(Dylan's visit to the Albion - November 2003)
 by J. R. Stokes

There is a scene in the classic Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer, the somewhat paranoid character played by Woody Allen, is talking to his therapist about the state of Alvy’s affair with Annie Hall, the female lead character in the film played by Diane Keaton. When questioned about how many times the couple made love,  Alvy/Allen responds somewhat indignantly – ‘hardly ever – 3 times a week’. When the same question is put to Annie/Keaton she responds, equally indignantly, – ‘constantly – three times a week’.

I was met with a similar divergence of responses when I confessed that I had been to three of Dylan’s six shows in England during November. To non-Dylan folk, going to three Dylan shows was excessive: ‘Why go to three? Wouldn’t one have been enough?’ To certain Dylan folk, just three shows was pretty whimpish ‘Why go to only three? Do you mean to say that you didn’t go going to Shepherds Bush or Brixton?’! Now I thought that 50% was about right, not seemingly obsessive yet at the same time demonstrating that I retained an interest in Dylan’s live performances sufficient to justify all the time I spend on my Dylan hobby. In retrospect, having done the three, I wish I’d done the lot. Just like Woody, I wanted more.

The shows that I actually made it to were Wembley Arena in North London on the 15th November, NEC Birmingham on the 21st November and The Hammersmith Appollo in West London on the 24th November. In between my struggles with the traffic on the often grid locked A1(M) and the A14, Bob was having his own struggles – with his health. Indeed at one stage there was a possibility that were would be no more shows in England after Wembley. This extract from an email sent by the eminently essential John Baldwin on the 18th November is how the news broke:

Important News About Bob

Tonight's concert at Mill Street, Ireland, has been cancelled due to Bob having viral laryngitis. I only found out when I came in at 5:30 to find a host of messages on the answerphone. The UK promoters say that they are waiting to hear the Consultant's diagnosis/prognosis before reaching any decision and they'll speak with me tomorrow. Although I'll know fairly early, I'll be away from home again until about 6:00 pm when my first job will be to send out an update to all of you and to update the telephone message. Whilst I hope and pray that all will be well, I advise you not to set out for Sheffield or Birmingham before checking your emails.

The equally essential Karl Erik Anderson at Expecting Rain went one stage further and displayed on his website details of the condition that had afflicted the ailing 62 year old:

What is laryngitis?

The larynx joins the back of the throat to the windpipe. The vocal cords are in the larynx. Laryngitis means inflammation of the larynx. It is usually due to a viral infection (viral laryngitis).
What are the symptoms of viral laryngitis?

You may feel sore over the 'Adams apple' and become hoarse shortly afterwards. The voice sometimes 'goes', and you may only be able to whisper. Some people are alarmed at this. However, it is only temporary whilst the vocal cords are inflamed during the infection. You may also have a mild fever, and a cough. Sometimes laryngitis is part of a more widespread infection. For example, you may also have an infected throat (pharyngitis), tonsillitis, a cold, or a flu-like illness. In these situations, you may also have other symptoms such as a sore throat, headache, feeling tired, swollen neck glands, runny nose, pain on swallowing, and general aches and pains.A typical viral laryngitis gets worse over 2-3 days. It then eases and goes, usually within a week. However, you may have a croaky voice for a week or so even after the other symptoms have gone. This is because the inflammation of the vocal cords may take a while to settle after the virus has gone. Breathing difficulty is an uncommon complication. Occasionally the inflammation in the larynx causes swelling which causes the windpipe to narrow. This is rare in adults, but sometimes happens in young children with smaller, narrower windpipes. See a doctor as soon as possible if you have any difficulty in breathing.

So now there were two medical conditions of which I am fully researched - the first being histoplasmosis and the second being viral laryngitis. But if you believed the description of this latter condition: ‘sore throat, headache, feeling tired, swollen neck glands, runny nose, pain on swallowing, and general aches and pains’ there was no way that Dylan was going to complete his end of year tour in England; and even if he did make a swift recovery he would still ‘have a croaky voice for a week or so even after the other symptoms have gone. This is because the inflammation of the vocal cords may take a while to settle after the virus has gone.’ I might as well have thrown my tickets for Birmingham and Hammersmith out the window.

Now although Dylan was forced into silence during that mid-week nightmare, the talking of Dylan folk over the phone lines was incessant. Should we set out for the shows or shouldn’t we? My take on the matter was simple: it proved that Dylan was only human; that he could go down with coughs and colds just like the rest of us. He was just as entitled as anyone else to have three days off work through illness without having to provide a sick note from his G.P. The difference of course is that whilst we are away from work through illness, someone else would, hopefully, cover for us but with Bob there was no cover. It was him or no one. And if he was fit enough to continue, his recovery would have to be in front of ten thousand people who expected him to be on top form just for them: after all they had paid good money to be entertained. Away with the bugs. We want Bob!

So, if the description and prognosis of Dylan’s condition was correct then I considered  that the best place for him would be at home and alone in bed. Whether it was against doctors orders; whether it was one of those miracles of modern medicine; whether he practised mind over matter or whether his condition wasn’t as severe as first thought: whatever the reason, he cleared his throat and carried on. In my view, his illness did however make a difference to the remaining shows on the tour.

