taking things too personally. I’ve come to love this first set. The Wang Dang Doodle > Straw opener is killer.
I'd heard the “St. Stephen” rumors, and the instrumental teases over the past few tours, and when the moment arrived, I was unprepared. 10-11-83 didn’t have the makings of an extraordinary night, but the Boys electrified the Garden by playing “St. Stephen” for the first time in four years. The excitement of the moment was hard to control or express. My accountant and I were hugging, tackling, and slapping each other—a Three Stooges moment. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the second set listening to this show over the years. The St. Stephen > Throwing Stones transition is magnificent, and thematically, “Touch of Grey” is a wonderful follow-up. Returning home, my accountant’s old warhorse Delta 88 started smoking. On the Palisades Parkway median, it died. The engine was shot—dead from natural causes—a sacrifice to the Grateful Gods. There was no parkway like the Palisades. She was a kind road loaded with personality, and now and then, she liked to twist your fate.
On the way to MSG the following night, I witnessed my lawyer at the height of his driving prowess. Stalled in horrendous traffic, he stepped on the gas and swung his yellow Coup de Ville from lane to lane with reckless abandoned. He created lanes where they didn’t exist. My lawyer had a front row seat at MSG, and no George Washington Bridge gridlock was going to make him late for Jerry. The ghost of Neal Cassady was with us. By the slimmest of margins, he narrowly avoided thirty fender benders and got us to the Garden before the band opened with “Cold Rain & Snow.  
Help on the Way -> Slipknot! -> Franklin’s Tower ignited the second set on 10-12-83, and it was perhaps the best thirty minutes of live music I’d ever witnessed. I positioned myself behind the stage and grasped the magnificence of what it’s like to perform in Madison Square Garden. I surveyed the floor of Deadheads dancing and swaying as one. The electricity that can be generated in the Garden is undeniable. The atmosphere absolutely fuels greatness.

Garcia’s creativity was ceaseless during “Slipknot!”—Coltrane-like riffs took flight, and there was a gritty workingman’s quality about it all. Jerry extended time, constantly in motion, yet relaxed in the moment. The Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountain I witnessed two nights later in Hartford was equally brilliant. Garcia may have appeared detached from those around him, but he was aligned with spirit, speaking through his Tiger. To top off this memorable two-night stand in the Garden, the Dead played “Revolution” for the first time in the encore slot.The individuals identified as my accountant and my lawyer weren't that at the time, but they are now. 
More Dead road tales: Tangled Up in Tunes: A Ballad of a Dylanhead, Fifth Anniversary Edition

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Determined to Stand: Dylan in Locarno 30 Years Ago Today

Excerpt from  Dylan and the Grateful Dead: A Tale of Twisted Fate

In a 1991 interview with Robert Hilburn, Dylan said, “You’re either a player, or you’re not a player. It didn’t occur to me until we did those shows with the Grateful Dead. If you just go out every three years or so, like I was doing for a while, that’s when you lose touch. If you’re going to be a performer, you—you’ve gotta give it your all.”

 Dylan’s a performing artist, and the Dead showed him, and reminded him, that he had to continually dedicate himself to his craft. During their two tours together, Dylan also observed the Dead’s unique blueprint, a master plan for organically growing a fan base. Dylan was keenly taking notice, and in 1988, he’d launch his own Grateful Dead-style tour. There was still something missing though. At a 1997 press conference Dylan said, “The spirit of the songs had been getting further and further away from me. Probably because I’d been playing these songs with a lot of different bands, and they might not have understood them so well…I know it influenced me until I started playing with the Dead and I realized that they understood these songs better than I did at the time.” 

Dylan still had to clear the hurdle of relating to his own songs. It sounded like he had tapped into the essence of “Wicked Messenger” and “Joey” when he played them on 7-12-87 in Giants Stadium with the Dead, but perhaps, in Dylan’s mind, he credited the Dead. Those weren’t his arrangements. Reflecting on his state of mind before his final tour with Tom Petty in Chronicles, Dylan wrote, “Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine. Everything was smashed…My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skills to touch their raw nerves…There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent.”
Dylan’s final excursion with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers was named the Temples in Flame Tour—30 shows across Europe. The tour commenced with a seventeen-song outing in Tel Aviv on September 5, 1987. Two nights later in Jerusalem, Dylan played thirteen songs, and none of these songs were played at the previous concerts. This kind of full-scale set list revamping was unprecedented for Dylan, and a direct result of his Grateful Dead experience. Dylan’s sets continued to be adventurous for the remainder of his tour with Petty.

Dylan’s singing was expressive, but rougher than his previous outings with Petty. Paul Williams, author of a trilogy of books that chronicle Dylan’s career as a performing artist through 1990, raved about several of the shows from this tour. The best part of this tour for Dylan fanatics was that Dylan was mixing up the set lists and winging it on stage. Dylan took more chances than most artists, but now, like the Grateful Dead, his fans would be entertained by the results of the set lists.
 On October 5, 1987, at a concert in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan experienced a career-changing epiphany that he first explained to David Gates in a 1997 Newsweek interview and he later wrote about in Chronicles. It was a fiercely windy evening at the Piazza Grande Locarno, and in the thick of a song, Dylan suddenly couldn’t sing—his mouth opened and nothing came out. “There’s no pleasure in getting caught in a situation like this,” said Dylan. “You can get a panic attack. You’re in front of thirty thousand people and they’re staring at you and nothing is coming out.”

Dylan doesn’t identify the song when this incident happened. After listening to the tapes, I surmise it may have occurred in a gap where Dylan misses a few lines in the second song of the concert, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan fought through the stressful situation, and suddenly, he was revitalized. “Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky…It was like I’d become a new performer, an unknown one in the true sense of the word. In more than thirty years of performing, I had never seen this place before.”
 In the interview with David Gates, Dylan gives a clearer vision of what happened when he stepped up to the mic and he couldn’t sing: “It’s almost like I heard it as a voice. It wasn’t like it was even me thinking it. I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.” And all of a sudden everything just exploded every which way. And I noticed that all the people out there—I was used to them looking at the girl singers, they were good-looking girls you know? And like I say, I had them up there so I wouldn’t feel so bad. But when that happened, nobody was looking at the girls anymore. They were looking at the main mic. After that is when I sort of knew: I’ve got to go out and play these songs. That’s just what I must do.”

 It was time for Dylan to rise from the Billy Parker (Hearts of Fire) stage of his career. He wasn’t a washed-up rock star. He was the innovator who changed the face of music numerous times. Everybody was staring at him; not at the girls, Petty, or the Heartbreakers. There was no escaping or diminishing his iconic stature. Surrendering to Jesus and spreading the word of God wouldn’t free him from his fate. In the same interview with Gates, Dylan said, “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than any kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” Amen.
If the Grateful Dead could pack stadiums year after year working out of their songbook and covers that they reinvented, the possibilities for Dylan were limitless. He never had to write another song, he could just slip into his back pages and breathe life into tunes that were collecting dust in his canon. With his extreme knowledge of the wider American songbook he could perform night after night and his act would never have to grow old or get stale.
 Dylan and the Grateful Dead: A Tale of Twisted Fate 



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