Obviously Five Believers
BOB DYLAN WITH TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBRAKERS, LIVE AT THE SCANDINAVIUM, GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN, ON 25th SEPTEMBER 1987
It’s a clear autumn day.
Bright sunlight reflected on the car’s red polish. There’s mostly farmland on all sides, but we pass an occasional house and trees in autumn colours. We cross the bridge over a river they used as a waterway for floating timber long before Elvis was born. We’re going at high speed. There’s mucho power in this engine. The other traffic offers no resistance.
Raymond wants to play one of his tapes by REM.
“They’re better than The Byrds”, he explains.
“Who are The Byrds?” The Kid wants to know.
“You a journalist or something?”
There’s a foreboding rawness in Lark Skyrider’s voice.
“I worked on the school-papers once”, The Kid says happily.
Suddenly everybody is busy looking out the windows.
“You don’t say, Kid?” “How interesting! Tell me, why am I not surprised?”
Lark Skyrider’s voice is as dry as the desert sand in Rommel’s throat after El-Alamein.
“I figured you to be the type writing about naked teen-aged girls handcuffed to the lockers. Right, Kid? Secret dreams of a high-school journalist, eh?”
The Kid turns pale. Gulps for air before he sinks gloomily into his corner in the backseat.
Some years ago Lark Skyrider and I went to see this Clint Eastwood movie.
It’s a long time ago, maybe more than two years. Might even be four. How should I know? I don’t keep track of these things. None of us in this car does. Well, with exception of The Kid, of course. God knows where he is at, but for the rest of us, Bob nailed it:
“I live in another world where life and death are memorizedWhere the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes.”
Anyhow, in the movie there’s this scene with two black chicks and a white man; all three of them naked. Doing strange things on top of each other. At that point the whole movie theatre goes quiet. Can’t even hear the chewing gums. People busy practising breath control.
Suddenly Lark Skyrider slams a fist on my knee, and yells on the top of his lungs:
“That’s real life, man! Real life!”
Afterwards, when we make our way through the crowd, the girls without make-up from the local art school stare at us with contempt.
Lark Skyrider has brought with him priceless items from his precious collection of Dylan bootlegs. He dumped them in the front seat when we took off. They’re all over the place. Jesus, there’s even one under the brake. I bend down, hand fumbling. Let’s see what we got. Bob Dylan Live In Oslo. Recorded live in Oslo, Norway, during the 1981 European Tour. Ancient stuff. Historical. One for the generations. And who would up to then have believed Dylan playing concerts in Oslo, Norway? I mean, who the hell plays concerts in Oslo, Norway? Well, some did. The Who, for example. Keith Moon smashed his drum kit to pulp. Peter Townsend threw his guitar at the lightning above the stage. Short circuited the whole concert hall. That was something. Gave a taste of what life could have been like had you lived in a real town, and not just some shitty, provincial point of transit. Be that as it may, the important stuff is that Elvis had not played Oslo. Neither had Bob Dylan before 1981. By then he’d met Jesus and the times they’d been a-changing. Sitting in his Oslo hotel room, undoubtedly impeccable clean and equally boring, Dylan even wrote a new song: Jesus Is the One. Norwegian hotel rooms are known to have an impact on your soul. The Who smashed up their hotel room, Dylan wrote a song in his. 99% of all other guests gets drunk as fast as they can.
To complicate things further for the high-pitched and sentimental lovers of Oslo City, wonderful in summer, equally dreadful in winter, the Dylan concerts were not even in there. They were in Drammen. A joke to most of us. Drammen is a remote, sleepy little town you were happy to forget you had driven by. Bob Dylan in Drammen. Need more proof we’re living at the end of times?
“I was there”, I say. “Dylan played two concerts. On Thursday 9th July and Friday the 10th. I went to the second concert with my girlfriend.”
“What a beautiful way to end a relationship”, Raymond sighs and light a cigarette.
