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BOB DYLAN: THE BEACON THEATRE, REVISITED

Photo Credit: George Kalinsky for MSG

Photo Credit: George Kalinsky for MSG

BOB DYLAN: THE BEACON THEATRE, REVISITED
By David Wild

The Times They Are Still A-Changing. Yet thankfully, even now, certain long and meaningful traditions carry on in our musical world.

This November, Bob Dylan — the most defining and groundbreaking singer-songwriter of our time — once again returns to The Beacon Theatre for five more historic nights — having previously played the venue twenty-one times over the years. For this lifelong fan, Bob Dylan’s extended Beacon run represents more than another chance to see a towering and enduring artist play one of the most illustrious yet intimate venues in our wide world of music. It’s also an altogether welcome occasion to remember the central place of both live performance and New York City in the back pages of Dylan’s still evolving story.

In “It’s Alright, Ma (It’s Only Bleeding)” from Bob Dylan’s 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home album, he famously sings that “he who is not busy being born is busy dying.” For decade after decade now, Bob Dylan has been consistently kept his sublime catalog of songs very much a living thing, performing with impressive regularity on stages all around our world. Speaking as just one of millions of lifelong Bob Dylan fans who hope to be in the audience again at The Beacon this month, I have happily gone out of my way to see this distinguished citizen of the world live in concert. In my case, I’ve journeyed everywhere from American state fairs out in the middle of nowhere to The Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Italy, and never regretted pledging my time to see Bob Dylan onstage.

Yet we should never forget that New York City and Bob Dylan are forever tied in musical history. It was to New York where this gifted son of Hibbing, Minnesota first came after his college days in order to try and make his dreams come true in the folk clubs of New York. As the tale goes, back in 1960, he borrowed a copy of Woody Guthrie’s fittingly titled autobiography Bound For Glory from a college friend, and reading it moved him to literally follow in Guthrie’s footsteps — even getting to meet and come to know this folk music legend. Before long, Dylan was signed to Columbia Records in New York by John Hammond, and started recording some of the most acclaimed album in music history, including many of the timeless songs he will be revisiting with grit and grace onstage at the Beacon.

Yet the record shows that even back before young Robert Zimmerman transformed himself into Bob Dylan, he was a passionate music lover inspired by the performances of artists who early on helped forever define his own artistic musical sensibility. In his artfully illuminating and New York Times best-selling 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote about attending a show with Buddy Holly in concert on a bill with The Big Bopper and Richie Valens at The Armory in Duluth, Minnesota on January 31, 1959 — just three days before all of those performers would perish in the first infamous plane crash in rock & roll history. Recalling his experience seeing Buddy Holly onstage that night, Dylan later wrote, “He was powerful and electrifying and has a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing.” In retrospect, of course, Dylan could be describing the experience that so many of us have enjoyed over the years seeing him in concert. Truth be told, Bob Dylan has never been one of music’s most showy or chatty performing artists, but somehow he has always remained a presence best described as commanding, electrifying and mesmerizing.

Often, Bob Dylan has been described by loving rock scribes and other fools, such as I, not simply as an important performing and recording artists, but rather as a poet. Yet as a rule, Dylan has rarely seemed comfortable embracing that literary tag and many other tags too. Notably, Dylan began his Nobel Lecture earlier this year by explaining, “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.” As Dylan went on to explain, “Songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read.”

Those are words that Bob Dylan has not just spoken or penned, but words that he has spent much of his illustrious 76 years living. And as he has spent his life singing his songs with the help of some great bands — including The Band and his extraordinary backing ensemble today — many of us have been showing up to hear and see him, throughout his life and ours.

My own first time seeing Bob Dylan in concert was on September 28th 1978 at Madison Square Garden during his tour for that year’s Street Legal. I took a bus into the city from New Jersey and sat with two of my best middle school buddies in the cheapest seats and had one of the best nights of my young life.

It would be another decade before I would have the pleasure of seeing Bob Dylan take the stage uptown at The Beacon Theatre, only blocks from where I was then living as a young writer and editor for Rolling Stone. To see such a recording and performing artist as towering and enduring in a venue as intimate yet majestic as The Beacon Theatre — a gorgeous 2,894 three-tiered venue first opened as a movie palace for motion pictures and vaudeville now maintained and managed by the Madison Square Company – was a night to remember.

Bob Dylan’s first show at The Beacon took place in October 1989 in the still early days of what has become known as Dylan’s “The Never Ending Tour.” As a lifelong fan whose mother played The Times They Are A-Changing and Greatest Hits albums on 8-track tape during carpools, I was thrilled to be one of less than 3,000 people in attendance at The Beacon on the night of October 13th. The set list that night was a compelling mix of then recently minted gems like “What Good Am I” and “Everything Is Broken” and “Man In The Long Black Coat” from Dylan’s magnificent and Oh Mercy album, as well as earlier classics like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” and, of course, “Like A Rolling Stone.” But characteristically, that evening at The Beacon, there were also fascinating and compelling selections from Dylan’s body of work, like “In The Garden” from Saved – from Dylan’s Christian era recently wonderfully documented on the outstanding new release Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13  — and even of his first great originals from his early days in New York, “Song To Woody” written to honor Woody Guthrie.

Dylan returned to The Beacon for five more concerts the very next year, opening on October 17th with “Absolutely Sweet Marie” from his 1966 double-album masterpiece Blonde On Blonde and ending with “Highway 61” and featuring a few quirky selections from the then recent album Under The Blood Red Sky. I moved to Los Angeles in 1991, so I can only wish that I had fortunate enough to have attended one of the two 1995 Beacon shows when Bob Dylan was joined by one of the many great artists he inspired, Patti Smith, who he invited to duet with him on a song of his that she could choose. As it turned out, Smith chose wise, selecting the sublime and mysterious “Dark Eyes” from 1985’s Empire Burlesque.

It would be ten years before Dylan returned to The Beacon, playing five shows in 2005 joined by opening acts of note – a promising young talent, Amos Lee and a Country legend for the ages, Merle Haggard & The Strangers. Nine years later, Dylan was back at the Beacon for five more shows. Reviewing Dylan’s December 1st, 2014 date at The Beacon for Rolling Stone, Andy Greene offered his view that, “Without a doubt, it was the most enjoyable Dylan concert in recent memory.”

Especially in time when we have lost so many legends, we should be more thankful than ever before that our greatest singer-songwriter is still here, sharing his voice and songs, and offering us music of deep meaning and shelter from the storm.