my homeless dylan
Nov. 14, 2006
(DANILOFF) I took my parents to their first Dylan show last weekend. At BU’s Agganis Arena. Though they are his contemporaries, the last time they paid attention to Bob Dylan he was singing protest songs in Greenwich Village. Blowin' in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and as my mom put it The Changin’ Times. “Is he doing anything on Iraq,” she asked, then added “Harry Chapin – now there was a talent.”
Their impression of Dylan is that he’s an inarticulate grump, based mainly on Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary on the singer’s early years. Why so surly with the press, my dad asked. A journalism professor at Northeastern, he may have taken Dylan’s youthful scorn personally. As I listened to myself answering their questions, I realized how short my words were falling. Explaining Dylan is like trying to put smoke in a box. People have made careers out of his inscrutability. Best I could do was quote a fan I know from Iceland who said, “Bob Dylan has written a song for every experience I’ve had in my life.”
To prepare them for the show, I burned discs, emailed current set lists and loaned them the five-pound door-stopper The Complete Lyrics. “No complaining you couldn’t understand him,” I warned.
The night of the concert, people streamed down the steep concrete stairways at the seven-thousand-seat arena clutching tubs of popcorn, settling their sodas and beers into cup holders. Like they’d come for a movie. There were pony-tailed boomers with their teenage kids. Frat boys, party girls. Old hippies, young hippies. Where will the people dance, my mom asked. Where they stand, I answered.
After an ear-splitting set by Jack White’s The Raconteurs that drove my father up into the atrium, Dylan took the stage. Under a ring of athletic championship banners stood a little man in a western saloon-style suit with six hundred songs in his head, the history of America beneath a black cowboy hat. He leaned into his keyboard and began.
My dad watched intently, resting his chin on his knuckles, lacking only a pen and notepad. My mom kept her hands in her lap, even during applause. They couldn’t understand a word. Illuminated cell phones waved in the air instead of lighters.
As soon as I recognized a tune, I shouted the title to my parents. I was met with blank looks. How could I possibly explain something like set-list envy? Or describe that swoon of anticipation between songs. Would this be the night he finally played Joey or Isis or that holy grail – Angelina? To his fans, Dylan represents infinite possibility.
He flubbed a couple lines and at one point almost wandered off stage. “Something’s bothering him,” a voice next to me said. People like to say it’s hit or miss with Dylan. But I don’t mind when he makes mistakes. It’s refreshing to see him as human. And I sometimes wonder if he does it on purpose.
After the encore, Dylan came out and stood under the bright lights with his band, uncomfortably turning this way and that before the frenzied crowd. I was reminded of the packed Body Worlds exhibit I’d been to earlier that day at the Science Museum. I pictured a skin-stripped corpse hanging in a dark corner, a harmonica pressed to white lips, “Song-and-Dance Man” written on the plaque. All seven thousand of us trying to get as close as possible, eyeballing his insides from every angle. I saw myself leading my parents like children toward the glass case that contained his plump heart and cross sections of brain. To our disappointment, they appeared no different than the other hearts and brains on display. No different from our own. And that, perhaps, has been Bob Dylan’s point all along.
©2006 Caleb Daniloff