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 Believing In
The Impossible

 

by Paula K. V. Radice

 

 

The Green Man

 

It's difficult to know how to start this month...how to describe the London shows without getting all overexcited and unnecessary (as my Grandmother used to say) again. It was hardly credible at the time, and seems if anything even more surreal as time passes. It wasn't just Dylan; my whole experience of those three days (the days of the Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith and Brixton shows) was completely strange. 

For a start, Monica and I did something at Shepherd’s Bush that we’ve never done before; queue hours early to make sure we got good seats. Never mind that it was chucking it down with rain; never mind that the puddles on the London roads and pavements looked more like lakes than puddles, and the passing cars were sending waves of water six feet high over the pedestrians; never mind that the traffic chaos created by the weather meant that it took us an hour to get from Hammersmith to Shepherd’s Bush (a distance of about a mile): we joined the small queue of people huddling under the Empire's canopy just after noon, but soon discovered that we were the only ones there who had tickets for seats and were therefore going to be the first through the doors. Hurrah! 

Expectations were high, of course, because of the smallness of the venue. The last time I was there was to see Arlo Guthrie about six or seven years ago - a really good, cosy-feeling show in the intimate auditorium. What would Bob and the band sound like in such a pared-down space, compared to the Olympic Hall in Munich, and the terrible hangar that is Wembley Arena? 

Incidentally, we discovered that afternoon the existence of the world’s best and easiest job. Standing right in front of the doors, we watched as the merchandise handlers set up their stall for the evening. You might not believe this, but I swear it's true: it took up to six of them (they seemed to come and go) over two and a half hours to unpack some t-shirts, put them behind the counter, and pin up examples of all the merchandise - on two incredibly small boards - with their price tickets. 

The slowness at which they worked was amazing, almost hypnotically painful to watch. First one person would open a box and take some t-shirts out and put them on the carpet. Then four more people would come and look at them. Eventually, someone would start counting them. Then another three people would come over and look at them again. Some time later, someone else would come and take the pile and move it behind the counter. Then a group of people would come and look at the growing mound of empty boxes. This happened for each item of merchandise; each t-shirt, each cap, each programme, each poster. Perhaps they have been driven mad, over the months of the tour, by their prolonged exposure to ridiculous over-pricing? 

One woman had the task of putting the freebie Masked and Anonymous sticker-cum-postcards in the carrier bags. This was clearly very tricky. First, she put three in each bag. After about half an hour, she realised that she wasn't going to have enough, so she (after much head-scratching and consultation with the others) started taking one sticker out of each bag, so that they only had two in. Some time later again, she realised that she still wasn't going to have enough, so she thought about it some more, and then went back and took another one out, thus ending up with only one in each bag. The whole process took well over an hour. The half dozen or so of us watching through the doors were almost in hysterical tears by the time shed finished. Oh Lord, I wish I could work at that pace at school, instead of having to do six different things all at the same time, all in a mad rush, and with at least four children shrieking at me simultaneously. Mind you, it does make me feel more optimistic about the life chances of the least able of our pupils; somewhere there is gainful employment even for the most cerebrally challenged, and for a very lucky few, gainful employment that allows them to follow Bob Dylan round on tour... 

But enough intellectual snobbery, and on to Bob (I originally typed "onto Bob", but I think is what is called a Freudian slip...). That Shepherd's Bush show was just so weird and wild, all you could see in the audience was the shaking of heads in disbelief after the first two or three songs. The Dylan diehards among us were frantically explaining to the less in-the-know around us just how odd the set list was becoming as time went on. How unpredictable can Bob get? A small venue with excellent acoustics for quieter numbers - and what we got was a full-on in-yer-face-no-slow-or-quiet-songs-at-all sonic blast from start to finish. A few of us (stand up and be counted, John Roberts, who was sitting behind me) were starting to gibber hysterically from about half-way through. You could actually hear people laughing in disbelief as songs started, and the phrase, "What the hell's going on?" will be audible on lots of bootleg Cds. If you weren't there, you missed an incredible night, full of wonder and merriment. I’ve never seen such a mad stampede for posters at the end of a show...We all knew we had witnessed something special. 

What marked all the London shows, and made them so special - quite apart from the departures from the expected set lists - was Bob's vitality and his obvious enjoyment, and determination to give the shows his best. You never would have guessed (if you hadn't seen the Lemsips and the cups of coffee coming onstage, and known about the cancelled show in Cork) that what we were seeing was an unwell man. I've never seen him so animated, so committed to getting the words and the phrasing right, so in tune with his band and revelling in the music they made together. 

And the band were just blisteringly good. At Brixton, I started laughing after a minute or two into Highway 61 and then couldn't stop - the guitar solos were just unbelievable, the music so powerful, so spot-on, with that wonderful tension between Larry's upright, controlled pin-sharp playing and Freddie's looser, jazzier feel. Live music doesn't get any better than that. 

Bob being on keyboards has removed all the worry about his clunking in with a guitar chord from another planet and stopping a song dead in its tracks (his keyboard clunking is, on the other hand, very entertaining, and doesn't have the same song-wrecking potential). And he looks great at the keyboards, like an anorexic Caucasian version of The Georgia Peach, Little Richard, himself, complete with very suspect moustache. It was great, also, to see him without a hat. The random wanderings around the stage that I witnessed at Munich had evolved into a whole series of (cough, cough) "dance" steps and figures, which were worth the ticket price on their own. (Although a friend of mine from work, who came to Brixton with us, did say at the end, "Do you think he's alright? He looked so odd when he moved around, I was worried about him...". To which the only possible reply was, "No, he's stark staring bonkers, but we think he's always been like that") 

The London shows were wonderful and strange, and wonderfully strange. At Wembley a tout sold us brilliant seats at face value, to replace the dreadful Block B seats we had got from the "fan" allocation (it might more accurately have been called a "van" allocation, as it was more than halfway to the car park), and bought our seat tickets off us, too. 

Monica and I had the pick of seats at Shepherd's Bush, and ended up on the right side, almost on the stage, because of the way the seats swing round in a horseshoe shape. We thought it was our only chance of getting good seats in the smaller venues, because on the other nights I couldn't leave school until 3.15 (and believe me, I flew out of the door on Monday and Tuesday, pushing small children out of the way so that I could make a quick getaway), and we therefore couldn't join any queues in London until 5.30 at the earliest So why, at Brixton on the Tuesday, did we find a parking spot right opposite the venue at 6 o'clock? And why, through a weird series of events and coincidences, did we end up with front row seats, just to the right-of-centre, exactly where we wanted to be? 

I think I figured it out later: Monica has had such a rotten year, for reasons discussed in previous pieces here, that all the Fates, or Spirits, or Gods, or whatever you want to call them, pulled out the stops for her to make sure she had all the possible luck, and the best possible enjoyment of the shows. (Another example: in Munich, we discovered that, completely by accident, we had booked ourselves over the Internet into a hotel only paces away from a station on the underground line that ran directly to the Olympic Park). It all seemed divinely inspired to work out right I think it's what psychologists call "flow", that (very occasional) feeling that the Universe is working completely with you. It felt as if Monica was owed it. So the fantastic set lists may have been her responsibility, too: who knows?


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