I had failed to catch the beauty of it when it happened. True love tends to forget. By the time we passed the “Welcome to Oslo” sign at the side of the highway, our relationship was over. During Knocking On Heaven’s Door I thought Dylan was singing like Bob Marley. Apparently lost on my girlfriend as she chose that moment to whisper she’d fallen in love with an actor. Timing is everything. Or so they say. One thing for sure: She hadn’t listened to Bobby:
“Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your doorDon’t turn away, you’ll create sorrowTime is an ocean but it ends at the shoreYou may not see me tomorrow .”
“I went to both concerts.”
Lark Skyrider’s voice is not made for telling jokes.
“The damned journalists did their best to cut off his scalp after the opening night! During the second concert Bob added one extra line to “I Believe In You”: They don’twant me around / Like the journalists in this town. All right, the opening night was a mess, but what does those bastards except when some jerk detonates a stink-bomb and the concert hall smells worse than a public toilet? You know, like one of those toilets in your school, Kid. People had to leave ‘cause they couldn’t see or breathe. Any idiot should understand you cannot sing your soul out under such conditions. But not the journalists. Oh no. The air is always clean and smell of roses in their ivory tower. And when Dylan had left town with his six Israeli ex-soldiers bodyguards and entourage, the rumour was he had visited the Henie-Onstad Museum of Modern Art. Poor Bob. Modern times, modern emptiness. You’re modern too, Kid, aren’t you? Drink Red Bull instead of rye bourbon, have girls as friends and that sort of thing, right?”
The Kid looks out the window, still sulking.
“My friend Shorthair stood outside the Grand Hotel for 36 hours waiting to catch a glimpse of Bob”, I tell the boys. “When he finally got home, his girlfriend had used a Swiss Army knife on his Dylan albums.”
There’s a sudden feeling of sadness inside the car.
“And to make it worse, the minute after Shorthair left his vigil outside the hotel, Bob steps out and goes for a stroll. Shorthair’s been hurt deep inside after that. Really deep. Out of sync, you know.”
“Was it then he shaved his head?” Raymond asks.
“Yes, Sir! He even changed the brand of sunglasses.”
“I went to the opening night too”, Raymond adds with a yawn. “But I left before the concert finished.”
Suddenly lights are flashing and horns honking all around us. There’s a smell of burned rubber. Somebody is cursing wildly. I barely manage to regain control of the car.
“You want to get us all killed?”
My voice is shaky.
“Did I say anything wrong?”
Raymond tries to sound innocent.
Luck is not on his side.
Raymond tries to laugh it off.
We ignore him for a couple of miles.
“In a city of darkness there’s no need of the sunAnd there ain’t no man righteous, no not one”
“OK, sorry, boys, sorry!” he finally admits, voice kind of flat. “Why don’t we put on Bob Dylan Live in Oslo? I can’t wait to hear it.”
“You’re such a bad liar you’d make a great husband”, I tell him.
Lark Skyrider wears John Lennon styled sunglasses with blue coloured glasses, and a black leather jacket. His left foot moves restlessly to a beat nobody else hears. At least not on this planet. Without any introduction he gives us a brief, but extremely accurate explanation how to obtain Dylan bootlegs in Italy. Freemasonry, Mafia and Dylan bootlegs. Italy is the place to go to.
Once upon a time in Rome, on a dark and rainy day, Lark Skyrider haunted the wet and narrow streets of that ancient city in search of Dylan bootlegs. On vinyl. Avoiding the catacombs, the Colosseum, the church business, the Spanish Steps and the old Café Greco, he managed to secure obscure material for his collection. Lark Skyrider probably had the complete outtakes from the Infidels-sessions before the record came out. While the music journalists tried to make up their minds on the released record, he had been listening to Bob’s Julius and Ethel, a song about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American communists executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. Today the Rosenbergs are long forgotten. Time is a hard judge on mortals. The song was never released. Not that it bothers Lark Skyrider. He has read his Hemingway. To have and have not. Things to have are Dylan bootlegs. Things not to have are the 23 volumes of Hegelian philosophy printed in gothic German. Don’t try any fancy intellectual gossip. Won’t pay off ‘cause nothing will be revealed. Small talk will only drag you down. We’re into real values, dude. Lark Skyrider knows Scaduto’s book on Dylan by heart. He can quote long passages from Shelton’s No Direction Home, mixing in scenes from Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook and chapters from Paul William’s Dylan – What Happened? – to mention a few. There are more, many more. Every good Marxist could get an ulcer of envy.
