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The Dylan – Nelson Double Bill: Still Lookin’ For a Soft Place to Fall

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We wait. This is what it has come down to. We are at a small baseball stadium somewhere south of Boston (Brockton; Campanelli Stadium). Usually, this is a local baseball field, but last weekend, the B-52s performed here, and tonight, so we hear, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson will be performing. But that’s hours away, and I’m having trouble believing it’s really true. For now, it is us and a crowd that is growing considerably, winding our way around the stadium. Many people have brought chairs, picnic baskets, blankets etc. They hang out in groups, giving other people the eye-ball from beneath their leather hats. Those of us who came unprepared, sit on the hard dirt or cement, the unforgiving sun searing the skin, getting hotter and hotter and knowing what it must be like to be a hot dog or some kind of grilled food. Come to think of it, there is some weird funk in the air that smells a lot like grilled food, but I have this awful feeling that it is some collective BO from the sun, sweat, and frankly, what is an edgy and somewhat hostile crowd. It’s like an old photograph from the sixties – the women with their sort of blonde hair and leather hats and crochet tops; the men with knitted caps and tie-dyed shirts. Take that photograph and bump the contrast down and the brightness up so high that it is almost a white out: good. Now you begin to see the white heat of the sun. We wait here for hours.

7:15pm. We’ve been here since 3 pm or so, and since 5:45pm, we’ve been in the actual stadium. People are filing in, and it’s filling up pretty quickly. Behind us, is a duck-faced woman and her family. She keeps commenting loudly about how she hates cigarette smokers and cigarettes and would burn us all at the stake if she had her way. She says she hates country music. She says she hates the south and “everything it stands for”, and I’m not sure what that is exactly, and I doubt she is, but whatever it is, she hates it. She also hates folk music. She really hates my dress, which is yellow with pink cherries on it and backless and why anyone or how they could hate it is beyond me, but she feels strongly about this. Her husband, on the other hand, really seems to like it and even though he keeps trying to peek down the top, we decide that it’s okay because it’s probably the most action he’s gonna get for the next several months.

Duck Face wouldn’t matter very much, except sadly, although this is a momentous night for me, because I have never seen Bob Dylan live, I am surrounded by too many people who are like Duck Face. They seem bitter and worse, seems to begrudge the presence of anyone who is not exactly like them (failing to see the irony, which is that many of them are exactly alike which may be the problem). Sure, there is a more mellow element here as well, but they are quieter and seem a bit intimidated by Carla’s loud-mouthed tale of how she now insists that her ex-boyfriend Stevie get his porn delivered to some other trailer because she ain’t having it (yes, this is true). But why is everybody so hostile? We talk about it for a while, since we have nothing better to do and we have to wait for Willie. M. says that maybe it’s some tension between the Willie crowd and the Bob crowd. Maybe, but frankly, I think these people hate everyone. I’m not sure why they are here at all. In an effort to ignore this constant prattle, I focus on Bob and Willie. For over three hours, they are always on my mind.

Just as the sun is setting – about a half hour at 7:30, Willie appears on the stage. From where we sit in the stands behind what would normally be home plate (and a good view), the stage is miles away, and it’s much, much smaller than I would have imagined (a bad view). When I hold my arm out and separate my fingers an inch, I can hold Willie in the half-inch space. The only way I know it is him is his red bandana, tied as always across his forehead. I can just barely make out two long, thin grey plaits.

Willie opens with “Living in the Promised Land.” It seems a little preachy which is great and gets the crowd hopping a bit. Not as much as I, and no doubt, he, would have liked, but still…it’s the best we’re going to do with this lot. He’s pumped and full of energy and still as that incredibly, molasses voice that manages to be soft and rough at the same time and is one of the few men that I would marry just to hear him speak all the time. Who could resist such a voice?

There’s something strangely narcotic about Nelson’s voice. It’s in the pitch and tone. It’s where it hits in the ear, curling in and touching in just the right spot. It makes me want to say, “again” to every song. (For all I care, he could sing Georgia over and over again tonight and I would die a happy girl.) As Willie belts out one after another, including “Always On My Mind”, “Georgia”, “On the Road Again”, and most of the best (I can’t think of any that he left out that he should have included; he seem to hit on every count.) With each song found myself growing calmer, more at peace.

People are still milling about, making smooth laps around the main field and stage. Really, it’s a very retro scene. The sun has almost set, the sky is that mauve, pale blue pink color and there are kids and adults all doing their own funky dance to the music. A really tattooed guy in a wheelchair makes huge, fast circles around the circumference of the field, using two Mexican, shamanic looking and painted walking sticks to propel himself faster. Willie begins On the Road Again (I think he sings it twice, once now, then again later, but I could be wrong.) Mid-way through his performance, a huge Texas flag unfurls. Duck Face, who still hasn’t shut up, says “Is that a Confederate Flag?!!! I hate country music!! I hate the South and everything it stands for!!” This is not an exaggeration. This is, sadly, what she says, and anyway, it’s not a confederate flag, it’s a Texas flag, which could have something to do with Willie’s origins, but hey, just a shot in the dark (why, why o why did you have to sit behind me…! ).

