No doubt, Bob Dylan has heard it all: the chorus of boos that greeted his first public foray into electric rock music at the 1965 Newport folk festival, the infamous ‘Judas’ taunt in 1966, and the derisive jeers that mocked his notorious gospel concerts in the late 1970s and early 1980s are only the most obvious expressions of disappointment aimed at a man burdened with a ludicrous degree of adulation, admiration and expectation. When you carry such a load, you’re bound to piss people off from time to time. Perhaps more than any single figure in recent history, Dylan functions as a kind of canvass upon which his fans draw idealized images of what they consider him to be: a poet, a prophet, outlaw, fake, or even a star of electricity, as Todd Haynes put it in his extraordinary cinematic rendering of the Dylan myth.
Fans get mightily agitated when the man confounds their expectations, and heads in unforeseeable directions as an artist and man. After all, we have a lot invested in the Dylan’s music, and we want him to make us proud. Actually, we often just want him to confirm our own take on life, our own narrow political beliefs and prejudices. I remember my own sense of horror when Bob released Slow Train Coming in 1979. I’d recently discovered Dylan and Karl Marx, and become intoxicated by the heady dose of self-righteousness and indignation that both writers inspired in my adolescent mind. I desperately wanted to change the world that had gone so badly wrong by entrenching poverty and misery as a norm for so many.
I was outraged by Dylan’s turn to Christianity because I held religion responsible for many of the world’s ills. Shit, surely the guy who sung ‘With God On Our Side’ couldn’t be speaking in tongues and hastening the end of days, could he? Besides, how could the ‘voice of a generation,’ the rebel beatnik who wrote ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and so many other great songs that rallied against injustice and inequality fall for such hokum as born-again Christianity? For me, as a right-on teenager, things were black and white. I knew which side I was on, and fuck anyone who took a different path.
Needless to say, I’ve mellowed with age, and I’m now willing to tolerate all kinds of dissent and dispute. Hell, I’ll even give Fox news a pass (from time to time — I’m not that tolerant of outright vapidity as an everyday occurrence). Anyway, Slow Train Coming is now one of my favourite Dylan albums. See how liberal I’ve become now that the scales of dogma have fallen from my eyes. And, in a way, I, too, have been born again. I’ve morphed into a respectable, middle-class professional (with a decent disposable income). This in itself is nothing extraordinary. However, it’s this current born-again persona that’s largely responsible for my current beef with the great man. Yes, folks, Dylan has pissed me off again, and the preceding paragraphs are nothing more than a preamble to explaining why I’m so incensed.
So here’s the deal, and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s a big one. I paid $175 to see Dylan’s concert at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia on Thursday 21 April 2011, a date that will go down in infamy. That’s one hundred and seventy five dollars multiplied by two, by the way (I took my teenage son, who, incidentally has never had a problem with Slow Train Coming, since I trained him to be tolerant of all creeds by whacking him around the ear every time he said something bigoted).
Anyway, as a loyal customer of the Ticketek Corporation, I was granted the privilege of securing pre-sale tickets. I fired up my computer at the anointed hour, typed the prized pre-sale code into the appropriate box on the screen, and lucked out by getting fourth row seats, front and center. I usually get nosebleed seats at arena concerts, so I was stoked — and it’s an understatement to say I was eagerly anticipating the event. After all, I’d be in close proximity to a living legend. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve got to come clean, and admit that I’d seen Dylan on many other occasions, and even had good seats once (back in 2001 at the same venue when he delivered an absolutely stunning set that I’ve never forgotten, perhaps because most Dylan performances I’d witnessed were so mediocre). So, I wasn’t a Dylan virgin. I knew what to expect, or so I’d imagined.
I expected to see Australia’s own Dylan, Paul Kelly — he seems to get all the prestigious support slots, especially if someone literate like Dylan or Cohen is touring Australia. I’m not a big fan of Mr. Kelly, but I’ve seen enough of him at these arena gigs to appreciate his artistry. I expected Dylan, to play very little guitar, and turn his back to good proportion of the audience when he played his keyboard. I expected the coarse, sandpaper bark that passes for his voice these days. I expected the throng, of greying, middle-aged hippies with expanding waistlines to sing along with those songs that still retained their original melodies. I expected the band to keep their eyes peeled for any unexpected curve balls that Dylan might throw in mid-song. I expected loose arrangements, the occasional ramshackle ending, and, perhaps, a few moments of transcendental bliss when Dylan conjures the spirit of one of those ghosts from the Invisible Republic.
