In January 1974 I saw Bob Dylan perform at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It was Dylan's first tour in eight years - the first since I was eight - and Dylan was an uber-icon. I was a pro at scoring good seats, but even though there were two shows the best I could do was on the side and high up.
The concert started late and the crowd was restless, by which I mean drunk, stoned, loud and obnoxious. Finally The Band came on and did a couple of songs. Then this guy came out with a big hat pulled down over his face and started singing Lay Lady Lay
. I leaned over to my friend sitting next to me and asked, "Who the hell is that?" The guy behind us leaned in and shouted at me, "It's Dylan, asshole!"
I was expressing incredulity more than asking a question. Dylan wasn't singing the same melody he had sung on New Morning
, and he was screaching out the lyrics instead of the rounded tones of his recorded versions. Dylan's singing has never been particularly musical, but his performance that night was six steps worse. He was unrecognizable.
In the previous couple of years I had been to a lot of concerts. Stadium concerts were a pretty tight show back then and I had never been disappointed by one.
This Dylan concert was something else. Only part of it was that Dylan sucked: he sang badly, stripped all the melodies from his songs, never looked up, never said a word to the crowd - and he was on stage only intermittently. The format of the concert didn't work: The Band was too different and too distinct to interspere their music with Dylan's. Also, there was a really bad vibe in Maple Leaf Gardens that night. A few drunken louts kept screaming during the songs.
After it was over and we were walking out my friend realized he'd left his mittens at his seat, so we went back into the now brightly lit, empty arena. All around our seats there was vomit and smashed liquor bottles, drug paraphenalia, fast food wrappers, cigarette butts. It hit me like a fist to the gut that this wasn't about music or even entertainment; this was just a place for druggies to hang out. The sixties ended in lots of different ways, but that's how they ended for me.
Just a couple of months before that January concert, folk singer Phil Ochs, depressed by a flatlining career and taking self-destructive risks, got mugged and strangled in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I didn't know at that point if he'd even survived the attack, and rumors were circulating that he'd permanently lost his voice (which turned out to be true).
While Dylan was too smug, Ochs was too needy. Ochs was too upfront about wanting more success; it was uncool. Other than that one characteristic, I think he could have had all the success he craved. On the other hand, Dylan's success always had a lot to do with his creation of himself as an icon - his lies about his childhood and early career, his manipulation of people.
I saw Dylan again in 1979, during his born-again Christian phase when his fan base fled, and finally saw a great Dylan show. It was at The Aud in Kitchener, with a tenth the number of seats of Maple Leaf Gardens. I wouldn't have even gone but a friend talked me into it, and boy was I glad.
Bruce Springsteen once said that the first time he heard Like a Rolling Stone
it was like someone kicked open the door to his mind. Dylan's music was like that for me too.
I got to thinking about all this when I recently rewatched D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back
, which provides a snapshot of a few days Dylan spent in London during a 1965 tour. Dylan seems impossibly young in the film, nasty and bombastic, and also isolated and lonely. The film is popular with Dylan fans, and I have never heard anyone say that Pennebaker meant to be critical of Dylan: I have to think that the maker and the fans of the movie held Dylan in such high regard that they didn't see anything unattractive in the scenes where he yells at people, makes snide comments about a fellow folk singer, and even - right at the end - calmly picks his nose.