However, that’s all a child’s play.
In the car, we’re into serious business: dealing with Lark Skyrider’s profound insight into the Dylan lyrics. Another genius lost for law school. The old lyrics, then new ones, the newly rewritten old ones. Not to forget the twenty different versions of the unpublished new ones nobody has ever heard of, or ever would care to listen to, unless you have been on the quest of buying bootlegs in Rome.
But don’t worry, Lark Skyrider knows them all. He knows who said what and where and played guitar. What kind of guitar. Whenever Raymond and I start a qualified discussion regarding some obscure Dylanesque riddle, our arguments carefully built up by dialectics including retrospective analysis based on the works of Habermas and Adorno, we are cut short by Lark Skyrider. Without mercy or remorse, Lark Skyrider shoots from the hip. There’s a sudden quotation from some unfinished lyric written on a sheet of paper somebody had thrown away behind an amplifier in a rundown recording studio. Lark Skyrider lights up the dark nights in our heathen souls. Sacrifice is the code to the road. Right now the Mullah of Dylanism is chain-smoking in the backseat. And didn’t a Danish journalist call Dylan The Khomeini of Rock after his concert in Copenhagen a few days ago? Stupid Danes. No sense of magic. Only a lousy sense of humour. The Kingdom of Bad Taste when it comes to music. Fortunately for them, they’re much better with liquor and tobacco.
None of this is of any concern to Lark Skyrider. He is busy dropping cigarette ashes all over the leather upholstery. From behind his blue John Lennon style sunglasses, he gazes out the window, the left foot steadily thumping the rhythm to a drum nobody has ever heard.
“Roger McGuinn is doing the warming up”, Raymond says amicably.
It’s confusing and hard to take in, but Raymond is the kind of guy who might like Roger McGuinn. Well, no doubt about it, The Byrds were great, I’ll give him that. Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn.
“Any of you read the book by Pamela Des Barres?” Lark Skyrider asks with a kind of strange smile on his face.
Nope. Can’t say we have. In fact, we’ve not even heard about it.
“She was a famous blonde groupie with big boobs”, Lark Skyrider muses, “Gorgeous looking. A real stunner.”
He takes a slight pause before sticking his head up close to The Kid.
“You got any idea what she did to those guys, Kid?”
“Please don’t mention it”, Raymond says softly.
“There’s so much emptiness”, the Kid whispers between moist lips.
“And so much nice ass!” Lark Skyrider grins.
Nobody covered Mr. Tambourine Man and You Ain’t Going Nowhere better than The Byrds. Images of the past. Symbols of a language of signs never seen before, never heard thereafter.
“To tell you the truth, guys, I came along to see Tom Petty and The Heartbrakers”, the Kid blurts out.
Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder.
I catch a glimpse of Lark Skyrider’s face in the front mirror. It’s not a pretty sight. But even Lark Skyrider has to acknowledge the fact that as backing band for Dylan, Tom Petty and The Heartbrakers belong to the untouchables. For now.
Like most kids, the Kid misinterprets the situation. With a sheepish expression he happily blabbers on:
“You guys have been stuck with Dylan for ages! How can you? There’s a lot of interesting new stuff going on in the music world! Dylan is yesterday’s news. His time is over. I’ll admit he was great once, but hey! C’mon, that’s years ago!”
“And years until you grow up, Kid”.
Lark Skyrider’s voice is sharp as a razor’s blade.
“Right now, I’ll say your chances are slim. Things don’t look too good for you, Kid. You are young and confused. Besides, your face looks like a mashed tomato with all those damned pimples. No tongue kiss yet, I bet. Let me tell you what’s going on in the music world today: Nothing but money. Or nothing and money. Those people you admire in the music scene know nothing about nothing, Kid. Nada de nada y pues nada, my friend. They have no roots and they have no future. And they are not artists. You get it, you moron?”