I also expected to buy a few pieces of tour merchandise at outrageously inflated prices, and maybe eat some of the junk food that’s always on offer at such events. I expected to see a few surreptitious scalpers and bootleggers, and I expected to moan about the poor sound quality that always seems to plague the Rod Laver Arena.
I didn’t expect to get into fight.
Ok, a heated exchange that almost ended in physical violence, then. I’m not really the fighting type (I’d have a hard time beating Woody Allen in his dotage), but, I can make like Larry David when provoked, and this unfortunate tendency has got me into more than a little trouble over the years. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to not call a crock a crock, and suck up patent abuses of power and prestige.
Things began as expected. Mr. Kelly, accompanied by his nephew, Dan, played an engaging set. I even snapped a couple of photographs. Man, I was so close. I couldn’t wait for the main event. Kelly departed the stage, fully deserving the warm applause of the audience. Then, there was a brief intermission while the stage was prepared for Dylan and band. I could feel the excitement building. How cool was this. I had amazing seats, and I was anticipating a stellar performance — I had a feeling that this one was going to be special. The lights slowly dimmed to black. The band took their positions, and then the crowd roared as the first strains of ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’ — from Slow Train Coming, no less —washed over the auditorium. The crowd stood as one, row by row everyone stood to get a better glimpse of the man. I took my camera out of my pocket and started taking photographs. After a few minutes, I became aware of the people behind me yelling for me to sit down — they couldn’t see because the first three rows were still on their feet. I dutifully complied, out of politeness, and because I fully expected that everyone in front of me would also comply in the name of community spirit and fairness. After three or four songs it became obvious that the people who’d bought the best seats were going to remain on their feet for the duration, their backsides were not going to touch the plastic monstrosities that passed for chairs until the proverbial fat lady exhaled her last bellow, and Dylan left the stage.
I looked around me. The people immediately behind me kept yelling, the young man to my left, stood his ground, he’d obviously resolved to remain upright, and endure the slings and arrows of verbal abuse; the couple in front of me sang and danced without a shred of self-consciousness, irritating the crap out of me. I felt my blood pressure rising to dangerously high levels for a man of my vintage. I bit my tongue, hoping that those selfish fuckers would have the good grace to sit down after being on their feet for 30 minutes. No such luck. My inner Larry came to fore. I tapped the young man in front of me on the shoulder, and explained my predicament.
He looked slightly aghast, and dismissed my request by pointing out that he had to stand because those in front of him were also standing. Impeccable logic. How do you argue with that? I resumed my seat, fuming until my inner Larry could take no more. I made my request again, this time more insistently. Again, I was rebuked. Not content to sit it out passively, I stood for a third time, and shouted a full-throttled string of expletives at the young man just as Dylan finished ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. The crowd’s applause had died to an ambient hush, so my words rang out around the arena:
‘Sit down you selfish cunt, or I’ll fucking deck you!’
I swear I saw Dylan raise an eyebrow. I’m sure the great man heard me. What was he going to say?
‘You’re a liar, I don’t believe you?’
Obviously, I was no Keith Butler, and my boorish explosion of frustrated machismo was not going to constitute a turning point in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The moment seemed to last an eternity before the band kicked into the next song. I sat down, defeated, humiliated, and shocked at my outburst. My sense of disgrace was exacerbated when an usher came to see what all the fuss was about. She was an absolute darling — sympathetic to my plight, and even willing to reason and then admonish the offending couple that blocked my view of the spectacle. After making a futile appeal to my adversaries, she patiently explained that Dylan’s camp had issued specific instructions to allow people to remain on their feet, so there was nothing she could do, sorry. WTF? Dylan himself was responsible for this shitty situation. What a night, and what a disappointment. The venal couple made a hasty retreat at the end of proceedings, possibly believing that I’d make good on my idle threat. They needn’t have worried, I wasn’t going to do Jack.
So, Dylan pissed me off, again, but he’d also given me pause for thought, again. Wasn’t it the music that mattered? Why was I so hung up on having an unobstructed view of the icon? Why privilege sight at a musical event? Isn’t rock and roll supposed to move people to shuffle their feet to the beat, shake, rattle and roll?
But I’d paid to see Dylan, damn it! I wanted my money’s worth! I wanted to sit comfortably in my chair after a hard day’s slog, and passively luxuriate in the mystical aura of celebrity.
So, there you have it, folks — the root cause of my anger. I hadn’t got what I expected, but ain’t that just the way life rolls? It’s taken me more than a year to summon the courage to reflect on this incident and interrogate my own response to the event described above. I’m still pissed, but more at myself than Dylan, or the self-regarding hordes who occupied the first three rows on that contentious April night, and, I have no doubt, I’ll be there when Dylan comes to town next time. He seems to have a knack for making me think (twice).