Thanks to Danica at Living a Beautiful Life for organizing Blog Dylan, here is something I have been thinking about for awhile and this seemed like a good time to get the thought out.
Two things happened on February 9th 1991, Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 and Dylan played the Hammersmith Odeon. I am sure there had to be more than two things but I led a very shallow existence at the time, some things have not changed although I hope I have more depth nowadays. My wife says that I still have no depth around Liverpool games or even for that matter Bob Dylan.
I had tickets for both but had to choose, so my Uncle Robbie got to see the reds victory and I got to hitch hike to London from Liverpool. The mission was to see my friend Dave who had moved south and was working in London and go to the famed Hammersmith Odeon to attend my first Dylan gig.
This was the culmination of my Dylan journey, from reluctant listener to full on concert attending semi-fan. It had been a rocky path. Dave had done his best, trying as hard as he could to convince me that Dylan was worth the effort. He made me watch Don’t Look Back late into the night, he force fed me Zimmy’s performance on the Last Waltz. He read aloud from the lyric book, played me album after album, got me drunk, high and tired so many evenings playing Dylan to me. It just never clicked.
Eventually he gave up on his all out assault apart from one night when I had to finish a paper on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in 1986. In preparation I had gone to the pub all day, this seemed so obvious, how better to appreciate the two major poets of the Great War other than drunk, to think and take notes. At some point Dave walked in and I was reciting Anthem For Doomed Youth stood on a table to the applause of the bikers and metal heads in the Wilsons bar on Wood St. while Motorhead blared out of the juke box. This is how I like to remember the moment. Dave more truthfully perhaps says I was about to be throttled as I mumbled vague anti-war statements in the corner describing Lemmy’s bass playing like the roar of the barrages on the Somme.
Realizing my academic life was in jeopardy, and if this happened I would have to get a job and no longer be available for his hare brained schemes, he lured me into a cab with the promise of further excess and fed me fruit cake and tea until I was able to think again. Then he sat me down, gave me his copy of Biograph by Dylan, the Penguin Owen and Sassoon and locked me in to write.
Those five albums of Dylans collected works arranged in some sequence that only made sense to Dylan focussed my mind as I managed to scrape together enough words to scrape a C+ on the essay. Thus saving my academic career and allowing me to live a life of excess on the government dollar for another year, yes this was the days of full grants and living expenses that the witch Thatcher was determined to end.
This collection had a profound impact on my dehydrated brain. As I said Dave had done his best to initiate me into the secrets of Dylan with little to no success, I had remained immune to the disease. However a small germ lingered on waiting to infect me.
It may have been the randomness of the collection that sucked me in. I am however still to this day struck by the incredible run on side 2:
- The Times They Are a Changin’
- Blowin’ In The Wind
- Masters of War
- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
- Percy’s Song
All of this resonated with me as I struggled writing my report on Sassoon and Owen, the themes of alienation and the fact that the chips are stacked in favor of businesses and the war machine and the rich and don’t ask the judge to help. I realized at this point that Dylan was not just necessarily a songwriter, he was a voice not of but for the underdog. The empathy, compassion and rage in this side alone got me to the end of the paper. It also made sense in parallel with other music I was listening to at the time, Billy Bragg, Roy Harper, The Home Service and The Levellers. There was a thread of righteous indignation and a stance for change through humanity. They also had the same faded rolled up Levi’s in common, a fashion statement I continue to hold onto to this day much to my wife chagrin. “Why wear shrink to fit?” she cries as I begin the process once again, “it’s the jean of Dylan, McQueen, Bragg and the Boss” I proclaim as I pull on slightly wet jeans and defiantly roll them up.
The box set is very much weighted to the famous songs but there are incendiary live performances of Isis, Romance In Durango and the real treat and the song that haunted me for years, Visions of Johanna from the Royal Albert Hall in 1966. I must have played this one song three or four times on that first night. Years later I was talking to a friend about how I didn’t get Dylan until I heard Biograph. He smiled and nodded and asked if I had seen him live yet?
So I told him about February 9th 1991.
Sometime in December 1990 I got a phone call from Dave asking if I would come to see his hero Dylan at the Hammersmith Odeon in February, he was masquerading this invite as a Birthday present for me. Without thinking I agreed. As the day drew closer I noticed the conflict on the calendar, actually being super organized it was three days before the event. This was the time before cell phones, the internet and instantaneous communication. I had arranged to meet Dave in Trafalgar Square at 5pm on the 9th and now it was the 6th. Dave lived in a house with no phone and his girlfriend Lesley had no way of contacting him apart from the arranged phone call weekly that was supposed to be after the gig. She helpfully let me know he was planning on coming north on the 10th, this was however a day late and I was going to be with him.
I could at this point make a decision to screw with my best friend and not turn up but go to the derby game, or give my ticket away and hitch to London and see the gig. After a long night tossing and turning I decided to hitch to London and be done with the ethical dilemma. Robbie may have been an advocate for this decision as well seeing as how he would benefit the most. My uncle Robbie picked up his ticket and dropped me at switch island to start the long hitch to London at 7am. Three truck drivers and their dirty jokes and a car full of Rastafarians later I arrived at Trafalgar Square, a little grizzled and smelling none too savory.
Dave refused to tell me the score and we proceeded to prepare for the gig in a jubilant buoyant mood. Drinks and things were imbibed and comestibles ingested we were ejected from many southern pubs as we loudly made our way to Hammersmith. Weaving our way through the usual crowds of any major city. This was not another gig, this was the gig that Dave insisted would change my life. How he new this so firmly I have no idea as this was Dave’s first Dylan gig too.