While he is talking, Lark Skyrider’s left foot is manically thumping up and down.
“Dylan,” he says sternly, “is not about music. Dylan is about life!”
The Kid looks sick.
True, those pimples are indeed ugly. Had the face of the woman at the well looked anything vaguely like his, I’m not sure we’d ever heard Pressing On. Maybe The Kid is in dire need of some candy or hot chocolate, or whatever people like him feed into their system to be able to drive for 24 hours to see Tom Petty & The Heartbrakers? I am just starting to think about what I might say to enliven his spirit, when Lark Skyrider barks out:
“You deaf or something?”
“No … no…”, The Kid stammers, “I was only trying to digest the implications of your words. I believe they are very unjust to the …”
“And let me tell you something else, Kid, before you join the Salvation Army or the Socialist Youth Club or whatever activity you guys use as an excuse for being devoid of a single original thought.”
Lark Skyrider adjust the sunglasses, continues:
“The philistines won a crushing victory in the great battle for ideas and ideals. They have torched the earth, burned the sky and poisoned the water. And they don’t take prisoners. There’s no middle ground. They fuck you up and let you rot inside. They will not leave you alone before you have a mind like an accountant, think like a bloody accountant and act as one.”
Lark Skyrider spat out the words as if they were made of burning coal.
“However”, he adds in a more mellow tone, “as long as Dylan remains on the road there is still some kind of hope. That’s what’s left in this world of shadows and illusions. A frail glimmer of hope. That’s the sound of Dylan’s voice.”
I look at Raymond. Raymond looks at me.
“Amen,” he says quietly.
“Amen,” I answer quietly.
At a concert in Tempe, Arizona, in 1979, at the end of the first leg of the so-called Gospel Tour, Dylan told a hostile crowd:
“There’s only two kinds of people: there’s saved people and there’s lost people.”
It was impossible to judge whether Lark Skryrider was among the saved or the lost. Guess it depended on your definition of the word. Or your faith or lack thereof. One thing, though, is for sure: Lark Skyrider doesn’t care. Not about my opinion, not about yours. He empties his beer can, leans back and starts on a story of what happened one day in the history of mankind, way down in sunny California, when Bob and Joan Baez went out swimming. Merrily they jump into the ocean. It’s all laughter and fun. At least until Joan Baez urges Bob to this cave. Slowly Bobby crawls inside. The rocks are slippery. No sooner he gets there, the tide turns and Bob’s rapidly getting trapped inside. Big waves splashing all around him. The only way to escape is by a doing a Johnny Weissmueller Tarzan-jump into the ocean, see, and remember how small and skinny Bob was at the time, and …”
“Maybe he is still there?”
If the Kid intended to be funny, he was in the wrong car. Before anyone understands what’s going on, Lark Skryrider has hit him hard on the head with the tape Inspiration. Bob Dylan Live In Sydney, Australia, March 1986.
“Joan Baez is not so innocent as she looks,” Lark Skyrider says.
It’s not as any excuse. God forbid. Only the weak excuse themselves. There’s a warning here. Something ominous yet deeply philosophical. For all I know it could implicate a revelation of one of life’s greatest mysteries: understanding women. There’s a stunned silence in the car. However, before any of us manages to say anything, overwhelmed by Lark Skyrider’s genuine insight into the perplexing ways of the female sex, we have already left the sunny coast of California. Suddenly we are in London, England. It’s the year of 1984, where, and still in the words of Lark Skyrider, Dylan tried to seduce Joan Baez in a hotel lobby. Our Bobby? Seducing Joan Baez? Holy Moses, she must have been over 40 years old! Cannot have happened. I’m not the only shaking my head in disbelief.
“That story does not sound like written by an Italian poet from the fifteenth century,” Raymond comments.
“Dylan doesn’t sing “fifteenth century”.”
There’s a forced calmness to Lark Skyrider’s voice as he slowly removes the sunglasses.
“He sings “thirteenth century”.”
I don’t particularly like it when Lark Skyrider removes his sunglasses. It’s not like I don’t like his eyes or the look in them. More like I do prefer the blue colour of the glasses, if you catch what I’m trying to say. They give a better ambiance for driving.