I keep trying to get into the spirit of being at a show – and maybe it’s because it’s not quite dark out yet – but it still feels more like entertainment than a real heart-thumping- jump-out-of –your-seat show. I’m sure that a lot of this has to do with the crowd, which is apathetic and apparently, moved by very little except the desire to forage for more hot-dogs and the like.

Willie’s songs all seem hopeful to me. Despite the bad attitude of the crowd, I find that I’m moved nonetheless. Every ballad sounds like a guy who is hurt, tired, run down by life and all that he’s been through and is looking for that sacred and scented breast of a nurturing woman who will provide that ever-critical soft place to fall. The way he sings it, you can see it. You also hope that he finds it – and in some ways, want to offer this. There’s a real element of desire in Nelson’s songs and it’s often about the need to be nurtured, to be forgiven. When he at last sings, “Always On My Mind”, I admit, I can feel my heart melt. Oh, laugh all ye cynics! I can hear you, but I tell you, I literally feel the soft down on my arms raise in goose bumps and my heart soften and a warm, growing smile comes to my face.

Years ago, I used to find this an offensive song. Used to think, Oh, fuck you, I was always on your mind!! As if that does me any good! I used to think about how angry I would be if someone used those lines to explain some slippery indiscretion. Now, so many years later, I know it’s never quite so simple. That perhaps despite all of my naturally cynical ways, I know that to grow older and wiser is to master the fine art of knowing what is truly important and what isn’t. Still, at my core I want to say it’s not enough to be on someone’s mind and only that if they are out there awfully betraying you with various method, yet the fact that this registers enough as somehow not quite right, that Willie knows that at the end of the day, there is only one who was always on his mind – and yes, maybe he didn’t show it, maybe he didn’t treat her, maybe he didn’t love her quite as often…, maybe he didn’t do all those things he should have, but shit, he knows it – and he’s man enough to own up to it and that has to count for something. On this night, it counts for a lot. A few people have tears on their faces during this number. I am almost one of the, which is mortifying, but so the fuck what. Isn’t that why we go to concerts anyway? To be moved, transported, to sometimes, admit it, make utter fools of ourselves and do things we wouldn’t normally do?

Willie tosses his red bandana to the crowd, and someone up front tosses from the dark, green field a bright Red Sox cap, which Willie puts on and sings a few more numbers. I read in another review that Willie tossed several caps and the like out to the field, and that at least one guy greased a slippery path through the crowd, shoving his way through to grap a cap that Willie had tossed. I also hear that the vibe up on the green isn’t much better than back in the stands, but I hear conflicting reports. A neighbor in the stand lends me his binoculars (I have always relied on the kindness of strangers).

Through the double lens, I can see how the stage now shines, highlighted and still in the fresh fallen night. It glows warm orange and gold, the huge Texas flag softly ruffling in the evening breeze. Willie looks great. His trademark plaits are still there, and from what I can tell (and granted, this is from a distance and through binoculars); the plaits are longer than ever. Two long, thin tails of spun silver and blondish-caramel hair, they hang on either side of his face to about halfway down his chest. Willie seems to be always smiling. “Georgia” is lyrical and sweet and beautiful and honeyed, the way he sings it. I’m swaying to the music, watching others around me at last, seem to settle down. Dare I say I even detect some contentedness in this crowd? He rounds out his performance with “Amazing Grace.” It is perfect. The crowd has settled in. Night has fallen now, and we have been softly guided through the twilight, floating on that molasses voice. Really, we have been seduced.

Night has fallen darkly when Willie exits, a big farewell and introduces Bob Dylan. The stage goes black for a minute, then Dylan walks on. We don’t see this. All we see is a flag drop, with an eye that has long, spider-like lashes, bringing to mind immediately Dylan’s thematic Tarantula thing that seems to pop up in songs, books, lyrics. The crowd is now electric. If Willie has seduced us, then Bob Dylan is the man to finish the job.

Dylan is as cool as they come, though a bit cold tonight. I recognize him back in the shadows, his longish grey coat hanging down and his heavy black hat falling over his eye. Through the binoculars, I seek him out, first thinking it is he playing the lead on guitar, but no. Dylan is at the keyboard. He keeps his eyes down, and seems almost nervous. With his outfit and almost panicky air about him, he reminds me of Carroll’s Mad Hatter. What is it that he’s late for, I wonder. Everytime I see him move, I see the Mad Hatter, with his frenetic, edge energy, “I’m late, I’m late!” but for what? Is this the sense that the old life is gone, when the stadium was packed with so many thousands of people and young women, swarming the stage, just to get a glimpse or to touch the guy who would by many be called the Poet of their generation. Maybe he mourns that time, feeling it has passed, though I don’t see it that way. I think it’s still there – but perhaps Dylan feels it’s absence.

