The Thunder Rolled Through An African Casino, My Sister Never Inherited A Million Bucks (She Won It!) And I Got To See Bob Dylan In Concert. Or... How I Thought I Was Going To See Dylan Live And Didn’t Because Bob Thought He Was Going To See Elvis... Then I Did Because Bob Didn’t!
By Danny De Wet
Published Friday, 12 July 2019 08:50
With the media hype around the Bob Dylan/ Neil Young UK dates last weekend as well as the recent release of The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese a film that contains the best live footage of the Nobel laureate - from an era that had a profound effect on this writer’s life, I thought I’d share the two pilgrimages from Africa (one unsuccessful) to catch the man in concert for the first time.
Prior to the 'Blood On The Tracks' album, I had been a serious fan - subsequent releases 'Desire' and 'Street Legal' led me to have the obligatory operation, joining the cult and proudly declaring: “I am such a big Bob Dylan fan that I had a nose job, ....to have my nose made bigger!”
Poet, singer, songwriter, author, movie director, painter, metalwork artist and guru – an icon whose lyrics have taught me way more than anyone linked to a religious order.
I had a stark dream encounter with the man in the early nineties. Seated in a familiar diner in a little town adjoining the city in which I spent my high school years, people around me started to whisper excitedly to each other that Bob Dylan had just walked by. I looked up and from the back, it may well have been.
Optimism trumped cynicism and I burst out of my seat to find my “ghast well and truly flabbered” when the eyes gazing at me were indeed those that Joan Baez described as being “bluer than Robin’s eggs”.
As I was trying in vain to articulate a trillion profound (and trite) thoughts, Dylan just looked at me shaking his head slightly with a gentle quizzical expression that translated into “I know ...I know.” I woke up with a smile on my face and the whole scenario indelibly etched into my brain.
In 1997, my Irish descended wife and I dipped into our savings in order to tour England and Ireland on a belated honeymoon - we had tickets for every UK show that Bob Dylan & Van Morrison (performing together on one bill) were playing that summer. It was to be the first time I was going to see either artist live and a week before we were due to leave in a “simple twist of fate” Bob went into the hospital with histoplasmosis and cancelled the performances – only the second time he had done so citing medical reasons up to that point.
Our bitter disappointment was offset by seeing Van Morrison twice, going to the Glastonbury Festival (Radiohead headlining the Saturday night) and catching some incredible performances by The Levellers, Ben Harper, The Jayhawks, Luka Bloom, Shawn Colvin and The Chemical Brothers.
Thankfully uncle Bob survived what has been reported in some publications as a ‘near-death experience’ and once he was discharged, he gave a typical wise-ass Dylan statement: “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon!”
I returned to the South of Africa with a smile on my face but unfulfilled as the prime motivation for my trip had not been realised and at gatherings, my family couldn’t resist teasing me while my one and only rambling gambling sister would frequently toast rounds of shooters with: “Don’t worry when I win a million, you can go and see Bob Dylan anywhere in the world!” And lo and behold she did ... and I did!
It was raining in Cardiff on the 18th June 2004 and, though we arrived in the mid-afternoon, there was already a queue - once, inside the arena, we ended up standing about thirty metres from the stage and made small talk with two elderly fans.
I complimented the dishevelled academic on his nineteen seventy-eight, moth-eaten Blackbushe Picnic T-Shirt just after he mentioned that this was his sixty-fourth Dylan concert. He thanked me and asked how many times I'd seen the man perform. I told him it was my first time and his comment triggered a reply (using a Shelter From The Storm lyric) that I used as a trump card quote to get from where I was right down to the very front …. with the blessing of all the punters I passed.
Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
Come in, she said I'll give ya shelter from the storm
Any Dylan aficionado will know that Bob wouldn’t say something as banal and obvious as the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a funeral horn – the official lyric is futile and I’ve heard it changed on live bootlegs to feudal BUT FUNERAL … NO WAYS!
NOTE: The Dylan-police on the net may lurch into action and smugly point out the exact dates and locations that funeral was the operative word … but that’s okay too. Some people have heard “Flugelhorn” and others “Frugal horn” – as per this article and discussion: thebluemoment.com and rec.music.dylan.narkive.com
Anyway, back to said conversation in Wales…
Dishevelled academic: “Your first time, you must be a recent convert?”
Me: “Anything but – I have been a Dylan diehard from when I was a little boy, have waited years to see him in the flesh and travelled six thousand miles do so tonight.”
Dishevelled academic: “May I offer my profuse apologies to a bona fide fan.”
Me: “Thank you for the vote of confidence … we both know that the one-eyed undertaker would never blow a FUNERAL horn!”
Dishevelled academic: “Indeed” and then to the group in front of him “Gentlemen, this chap is a real fan and has come all the way from Africa to see Bob perform for the first time, please allow him a good vantage point in front of you”
Me: “Thank you, we ALL know that the one-eyed undertaker would never blow a FUNERAL horn!”
And so it went with yours truly using the “one-eyed undertaker /funeral horn” chirp until I was in right in front!
The performance was spectacularly chaotic … early in the set I only recognised “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” when Bob mumbled the words “Baby Blue” for the second time! He redeemed all with a beautiful harmonica solo in the song just after I had found out which song it was. Then a short while later he enunciated every single word in a wonderful rendition of 'Shooting Star'.
Other highlights of the show were great versions of long-time classics 'It Ain’t Me Babe', 'Highway 61', 'Just Like A Woman' and 'Like A Rolling Stone'. – never phrasing the “How does feel?” lines in a way that he and the audience can sing in unison!
Nothing has changed fifteen years down the line – this review from last Sunday’s Kilkenny Bob Dylan/Neil Young show:
'Like A Rolling Stone' is re-shaped as a jazz-inflected funk jam. The crowd bravely try to sing along. Every time the chorus rumbles around, Dylan finds a way to catch them out. Ed Power (The Irish Times)
For the finale bow, the band stood, waiting for him as he walked to the table next to his keyboard, put down one harmonica, selected another one and then rinsed it in a container of water. He blew it and then joined the row of musicians - which perplexed me in hindsight because no more tunes were played – maybe the initial harp wasn’t in the right key for the bow!
He was shaking slightly when he started staring at me and because we were so close together it was a real-life enactment of the dream. I was overwhelmed and because those around were patting me while commenting that he was looking at me, Bob continued to hold my gaze.
With tears of joy streaming down my face, I recalled his Grammy speech given for the ‘Time Out Of Mind’ album:
“I just wanted to say that one time when I was about 16 or 17 years old I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armoury...
I was three feet away from him and he looked at me …”