Monday, November 14, 2016

Last Week Bob Dylan Was In My Back Yard

Last week Bob Dylan was in my backyard.

He came to Louisville, Kentucky and then traveled on to Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. All within reasonable driving distance from me. After googling some reviews I selected not to go and see him based on the setlist of his current Never Ending Tour, which mostly feature songs from his last two American Songbook albums, Shadows In The Night and Fallen Angels and a few songs from his post year 2000 albums. Although a forever reinventing artist, one of my favorite artists and a major influence on my life, I prefer the earlier Bob Dylan music.


I was first introduced to Bob Dylan, I remember well, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. It was in the converted front-porch-to-bedroom of John Henry Jordaan. A ship engineer or something like that, I never really knew, but I used to hang around at his house like a rock star groupie wherever he was in town. Well, I use to hang around more often than not because I was a friend of his younger brother and he had cool sisters too. I loved the stories he use to tell about the Scots dancing over swords, the English countryside, how he was robbed of a full month’s salary within 5 minutes of setting foot on French soil in Marseille’s harbor, and many other travelogues. But mostly I hung around because he had a state of the art turntable with a mean set of speakers, and an awe-inspiring vinyl collection that impressed the bejesus out of my young mind. Apart from a folky Dylan, I was also exposed to Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash, John Denver, and too many others to remember, mostly folk and country artists. I can’t credit John Henry for my lifelong wanderlust, I think that is my mom’s doing with her geography and history lessons, but I can most definitely credit him for teaching me how to play the guitar and a lifelong love for the instrument and music in general. Initially I practiced on John’s guitar while I nagged my mother for months to buy me a guitar.  

 Bob Dylan at Gordon Lightfoot's House in Toronto in 1975

Many years later I stayed for six or so months through a bitter cold Highveld winter in the “Chelsea Hotel”, a battered old caravan/camper in the front yard or back yard or whatever side that was, of Andrew Donaldson, the acclaimed South African journalist of the Rand Daily Mail and London Sunday Times fame, and band member of The Hip Replacements and lately of the Porchlights; in his own words: “Writer, journalist, sloppy guitarist, mostly happy, sometimes bewildered, occasionally angry”. There in Randburg I got to know another side of Dylan, profounder, more philosophical. It was there where I heard The Basement Tapes, Hard Rain, Desire, Street Legal and especially Blood On The Tracks for the first time.

Come in, she said
I'll give ya shelter from the storm

My sheltered musical upbringing at home on Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Creedence Clearwater Revival, traditional South African boeremusiek, Afrikaans gospel and 60s and 70s light pop music was shattered by Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, Roger Lucy, The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Punk in general, and any form of alternative music. During that period of my life I also saw Dylan trading Joan Baez to Harry Dean Stanton for a chestnut mare in Renaldo and Clara, got to know most of the bars in Rocky Street, rocked at two-tone parties in Houghton communes and was barely aware of seeing forgettable performances of unknown rock and punk bands with limited talents at the Wits Campus. Those were the days of hazy dreams, little money but no worries, drinking and driving and not going anywhere in any hurry.

It was a hot August night, the 31st, 1997. A Sunday. The traditional heat of Kansas City at that time of the year was enforced by clammy humidity, which pushed the heat index into the high 90s. We arrived late afternoon, family in towed (we waited for some of the heat to dissipate) at the Liberty Memorial Park on the Missouri side of the city. The whole weekend was a musical orgy, not quite like Woodstock, more controlled, but the city’s Spirit Festival was nonetheless footloose and fancy free. Friday night the house was rocked by Cher and INXS. Saturday was bluesy and headlined by the Robert Cray Band and B.B. King. But it was the Sunday night that made my years of dreams and strumming his tunes and belching out his poetry came true. After a visit to the jazz stage to watch Alex Bugnon and Peter White we found ourselves an advantageous position, just to the right of the main stage on a slight slope. Those days Liberty Park was still undeveloped, grassy and standing room only, unlike today’s seated arena. Anticipation was building; the natural bowl of the park was filling up and the buzz got louder. Today, all I can remember of the band that preceded the main event and they impressed me somewhat then, was their sound, rockabilly-folky and a twang of country with an attitude.


When Bob Dylan walked out that night in his black embroidered suit, Boss of the Plains cowboy hat and Apache scarf, and an electric guitar under his arm…you can’t fabricate the kind of stuff that went on in my head at that moment. For the next ninety minutes or so I didn’t take much note of anything going on around me. My focus was solely on that little big man on stage. I was…“It’s alright Ma, I am breathing”, sporadically and only in short shallow gulps, but nevertheless breathing. Most of the time I was singing along too.

Those days there weren’t things like bucket lists. You only had dreams and they were called DREAMS. They weren’t called planned achievements, or wish lists items that you can add to on the top right hand corner of your computer screen. They were called dreams. Surreal or not, I honestly never thought I would ever see Dylan live. Come on! A poor kid from one of the poorest suburbs of Cape Town whose mother could only afford a $10 deposit and then pay off the rest of the $30 guitar over the next six months! Seeing Dylan…ever…live? Those were unrealistic dreams. Those were the stuff you lived for.

I still have that old guitar. It is still my favorite. No matter that I added others over time. I don’t play it much anymore. But it has gone around the world with me the past 40 years. Beaten up, battered and bruised, but load it up with a new set of brass strings and it will zing the grey matter upstairs, reverberate through the folds of my brain and create waves of memories that will come flooding out like a tsunami striking a lonely island in the Pacific.

 Joni Mitchell Roger McGuinn and Bob Dylan

Either my dreams have changed, I know I still have many left, or the “new sounding” Bob Dylan is not part of my remaining dreams anymore. I guess the latter must be the case because I said no to see him, possibly for the last time, in action again.            

However, my decision to not go does not in any way diminish Bob Dylan’s greatness as the greatest poet of the Rock and Roll era for me. As the lately departed Leonard Cohen observed about Dylan’s Nobel Prize: “It is like pinning a medal on Everest.” That is how I still and forever will feel about Bob Dylan. Nor does my decision mimic some Dylan fans’ reaction at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he was booed because he plugged in and went electric. 

In crystal clear clarity I am reminded of Paul McCartney’s lyrics from The Song We Were Singing from his album Flaming Pie:

For a while, we could sit, smoke a pipe
And discuss all the vast intricacies of life
We could jaw through the night
Talk about a range of subjects, anything you like

Oh yeah

But we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time
Yeah we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time

Take a sip, see the world through a glass
And speculate about the cosmic solution
To the sound, blue guitars
Caught up in a philosophical discussion

Oh yeah

But we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time
Yeah we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time