Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
The first rock show I ever saw was Bob Dylan. I was 14 and wearing purple suede Birkenstocks and Levis 501s. My dad scored tickets for the whole family to see Mr. Zimmerman in a small theater in downtown Albuquerque. I had a crush on a boy I’ll call Ryan (because that’s not his name) who was a sophomore and good at math (so hot). He was also a Dylan fan, I discovered that night, because he was at the show too. This might have been the moment when I realized there was a social benefit to being a rock nerd. Up until then it was all about the music and my own private relationship with the people who made it. But as I danced onstage to the “Rainy Day Women” encore, making eyes at Ryan, something started to shift. At Bob Dylan shows, I thought to myself, interesting things happen.
“I still don’t fully believe what I just wrote actually took place. This isn’t what happens at Dylan shows.”
I had this in mind earlier this week as I boarded the 7:08 Metro North commuter, Mad Men-style, and headed up the Hudson to Port Chester, New York. Unlike the dudes in suits reading the Wall Street Journal I was on my way to the Capitol Theatre. The iconic venue used to host gigs by everyone from Janis Joplin to Pink Floyd, but it had fallen into disrepair until enterprising promoter Peter Shapiro (of Brooklyn Bowl fame), decided to rescue it. Over the last few years, Dylan had taken to rehearsing here and agreed to play the grand re-opening.
Now, even back in the mid ‘90s when I was swooning over Ryan, Dylan’s interest in being onstage seemed tenuous at best. In the years since I’ve seen him again and again I always find myself wondering why he continues to perform live. Don’t get me wrong, every single time I’ve seen him play there’s been what David Foster Wallace, writing about tennis great Roger Federer, would call “Federer Moments” – i.e. displays of genius so unbelievable they make “jaws drop and eyes protrude.” But there was always this grimness about Dylan’s own relationship with the experience, like it was all work and no play. Not the other night, though – he was positively gleeful.
I showed up in time go all misty-eyed in the balcony hallway, as an usher waited for a break in the action to seat me, and Dylan did a mesmerizing version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” which I wrote a college admission essay about. (Rock nerd. New Mexico-raised. Lots of time on my hands. Don’t judge.) I figured this song was likely the one tip of Dylan’s hat to the audience and we wouldn’t be hearing anything else remotely hit-like. Wrong. We got “Visions of Johanna” into “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” into “Like a Rolling Stone” into “All Along the Watchtower,” into a rocked-up version of “Blowing in the Wind,” as an encore. And those are just the bold name selections. The whole show was good.
I still don’t fully believe what I just wrote actually took place. This isn’t what happens at Dylan shows. He doesn’t reward us for showing up; we lay ourselves prostrate at his feet and happily take what we are given, humble, dutiful worshipers that we are. And yet, not only did Dylan play a greatest hits set list, he also played with wit and spirit and … joy.
Wearing his usual variation on the John-Wayne-goes-to-a-wedding theme (white Western trousers, shiny white narrow-toed shoes, black shirt with piping, bolo tie) Dylan practically skipped from piano to guitar to harmonica and back. He sat at the piano with his body facing the audience and as his hands pounded away to his side he’d periodically lift his knee up in time to the music, like a dog peeing on a tree. It was the oddest, most playful stage move I’ve ever seen. And you know that line in “Ballad of a Thin Man” that goes, “Somebody points to you and says, ‘it’s his’?’” Well, during that part he extended his index finger, grinned, and grandly pointed to one side, like he was a vaudeville actor or a mime.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to witness a master of songcraft in action when he’s this connected to his own material. That these songs matter to basically the entire universe is known and accepted. To see that they still matter so much to their maker was totally overwhelming. I kept jotting down lyrics I’ve heard a million times that suddenly seemed like tattoos I needed to get immediately. I don’t have any tattoos.
Anyway, post-show, I stumbled out in a daze and bumped right into two performer friends from the city. James and Camille Habacker have partnered with Shapiro to renovate their infamous Lower East Side burlesque club and theater, the Slipper Room, and made the trip up the river to celebrate his new spot. “You wanna go next door for a taco?” James suggested. And so we did. Across the way from a derelict locksmith and down the street from a hair salon advertizing “wash and sets” on fluorescent poster board, is El Tio, a yummy Salvadorian restaurant and post-show refueling station where you can get two rolled tacos for like five bucks. Just as my fourteen-year-old self discovered many years ago (I’m not saying how many): When you go see Bob Dylan, good things happen.