Over the three concerts that I attended, Dylan performed a total of  32 different songs, six of which were played at every concert and  seven of which were repeated twice. The songs that I saw Dylan perform are set out as follows in alphabetical order rather than in the order in which they were performed:

All Along The Watchtower (Three times)
Boots of Spanish Leather (Twice)
Bye and Bye
Can’t Wait
Cats In The well (Three times)
Cold Irons Bound
Cry A While (Twice)
Dear Landlord
Desolation Row
Drifters Escape
Every Grain of Sand (Twice)
Floater (Too Much To Ask)
Girl Of The North Country
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Highway 61 Revisited (Twice)
Honest With Me (Three times)
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Twice)
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Twice)
Like A Rolling Stone (Three times)
Love Minus Zero/No Limit

Maggies Farm

Million Miles
Mr. Tambourine Man
Romance In Durango
Summer Days (Three times)
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (Three times)
Things Have Changed
To Be Alone With You
Tough Mama
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Twice)
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

The highlight, for me, of all the songs, was the performance of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll at Wembley (before the bug attack). Dylan started the song with a whisper which became louder in the second verse when he told us that the bloody villain had reacted to his dreadful deed with a shrug of his shoulders and swear words and sneering and his tongue it was snarling. It reminded me of how much I hated that bastard William Zanzinger  and how I had once become so dissatisfied with the machinations of the law that I left my chosen profession. Dylan tiptoed through the song very carefully, getting louder by each shameful line, until with a resounding crescendo he joined his audience in their gasping outrage at the social injustice of seeing that bastard slayer  being handed out a SIX MONTH SENTENCE! Rags and tears all round Bob. And all this against the background of the front page headlines in our newspapers every day of a most sensational criminal trial.

In contrast to the hush of Hattie Carroll, Highway 61 at Wembley was an absolute blast and gave Dylan’s very tight band the opportunity for some  clever goal practice. I was very fortunate indeed (with thanks again to the heroic efforts of John Baldwin without whom I would have be in the swamp of the stadium) to be situated in the third row at Wembley and I don’t think that I have ever before been so aware of the interaction between Dylan and  his band. Indeed although the unit, including Dylan, were performing as one, there was something that made me study the individual characters of the band. 

Starting then with the drummer: George Recile seemed to be surrounded by rosaries and he reminded me of a Puerto Rican taxi driver in New York who has a necklace of rosary beads hanging from his rear view mirror. Instead of driving his yellow cab along 4th Street, chatting into the windscreen in broken Spanish, he was driving the band on to new destinations, turning the wheel and hitting the pedals. The new guitarist was Dicken’s Uriah Heap bowing low and becoming ever so humble whilst scurrying to the back of the stage after completing a magnificent guitar solo. The majestic Larry Campbell with his straight back, lofty head and perfect groom is the ultimate musician; wanting nothing more than to be carried away with the sounds he is making: often half-closing his eyes in oblivion as he taps into a rhapsody that he probably first heard whilst still in the womb. And of course that faithful sherper, Tony Garnier:  Jeeves on a bass guitar: a guy who would clearly walk a million miles for just one of Dylan’s smiles. 

At Wembley Dylan smiled quite a lot although never in my direction. His gestures were directed towards his band and their eyes remained fixed upon his movements and his moods as they tried to ascertain whether he was pleased or pissed off with what was going on. This interaction was mesmerising to me and, having established the characters of each member of the band in my imagination, I watched the performance as a kind of rock theatre where each member of the cast had their individual role to play in the overall stage production. The music was a bonus! 

After the aircraft hangar that is the Birmingham NEC, where the remains of that croaky voice seem to fit perfectly with the words and the melody of Every Grain of Sand, it was back down to London and to the scene of Dylan’s destruction in the early nineties. Bloated, spitting, head bowed, fumbling around for words: he was dying in our faces but that was when it was called the Hammersmith Odeon, now it’s the Hammersmith Apollo and, just like the son of Zeus, Dylan is reborn to become the one true God of poetry and music. 

Three of the first four songs I hadn’t heard before in the previous shows, and then it came like a thunderbolt from the blue:

‘Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape,
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape’.

Last performed live some 27 years before in Texas, the American State that gave us the chain saw massacre and threw up a President who sanctioned a different kind of  massacre, ‘Romance in Durango’ heralded the moment when I realised that all the hassles and the heartaches of getting to the gigs were as insignificant as a dying breath in a paper bag.  The entire place erupted with desire and the people on the front row started dancing the fandago. Bob’s Spanish was perfect, George kissed his rosary and drove his taxi straight towards town centre; Freddie became ever more humble, Larry tapped once again into that heady rhapsody and Tony stared even harder for a flash of light from Dylan’s eyes. My head was vibrating as the stage reverted to theatre and I saw that the fiesta had begun. Forget any silly questions of  ‘good show/bad show’; forget the notion of ‘value for money’; forget the fights and the forays of incidents past; forget the man in the moon. On a November night like this, with a swirling winter wind outside and a million miles from home, the face of God may really appear. Now, where did I put my binoculars…