Dylan addresses us only once that I recall. “Everybody enjoy the show,” he says. Something along those lines. The crowd cheers loudly as they can, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for Dylan. This is the first time I have ever seen this man who has been such an integral part of my upbringing. Dylan whose lyrics wound silver threads around my youth, my coming of age, the yearning and aching, the fervent, heated desires I have felt, the anger and the desperation – it’s all there in Dylan’s lyrics. “Aw honey, I want you… Soooo baaad. I want you.” How many times have I told myself, told others, “Don’t think twice it’s alright…” (For the record, he sings neither of those on this night.)

He opens with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, which is the only song that most of the children here know (and I mean little kids). He sings it faster than I’ve heard it before, but it’s a good song to get the crowd moving and into it. During the show, the shows that touch me most are “Forever Young,” “Things have Changed,” “Saving Grace” (which is just gorgeous) to name a few, not to mention an encore of three songs including “Like A Rolling Stone” and others, which stupidly, this reviewer missed ~ alas.

For the most part, Dylan hangs back to the left of the stage behind the keyboard. He takes center stage only a couple of times, and seems to be hiding a bit from us. A bit angry or upset, like he’s given up. Like this is what it has come to: performing a mid-size stadium in southern Massachusetts with a crowd that is only half-present – or actually, for this crowd, doing pretty well, but nothing compared, no doubt, to the crowds of Dylan’s youth – those masses of people who saw him as the poet and speaker of their generation. Nothing less than a prophet of his time. Like Willie, Dylan too seems to be looking for that “soft place to fall.” It is apparent in the songs he sings, the way he sings them. No matter that the words are almost unintelligible – one knows the music, recognizes some turns of phrase.

Just as Willie Nelson had such a spirit of hope in his music, hope that shone through in bright glimmers, it’s not the same with Dylan. With Dylan, the theme is the same, I think, but it’s an entirely different take – perhaps that of a younger man who hasn’t yet quite come to terms with age, with heartache; who hasn’t reconciled these things yet. Like Nelson, Dylan is looking for that soft place, but here there is more of a yearning. Willie seemed to know that even if all we have is tonight, there will undoubtedly be a tomorrow. With Dylan, I get that the sense that it’s more that although we have had today, I desperately need this tonight, because there may not be a tomorrow. If his intention was to express this desperation, then he succeeds.

Behind me, Duck Face is going on about how Dylan has “ruined his voice” which may well be true, but so the fuck what. My friend B, who has seen Dylan more times than is fair, and when he was younger too back in the day, says that she believes that Dylan does this mumbling incoherent thing on purpose. “Imagine!” she says, “He’s so sick of singing the same songs over and over again – he does that on purpose; what a great sense of humor.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I must say, I really like this interpretation. If it’s true, how very pithy and pissy and clever of him, and shit, though I miss the old Dylan and wish I could get the lyrics, I can’t say I would blame him. Perhaps this interpretation is too optimistic, but I like it nonetheless.

Dylan is making this huge effort to appeal to us tonight – almost a flirtation, a kind of tango, a push-pull thing of “go away closer.” It’s clear that Dylan hasn’t quite come to terms with some of the issues that no doubt plague every one as they get older, especially must be a contrast to rock stars as they age. A rock star is not meant to age. At least, that’s the common notion. The idea of Mick Jagger doing his rooster dance on the stage seems a bit odd – still, I’d go see it. Perhaps Dylan judges himself so harshly that he believes this performance at his age is somehow sad or pathetic or needy – as if he desperately needs or wants to prove to us that he’s still “got it.” He wants the love, but he doesn’t – the way a child sulks, petulantly in the corner. To me, although this is my first Dylan performance, it is nonetheless still incredible and immensely touching. There is real melancholy here, but it works.

Granted there is a certain mythical quality to those poets, rock stars, movie stars who reach tragic ends, particularly at their own hands. Still, does that mean we can’t respect perhaps even more those rock stars and writers who see it through the way Dylan has. Those who push forward through the long and often hard good night to middle or old age and still have the goolies to get out there and belt out a song for us.

