Hank and Bob and Chris and Anna
It was pouring and the forecast was for rain all evening, but Anna and I were committed. I’d sold her on the idea of going to see Bob Dylan, in spite of her avowed lack of desire to do so (perhaps my grandest understatement ever), arguing that some day she’d be glad to have seen such a musical giant. So we drove into the wind and the rain to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home of the Boston Red Sox farm team, to see the show.
Pawtucket is a working class town, a low sprawl of light industry and residential neighborhoods. McCoy Stadium, hearkening back to the 1940s, is an old school Triple A ball yard like God intended it. Even in the rainy mist it was redolent of hot summer evenings and the sound of hardballs on wooden bats and leather gloves. As we approached the stadium on foot, $20 lighter after a disturbingly informal wallet-to-wallet gathering of a parking fee in what appeared to be someone’s backyard, the clanging of electric guitars was clearly audible. Willie Nelson’s unvarnished voice rang out, bouncing off the bleachers. He was doing a straight up medley of Hank William’s songs. The rain was lifting and as we walked it took only the slightest suspension of disbelief to imagine that the year was 1947, and that voice, singing Move It Over, Hank himself; on that day’s sports page Ted Williams working on his consecutive on-base streak.
We threaded the residential blocks toward the music, passing parked tour buses with their high tires and tantalizing opaque windows. Two days from now Dylan would be picked up by the police in a New Jersey neighbor not unlike this one after neighbors phoned in reports of a shady character lurking in a hooded sweat shirt. Dylan wasn’t carrying ID and when asked his name, might as well have identified himself as Zimmie for all it mattered to the 24 year old officer who had posed the question. Dylan led the police back to his tour bus and made, I imagine, a compelling case that he was “somebody”, although I’m not sure how that exonerated him from lurking in a hooded sweatshirt.
By the time we passed through the entrance gates Willie’s set was over. We stepped into view of the playing field, and even in this modest stadium, I was predictably transported back 45 years to my first professional baseball game at Dodger Stadium. That first grassy glimpse of the stretching outfield and crisp white foul lines have permanently set the bar for me on wide open inspiration. We found a couple of seats half way up the bleachers just beyond third base. The stage was in center field. Had this been Fenway Park these would have been seats to die for. As far as seats for a Dylan concert, not so much. We could have moved down to the field closer to the music, but I was willing to concede recognition of facial features in exchange for a modicum of physical comfort.
John Mellencamp, played a serviceable set; his all American songs could have been written expressly for this archetypal setting. I enjoyed it but the knowledge that I was incurring low level permanent ear drum damage took a slight toll on my appreciation. Anna had already given up on finding some musical common ground and at the end of Mellencamp’s set was chafing at the bit for deliverance from her Dad’s music.
Dylan was brought on with his customary tongue in cheek bombastic introduction and launched into his set with one of his lesser-known songs, Cat’s In The Well. Although Anna may have been one up on that New Jersey cop in her ability to recognize the name Bob Dylan, there was, nonetheless, not a single song he played that night which she recognized, or frankly, could have recognized. These days even fans sometimes have to wait a verse or two into some of his songs before they can identify them. It’s a common complaint that he’s messing with his holy classics. The whole argument, in my view, is nonsense. Dylan’s fidelity to his own truth of how his songs should be played is, and always has been, his greatest gift to the world.
Floating on a heart rending version of This Wheels On Fire, I took a phone picture of the stage and punched out a text message to my brother, knowing that a few weeks from now he was going to be taking his son, even younger than Anna, to see Dylan on this baseball stadium tour.
During a break between songs I eavesdropped on a fan directly behind me who was pontificating with gusto, apparently feeling the need to show off his Dylan chops to the guy next to him.
“Blonde On Blonde, 1965, Nashville musicians.”
“Blood On The Tracks was recorded on Rosh Hashanah. “
It was a bit annoying, but at least he seemed to have his facts straight.
“Robbie Robertson was his greatest foil.”
“He didn’t sell out at Newport in 1965”.
I felt compelled to sneak glimpse over my shoulder at the person issuing this blitzkrieg of disjointed minutia and realized that there was nobody next to him. He wasn’t talking to anybody, just talking. A few minutes later somebody came down the aisle, took him by the elbow and led him away.
Dylan stood fast in the spot light. It was dark now and it had started to drizzle. If you looked up into the stadium lights you could get the idea that it was pouring, but the lights always make the rain look worse than it actually is. Still, if this had been a baseball game, a rain delay might be in the wings.
We left early, not that I wasn’t enjoying the show, but I had promised Anna I wouldn’t make this into an ordeal for her. We got lost in the darkened neighborhoods trying to find the car and had to retrace our steps back to the stadium to reorient. We traced the right field fence, trying to find the same exit we’d come in at 3 hours earlier, and all at once we found ourselves right down by the stage with the rabble on the high volume flats. Dylan was playing Po’ Boy, a song which for me represents a stroke of his melodic lyricism, a vanishing commodity which I cherish, perhaps more than any of his other qualities. Even this amped up version of the song had that sweet lilt. Such moments inexplicably lift my spirits. Feeling pressured by Anna to get us out of here I tried to redirect my attention to the outfield fence in search of the exit, but my focus was scrambled by the song’s beauty and I missed it again.
Eventually we found the car and drove home, tired and only a bit damp. I still believe that someday Anna will be glad that she went.