A last minute Thursday night scheduling miracle brought together the worshipful of all ages. 8:10 PM, no foreplay, no warm-ups, no diversions, no suspenseful delays.
And out he came; a slight, dour, distant Harpo Marxish coifed aging elf in tight black sequenced pants and big cowboy hat. No breaks, gone by 10:10. We revived beats and boomers, kids and grandkids in tow, home and in bed by 11. Two hours of pure magic in Santa Clara University’s gym despite backless bleacher benches, half the seats missing center stage sightlines, and horrible acoustics like a high school dance. Except for acknowledging onstage apostles in his gravelly incomprehensible Jimmy Durante rasp, no words to the gathered.
Oh, but the music! He opened strumming his guitar to someone else's nondescript hoedown, presumably a comment on his western-style haberdashery. Then a slightly mincing Bob pranced and wiggled behind a keyboard tucked in a corner behind megaspeakers that hid him from half of the half of the crowd that could originally see. Anticipating his return to guitar for the rest of the concert, only after our feasting on his oeuvre was complete, did we realize his resurrection center stage was not to be.
I try as always to read Bobby’s tealeaves. Doctor's orders, too frail to wail on the electric guitar? Another new period of artistic growth to yet again challenge yesterday’s understanding of my generation's Picasso, no longer tangled up in blue? What's good for the goose is good for the gander? Forty-four years ago when first in his presence, he sang:
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.”
So how've I changed? He has become a fundamental force, a constant offering insight into surrounding turbulence every year or two we meet at his concerts. As he wrote, “ 'We'll meet on edges, soon,’ said I Proud 'neath heated brow, ‘Ah but I was so much older then I'm younger than that now.' “
When first encountering him in 1964 in a freshman dorm room at Harvard (John Updike slept in my bed nine years before); I was a prissy, arrogant, ignorant schoolboy repelled by his drunken stinky unshaven presence, too foolish to not judge the book by its cover. Instead of engaging, I scoffed, walked away. Then spent the next four decades regretting my folly, failing to get a second chance, vowing not to make the same mistake with others.
Coming back West in 1967 was my life's tipping point: not very confident
as a particularly immature youth, I was convinced if I’d stayed East where I’d majored in John Milton, I would have fallen on the '50's side of the generational divide. Instead, dropped into the sixties’ San Francisco scene.
Stanford medical school didn’t distract me from conforming to the Bay Area norm -- sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. (NB, as a matter of fact, the tsunami hit Cambridge a year later.)
I am forever grateful for the luck of tippy-toeing on the “Visions of Johanna” edge instead:
“Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He's sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I'm in the hall
How can I explain?
Oh, it's so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel”
Over the decades, I’d make it to whatever unpredictable venue Bob’d show up in, no matter whether it required last night’s last minute ten minute drive to Santa Clara, or a four hour schlep to a corn field in the tulies and all kinds of coverage arrangements leaving my solo natural childbirth home (including a few flat-bed trucks) delivery practice up the coast. Some years, intimate San Francisco club settings -- every once in a while, even when his star seemed at its zenith; others, stadium size crowds.
Lots of Dylan’s show was unchanged. Still the tiny, solitary, itinerant, harmonica-ed troubadour with his last fifteen years two main men still backing him up on bass and guitar in a minimalist four piece band. The customary buffed, silent, threatening all-black security army watching for freak-outs among the standard audience of us wimpy whites, somewhat aging, many chubbily swaying and singing along. He always seems to generate younger devotees--the ear-plugged seductive coeds, the cerebral, the social activists, the sensitive spiritual seekers, the half-baked dopeheads-- who continually hook into his new stuff, amazingly often not even aware of what I consider the classics.
The recognizable smells of sage, petulie oil, marijuana, and sweat -- this time with a little more camphor and menthol, a few more green Salonpas peaking through garments than in the old days at Berkeley's Community Theater, Stanford’s Frost, San Francisco's Warfield and Winterland, San Jose's Convention Center. The familiar mumbling motivated a wag to suggest Bob’s crew hang opera-like translation strips above the stage.
Among the usual assortment of eye catchers, I was particularly attracted to a 65-70 year-old unhelmetted Darth Vaderish huge fatted androgynous fetal-faced purple blond crewcutted spider in black pants and tank top, belly and love handles hanging over his belt, dancing with whomever he could catch and hold. He was the predatory Judge, straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic Blood Meridian.
Fun to see other Zimmermans: his cousin who lived with him back in Hibbing, Minnesota, and whom everyone including me has unsuccessfully pimped to get a peak when he stays with her here; and unrelated Bob Zimmerman, the tall balding long-haired bearded Stanford physics geek.
Two middle-aged skullcapped men, one spastic, may have been part of Bob’s more recent Orthodox Chabad connection or his earlier Jews for Jewish period. They rocked out to, “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, Man, you must be puttin' me on’/God say, No. Abe say, What? /God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin' you better run.’” Unfortunately I lost sight of them during a particularly sweet rendition of one of my all time favorites, “Every Grain of Sand,” from his early '80's Shot of LoveChristian messianic period.
Although not a metaphysical kinda guy back in the day, I loved his faith-based reverence. Reminiscent of today’s faith-based Bush Presidency, he disappointed many of the flock that looked to him for secular progressive leadership. Some flipped to loath Dylan's music, his ability to thrive professionally for forty years as convincing proof there is no God.