On entering the hallowed ground were No Sleep ‘Till Hammersmith had been recorded we spent time star spotting. Dave Stewart was over there, is that Seal and Eric Clapton and I swear we saw a Stone or two.
Being poor Dave could only afford two tickets at the upper most nose bleed balcony. We settled in next to a pale young woman who had her program in a protective plastic cover and had arranged her notebook with a red and black pen on her lap to take notes. She slid further away from us as we sat. Being friendly Dave asked if he could see the program, as if it was possible she got even paler and looked a little sick and fearful. She never did let us look at the program.
Dave pulled out his hidden half bottle of scotch and we got comfortable. The pale girl did accept a few sips and relaxed a little as we got ready for the gig ahead. There was I have to acknowledge an air of expectancy in the air, a tension that was palpable, the knowledge that something was going to happen that would be memorable.
The great man wobbled on stage and proceeded to destroy his back catalogue. How his voice screeched and croaked, his guitar may have been slightly out of tune and it was only by the second verse you could figure out which song he was singing, the band appeared to be having the same problem. There was an arrogance about his stance, his practiced sneer and his seeming indifference to the band and audience. He walked on stage as if he owned it and every other stage he might inhabit. He at times looked as if he was arguing with himself under his own breath, maybe deciding what to play next.
Briefly this small crazy haired nasally dandy captivated the audience and despite the many short comings he was frankly brilliant. His stumbling presence was such that you new you were in the company of a musical giant. It was almost as if he was so secure in his own ability he knew he could just fuck with the audience however he wanted and was going to get away with it. The man was a legend that night, seemingly coked out of his mind and somewhat the worse for wear on the Never-ending Tour.
At this point I finally got Dylan, he really didn’t care what you thought he was just going to do his thing and you could come along if you wanted but don’t expect any help. You had to get there on your own. At some point I found myself holding the hand of the pale girl next to me all in black as she leaned over and told me this was her second night and she was here for the whole run. This seemed to be an almost religious experience for her, at one point she was shaking and crying, I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or tears of rage but they made her mascara run. She reminded me of those girls at the front row of a Beatles show screaming the name of their particular hero. She diligently took notes, some songs in red others in black, at times she feverishly erased lines to replace it with the correct song title. Hopefully she is out there blogging her experience.
If I could have found or afforded tickets I think I may have stayed for that whole run of shows as well. At one point in my mind me and that pale girl followed Dylan on the Never-ending tour, keeping track of songs and keys they were played in. We recorded his mumbled introductions for posterity as this was surly the most important thing that could be happening in the 90’s. Eventually we became confidantes of the great man, we knelt at his feet and supped form his brilliance. Then he played Wiggle Wiggle and all was well with the world. The pale girl pulled her hand out of mine and I took a slug of the scotch.
Since that night I have bought Dylan albums gone to shows and listened to the bootlegs, apart from that one show on Feb 9th 1991. Maybe it wasn’t as amazing as my memory says it was and in no way do I want to shatter the memory.
After the gig we found a pub, what else do you do to decompress. The pale girl came too mainly to watch the show that was unfurling before her as Dave and I bickered and argued and fought about the gig. In the smoky corner of a bar near the venue we found a clique of Dylan fans talking about the gig. Gleefully we joined in the conversation until the immortal line was spoken by a floppy haired youth in an aran sweater and a donkey jacket with a voice straight out of PG Wodehouse: “At one point he used his voice in the way Charlie Parker blew his horn.” At this point Dave stood up gleefully smiled down at the callow youth and declared in a voice that had been heard across a packed dockside bar; “Charlie Parker has never sounded like an asthmatic goose you wanker…” The pale girl ducked and made herself look small, we grabbed our jackets and ran as the Dylan cognoscenti rose as one to face the heathens in their midst. We stumbled towards Kensington laughing until we reached Hyde Park and sat smoking next to the Serpentine. The only company being the homeless, the drunks and the ducks and swans. Breathing hard we laughed feeling the joy of a night of friendship music and hedonism.
At some point we managed to get back to Hounslow to stay in Dave’s truly awful flat. Leaning back we groaned and played Street Legal and Desire until the neighbors complained at which point we switched to the Grateful Dead.
Every time Feb 9th roles around I play Street Legal and think of that long ago crazy day when I missed the game but caught Dylan during his most erratic phase. My fear is if I ever hear the gig it will suck, it’s better in my memory along with that strange pale girl, I hope she enjoyed her remaining shows and they did not continue the trauma it seems we were intent on causing for all around us. I like to think we were just carrying on the tradition of the Beats, in reality we were just two drunk young men going to the gig, I like to think Zimmy would approve.
Nine years later I leaned against the bleachers at Portland Meadows as Dylan played Mama You Been On My Mind, I held my youngest son Ben and laughed at the thought of how far we had come in 9 years Bobby and me. He looked healthy and spry with a band that was rocking. I was sober and healthy with three kids and a beautiful wife. 6000 miles away Dave was married to Lesley and had three kids and according to Lesley did not listen to much music, for some reason this makes me sad.
Dylan, he still managed to demand the attention of every person sitting, standing or stumbling and even the baby. He then moved into Country Pie and I smiled and settled down to enjoy the show, I looked around and sitting cross legged not far away was a pale girl with a notebook and black and red pens taking notes and smiling. Not the same girl but I guess Zimmy attracts a certain type of crazy.
A couple of years ago I heard Dylan played the Liverpool Empire, at the end of an harmonica solo he threw his harp to the crowd. Allegedly some wag threw it back with the shout: “Learn to play the damn thing Bobby.” I have no idea if this is true but I want it to be.
The set list is here from Feb 9th 1991:
Portland Meadows is here:
The Liverpool game is here if you are interested: