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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