But like Sinatra, he’s never shied away from doing it his way. When a 1966 Manchester England heckler shouted, “Judas!” at this high priest to protest his betrayal of acoustic folk music for electric rockin’ roll, he spat back, "I don't believe you, you're a liar!" As he wrote in 1967 in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), “Although the masters make the rules/For the wisemen and the fools/I got nothing Ma, to live up to.”
Imagine more than a quarter century ago, after time away from maddening crowds, when his reincarnation transubstantiated as an old-time Jesus preacher, backed up by a black evangelical choir belting out:
“In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There's a dyin' voice within me reaching out somewhere,
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.
Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake,
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.
Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.
I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space,
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand”
Some concert details differed from before. Looks like he's had some face work and dyes his hair since his appearance in Masked and Anonymous, the adult version of Don’t Look Back.Maybe his garbage can rustlers or personal memoirs will clarify his epidermal status for the tabloids. Sparkly turquoise admission ID bracelets reminded me of the belonging connoted by Buddhist red wrist string or his own culty "flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark."
Last night’s was a relatively intimate venue, likely because this stop was only added a week or so in advance, perhaps because of another public appreciation lull in his sine wave popularity, perhaps because he’s finally all spent. But critics of little faith have declared his demise before—and then he comes back with Blood on the Tracks or Time Out of Mind.
No Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jessie Colin Young (I delivered several of their babies, shot ‘em up with pre road trip penicillin back in the seventies before AIDs); no Tom Petty, The Band, Van Morrison to open. A decade ago at the Shoreline, I realized how out of touch I was: after Bob finished up to a mild half-full house, my son and I, fighting against the tide, stopped in the Men's on the way out. We encountered thousands of young good-natured bandana-ed cholospissing in sinks on their way in from parking lot fests to rock out to the main act, Santana -- having skipped whoever was fronting for Carlos. I took it personally.
The music was a smorgasbord, something for everyone. The backups weren't quite crisp or tight, maybe because of the last second booking and his recent move off center stage and guitar. Nevertheless, new arrangements of forty year-old standards continued to astonish. I of course got off the most on the '65-67's outrageously prolific Bringing It Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde brilliance.
Except for being drenched in sweat and slobber, he's cool as a cucumber, almost like there's an invisible shield between him and his adorers. Nevertheless, no question about it, I'd leap tall buildings to be in his presence whenever he calls. I will be there each and every time that I can. If he dies before me, I couldn't bear having missed a last chance to honor him, to feel holy in his presence. Hey, aren't we all trying to live our dreams, shake the sugar down? As the master says, “Trying to get to heaven before they close the door?”
My crew was pleased this go-around not to witness my up-close-and-personal hypnotic holotropic state. Or from their less enthused perspective, not to be embarrassed by zombie Ger’s trance stage rush -- which I'm told I’ve done in the past during his final encore when he inevitably brings down the house beckoning, "Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse/When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose/You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal..."
Hard to believe that four decades ago CBS tried not to release Like a Rolling Stone my generation’s anthem, last year named by Rolling Stone (duh!) as the greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time.
But now Bob’s mainstream, his songs blanketing commercials and elevators. CBS now interviews him on 60 Minutes where he hawks his latest greatest pseudo-biog. Chronicles Volume One is a treasure trove of trivia and titillation: "She [Joan Baez] recorded a protest song about me that was getting big play, challenging me to get with it--come out, take charge, lead the masses--be an advocate, lead the crusade...
I was already living in the darkness. My family was my light...That was where my dedication was...What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing.... In my real life I got to do the things that I loved the best...the Little League games... Eventually different anachronisms were thrust upon me...Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favorite)--stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Savior--those are tough ones."
Forty years before the inscrutable Victoria Secret ads, back in 1964 at his first New York Philharmonic Hall Halloween big-time concert (which I'd never heard til given a pirated tape a few months ago), his evolving personaengaged the audience in a kid's high-pitched ingratiating wow-glad-to-be-here-hope-you-like-me banter, "What are you dressed up as for Halloween? I'm masquerading as Bob Dylan."
Mel Brooks can say it's good to be king. But sounds like as he got older, with continued unrelenting great expectations, that being the boy genius whathaveyoudoneforuslately was tough on Bobby Zimmerman, "Bobby sounded too skittish to me and besides, there already was a Bobby Darrin, a Bobby Vee, a Bobby Rydell, a Bobby Neely, and a lot of other Bobbys." So Bob considered Elston Gunn and Robert Allyn before, "sometimes later, unexpectedly, I'd seen some poems by Dylan Thomas.... The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities, I instinctively and automatically without thinking simply said 'Bob Dylan.' "
If you say so, Bob -- You the Man.
Gerard Sarnat MD’s - authored HOMELESS CHRONICLES (2010), Disputes, 17s, Melting Ice King (2016). Gerry’s published by Gargoyle, Oberlin, Harvard, Brown, Stanford, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, American Journal Of Poetry, Poetry Quarterly, Brooklyn Review, LA Review, San Francisco Magazine, New York Times. MountAnalogue selected KADDISH for distribution nationwide Inauguration Day. gerardsarnat.com