I'M NOT THERE (2004)
(Down the street those dogs are barking)
by J. R. Stokes

It has only happened to me twice and probably won’t ever happen again. They were two late evening phone calls. No emergencies involved though. Not matters of life or death. Worse things always happen at sea anyway. 

Be all that as it may, I will probably take those two phone calls to the grave with me. Firstly, because the guys who made those calls took some time out to remember me when they shouldn’t have been thinking about me at all; and secondly because those phone calls involve  two major obsessions that have been part of my life for quite some time, namely Bob Dylan and his song ‘If Dogs Run Free’. 

The first phone call came during the evening of Tuesday 3rd October 2000. The caller was phoning on his mobile from the concert hall at the Zenith in Paris. Andrew Muir was in France on business and also taking in the Dylan’s 16th (out of 18) show on his late European tour. Just two days before, at Munster in Germany, Dylan had performed ‘If Dogs Run Free’ for the very first time live in concert. That particular song had become something of a jest between Andrew and myself because, on the one hand I had, for much more than a decade, been boring everyone silly about how this was my favourite Dylan song, and on the other hand, Andrew had just a couple of weeks before his phone call assured me that Dylan would never play this song live. Yet here it was in Dylan’s set list for the third concert in a row. Andrew was excited that he had witnessed such a rare performance of the song and he came out of the auditorium straight away to tell me about it. He knew that, for some reason, the song meant a great deal to me and this was driven home when I also witnessed Dylan performing the song two nights in a row at Wembley Arena on the 5th and 6th October 2000. (I wrote about those performances in Freewheelin 182 -  October 2000 – if anyone can remember that far back.)

Dylan subsequently included the song in most of his shows in the States during November 2000 and in 2001 he performed the song a total of 55 times. My favourite Dylan song didn’t however fare so well in 2002 – it was only performed some 9 times, the last (after a gap of 3 months) being on August 9th 2002 at a venue called Saint John in New Brunswick, when ‘If Dogs Run Free’ followed a somewhat rare (for 2002) performance of ‘Visions of Johanna’. As I was in the middle of my epic study of this latter song at the time, the set list was just a little spooky for me. 

That, I thought, was that. It seemed that Dylan’s dallying with my ‘Dogs’ was well and truly over because throughout 2003 the song wasn’t performed at all. As there seemed to be a beginning, middle and end, I had this notion of collecting every live version of the song. Sadly, I haven’t got round to that yet! 

Then, getting on towards 4 years later, came that second phone call. It was during the evening of Friday 18th June 2004 and the caller was phoning on his mobile from the International Arena, Cardiff, Wales. It was Dylan’s first show of the year on British soil and John Nye had made the 200 plus mile trip from Cambridge to Cardiff with a mutual friend namely Chris Rolph. Because of holidays, distance and work commitments I couldn’t get to the gig but John gave me a flavour of what was going on when he held his mobile towards the stage where Dylan was performing… ‘If Dogs Run Free’. What a bastard! Not John, not Dylan, but me for not being there. What a stupid bastard for not making the effort. I should have known better. 

So the 2004 UK set lists started to become something of a nightmare for me. I wasn’t going to any of the shows and how many ‘Dogs’ would I miss? Well, as it turned out, I didn’t miss any because Dylan didn’t perform the song at any of the other UK shows. At Gallway in Ireland on the 27th June he performed ‘If Not For You’ and ‘The Man in Me’ – but there was no New Morning hat trick, so I  breathed a sigh of relief. 

The next day, 28th June we were off to Italy for a fortnight, staying at the Adriatic coastal resort of Guilianova. I knew that Dylan was performing some concerts in Italy during the time of our stay but again, because of other commitments (including to my wife who didn’t want my obsession to interfere with our holiday for more than it had to), I didn’t go to any of the Italian shows. 

The first show in Italy was on the 2nd July at the Villa Pisani, near Venice which was about the same distance from my holiday resort that Cardiff is from Cambridge. So Bob was again just up the road and I was again not there. And what do you think was the 6th song in his set list after a break of 8 shows with no ‘Dogs’? Of course: ‘If Dogs Run Free’. If Cardiff was a bastard! Venice was a double bastard!! 

I can’t really begin to explain why I get so hooked about Dylan singing ‘If Dogs Run Free’ in concert. Sometimes it seems like something of a curse on me, but probably no more than this whole Dylan thing sometimes seems like a curse: a dreaded preoccupation that keeps my eyes away from the path that I should be really be taking. So much time taken in pursuit of nothing at all, like chasing a feather which actually died when it was plucked from a bird. At other times it seems like something of a blessing that I should be continually reminded of my personal and profound involvement with that song. To try and make some sense out of my continued obsession with the song I looked back at the article I wrote after I witnessed it being performed at Wembley in October 2000. This is what I then wrote: 

‘I was ecstatic, nervous, overjoyed at hearing the song, but I was in the middle of 12,000 people who appeared overjoyed too, no doubt for their own reasons. It was later, in my solitude, in my night thoughts when I could properly reflect on the meaning of it all. It was then that I realised that I was not yet ready to speak as a man, to understand as a man, to think as a man. I was not yet ready to put away those foolish things. Things like the utterly foolish notion that just one song could really make any difference to anyone; or the totally foolish thought that any importance whatsoever could be attached to three short verses and a spot of jazz; or indeed the very foolish idea that there could be any kind of connection between the performance of a song and any other particular set of circumstances. All such foolish, foolish things. Yet in my night thoughts I saw my beloved lost daughter Abigail and my dear departed friend John Green. To them I say : ‘Oh how the ghost of you clings’. And these foolish things? They remind me of you.’ 

And, do you know what? Getting on towards four years later, nothing has changed. I still get a jolt at the very idea of this song. I am clearly not done with it yet. And neither it seems, is Bob Dylan.

A dog is not free