“Time for another beer, boys?” I say just to say something.
Sooner or later we all got to say something.
What you say you will some day regret, what you don’t say will forever torment you.
“Sure, always time for a beer”, Raymond answers. “Anyhow”, he continues, “Elvis recorded Dylan’s wonderful Tomorrow’s A Long Time, and released it on an album called Spin Out!. It’s a horrible album, but Bob’s song is worth the whole thing.”
Without warning, Lark Skyrider suddenly turns to me:
“You think Elvis is The Gypsy in Dylan’s Went To See The Gypsy?”
I almost let go of the wheel. There’s traffic on this road too, you know. But maybe that’s hard to see beneath those sunglasses.
“Well?”, I say. “Well …?”
Images of a wood fire and somebody playing an accordion, flash through my mind.
“I’m sure of it!”
Raymond comes to rescue. God bless old Raymond. May you stay forever young. “Remember the words: “He did it in Las Vegas / And he can do it here”. That’s what Bob sings, right? And that’s Elvis! Positively Presley.”
The highway is as endless as the emptiness in The Kid’s soul. There’re still hours to go. Inside the car the fog of cigarette smoke is thick as an oil well blowout. We’ve been listening to lots of tapes. The last hour or so it’s been outtakes from the Infidels-sessions, followed by a tape of half-finished songs recorded between Saved and Shot Of Love. The discussion on Bob and Elvis has been going on for a while too, with Raymond insisting Dylan way back had wanted to become bigger than Elvis.
“Then he recorded Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? in December 1965, and fell flat on his face,” are Raymond’s conclusive words on the subject.
I am thinking of something intelligent to say. Something which can bring the discussion up to a whole new level. Something which can ensure that my name is forever written with gold in the great and eternal hall of Dylanology. I feel it building up inside, but a just as I’m about to open my mouth, an old, white Wolksvagen down the road catch my attention. Hell, where did that museum piece come from? The old car is moving slowly, very slowly, and drifts back and forth between the right and left side of the road. In another country than Sweden one could have thought the driver was humming along to Bob’s Driftin’ Too Far From Shore, but being where we are, on a Swedish highway in Sweden, the God forsaken truth must be the driver is listening to some obscure Swedish folk dance and fiddle music.
“Why don’t they stay on their farms?”
Lark Skyrider curses into my right ear.
“Could be Bobby driving,” Raymond says.
Strange how some people enjoy living dangerously.
“The Swedes have seen too many Bergman movies!”
There’s contempt in Lark Skyrider’s voice. Inhaling deeply, he points at the landscape with his cigarette, says:
“Now they’ve reached the stage where they believe they are actually acting in one. He traumatized a whole nation. Made them all hate each other. Most likely your neighbour is a child molester, wife beater or rapists. That’s what the modern Swede sees when he looks in the mirror. A suspect. Not that we Norwegians are any better. Shit, no! In fact, whole of Europe is dressed in the rags of guilt. No sooner you’re born than they glue a big sign of “GUILTY!” to your forehead. No wonder Western culture is evaporating between the voter ballots. The European is indoctrinated to hate himself. From kindergarten and all the way up: loathe thyself, despise thy culture! Feel guilt, be shameful! This is cultural suicide, Swedish style.”
“Hey, don’t forget Bob’s a Swede too!” Raymond interferes.
“C’mon, Raymond”, I say, “That’s a ridiculous statement! Bob, a Swede? Hello, you sure he was not born in Drammen, Norway?”
“You’re on thin ice, amigo,” Raymond replies. ”One might soon question your Dylan credentials. Those are Bob’s own words. In 1978 he told a female reporter from Swedish TV: “I happen to be a Swede myself”. And, you know, I guess he is right, ‘cause who else than a Swede would be capable of singing Blowing In The Wind year in and year out?”
“But he liked strawberries”, The Kid sounds as if somebody just gave him a candy.
“Dylan?” I ask. “Dylan liked strawberries?”
“No, not him. Ingmar Bergman! He even made a movie about strawberries.”