Rock stars are supposed to stay Forever Young – forever the heart throb, the poet, the prophet. If only Dylan could see that even on this night, in this nowhere suburban stadium that even if the whole crowd is not responding as he would like (which again, I think they’re doing quite well), that there are still those of us out there in the dark night who remain Forever Young. That we reach you swiftly to him, but he’s not quite meeting us. All this yearning and heartache I hear in him tonight, I want to tell him it will be okay. That getting old, getting hurt, getting screwed, and shit, playing a suburban stadium at sixty some odd years old is still pretty great – that I need him on this night. “I need my song always to be sung when the winds of change shift.”

That I too need a soft place to fall.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    geezuz! great review.

    interesting, that vibe. the crowd in upstate new york was pretty much the opposite.

    though i did hear a woman behind me say something like “i just don’t know why they put dylan above willie”.

    i did not comment.

  • srp

    thanks – i’m glad you liked it.

    interesting that the show in Poughkeepsie was so different, but i would imagine so – it’s such a different vibe there anyway and more apt for a show like that. And yes, i hear what you’re saying about the Dylan/Nelson comment – we endured MANY such comments from Duck Face, as above. Ah well. Tant pis.

    thx. for checking it out — did Dylan seem less distressed at your show? just curious…

    cheers

    srp

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    actually, the show i saw was in cooperstown.

    i was so far off to the left i really couldn’t see Dylan all that well.

    he was very into it though…jumping around a lot behind that keyboard.

  • srp

    yeah, he was off to the left a lot in MA too…but i heard he was jumping around, though i didn’t see…. sounds like he was having some fun at least. certainly made MY evening…

    *
    *~}

  • Distorted Angel

    Why were we all off to the left, huh?

    We were pretty happy to find ourselves at the front of the stage in New Haven (thanks to all the folks who would rather buy beer than find a place to stand), but we, too, were far enough to the left that Dylan was hidden behind a couple of big amps for much of the time. He came out between every song to confer with the bass player, and while he was pretty into his performance, his interaction with the audience was nonexistent for the most part. Judging from the t-shirts, I’d say that the crowd was about evenly split between Willie Nelson fans and Dylan fans, and they both got really great receptions from the audience, which was demographically all over the map.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    at cooperstown it as pretty obvious about half way through Dylan’s set that some folks had lost interest.

    i think people were expecting the folky, jangly kinda music that Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits presents….but when this big, snarlin’ rock band showed up they just didn’t know how to deal with it.

    the only words spoken to the crowd by Dylan was during the band intros. he did make a joke about one of the band members getting a baseball bat for his wife. something like “…worst trade in baseball history”.

    har, har, har.

  • srp

    good question. why WERE we off tothe left, but really, it was Dylan…

    he did seem to hide a great deal, as you noted as well. same with our crowd, demographically all over the map, but a real split. but hey, if Bb and willie can get along, and i like them BOTH, why couldn’t they like eachother? was that infact the problem? weird hostility vibe, that others noticed too…i can’t figure that part out.

    as for Bob, i don’t know if my observations and intuition are correct — it’s just the way i saw it — but who knows. he did seem QUITE melancholy.

    *
    *~~}

    srp

  • http://sottovocce.blogspot.com/ srp

    good point about the band – they didn’t expect a big snarlin’ band as you said, mark, so that’s part of the problem, though i could have used a bit of both – the jingly jangly and the snarl; it’s all good.

    what do ya’ll think of my friend’s comment about bob intentionally not saying the lyrics as a joke? Pure mirth.

    Interesting idea – wonder if it’s true.

    *
    *~}
    srp

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    i saw Dylan last year up and meadowbrook farm and was shocked to see him not touch a guitar once.

    not sure why this is. i’d like to see him at least attempt an acoustic number.

    don’t know about the lyrics trick, though it wouldn’t surprise me.

  • http://sottovocce.blogspot.com/ srp

    me too!!! an acoustic number would be nice. i kept hoping for “Don’t think twice” or “i want you” which would have really made my night… but alas.

    Did he play guitar at the Brockton show at all? i think so – maybe once? – anyone? – hmmmm…

    well — with any luck, i’ll see him again, but never general admission like that. that was a freakin’ nightmare. ugh ugh ugh.

    srp

  • Eric Olsen

    lovely and lyrical Sadie: the difference seems to me to be that Willie is comfortable in his skin, Bob isn’t, and all that each implies. Thanks!

  • http://sottovocce.blogspot.com/ srp

    yeah, Eric ~~ i would agree with that. Willie is more of a Pro in some ways – he’s a real showman, as a friend said, “In the vegas way”, not like vegas, but has the same professionalism and continuity. Bob on the other hand is a mixed bag ~~ no doubt, a genius, which i strongly believe, but also a real moody mercurial guy and he’s going to do whateverhe feels like doing ~~ and if he’s feeling pissy then that will show. REgardless, i still think he does an incredible show. I only wish he had come forward more — because i came, after all, not just to hear him, but also to see him.

    thx. as ever — SRP