“Listen, Kid”, Lark Skyrider says slowly, “you keep quiet for the next five minutes and I’ll buy you a chocolate at the next stop.”
I look ahead just in time to see the old Wolksvagen suddenly pulling up by the side of the road. An old, grey haired woman carefully steps out of the car.
“It’s Joan Baez!” Lark Skyrider shouts.
We all turn our heads and wave at her.
Well, almost all of us.
The Kid wants us to stop to get her autograph.
Lark Skyrider flips out a new cigarette. Then he asks Raymond if he knew what happened to Phil Ochs.
“Of course!” Raymond answers cheerfully.
I wonder who the hell Phil Ochs is, but on second thought I reach the conclusion that given to the circumstances, the question can wait.
“He was another folkie,” says Raymond. “A pretty good one at that too, but as you know, no matter how good, a folkie will always be a folkie. Good hearted and boring as grandmother’s barn. All right, where was I?”
He scratches his head as if looking for stray thoughts. Or maybe stray words. Can’t be stray cats. Cats are supposed to be in the well, not tangled up in Raymond’s hair. Shake the dust off your feet. Nothing can hold you down. Keep on pressing on. And Raymond does:
“Like I said before Joan Baez interrupted me, Dylan recorded Can You Please Crawl Out Of Your Window?. After the recording session, he plays it for a couple of people during a ride in the limo. “Isn’t it good?” Dylan asks, feeling very proud of the record. Don’t you think it will be a hit? I am sure he already sees himself on stage in Las Vegas dressed up like some frail mini-Elvis looking like he’s been on a diet the last 20 years. One of the guys in the limo says: “Yeah, well ….?”. Jerk. Dylan immediately orders the limo to stop. “Get out!” he yells. “Bloody journalist!” And, you know what, guys? That was Phil Ochs..”
“Yeah, there’s always a sexless academic out there believing they get every right to tell you what to think, say and believe,” Lark Skyrider says. “They’re not happy before they have gained full and total control. They’re not satisfied before we end up like …”
”Elvis?” I ask.
“Speaking of Elvis,” Raymond says thoughtfully, “I wonder what happened to the tapes containing the nightlong sessions with Bob and Elvis in a Nashville studio?”
He pauses slightly to let the question sink in. Before he can continue, Lark Skyrider has already crossed the Atlantic ocean. Time is running backwards as he tip-toes unseen along the studio walls. There’re some strange sonic noises on the line, but we are all ears. Come in, Lark Skyrider, come in on this wavelength.
“The technician let the tapes roll on and on,” Lark Skyrider mumbles beneath his breath. “Elvis sings, Bob sings, maybe Elvis played guitar, Bob played guitar, probably blew on his harmonica too, and then! It’s all over. Bob and Elvis, or Elvis and Bob melt into the early morning light, and the tapes gone. Disappeared!”
Lark Skyrider’s voice is now barely audible.
It’s so quiet inside the car you can hear the pimples grow on The Kid’s face.
“The voices of Bob and Elvis, Elvis and Bob, alone or in duet, the songs, the music, everything recorded on that magic night: gone. The vaults are empty, and the relics no longer in the shrine. Only the casually, handwritten note on the box: Presley & Dylan while the ghost of electricity howls through the temples in flames.”
“You want coffee, Bob?”
Took a while before Bob recognised what was concealed in the tone of Elvis’ voice.
The King had done his best to hide it by a cordial joviality which he seemed capable of turning in and out at will, like changing costumes on stage without the audience taking notice. Cordiality, at least not the intimate kind, did not come easy with Dylan. Sitting on a high stool, he indeed looked slightly uncomfortable. Thin and frail, wearing steel-rimmed glasses, he looked more like a misplaced intellectual, than the young singer who had created a revolt at the folkie convention in Newport when he picked up an electric guitar. To the peace loving flock of everlasting love and brotherhood among men, the mere sight of an electric guitar was an evil act of war. Only when Elvis’ voice softly resonated against his guitar, did he catch the shyness in it. At that moment he surprisingly realized to what great length the other man actually was going.
“Strange,” Bob thought, “how this all reminds me of myself.” Coming to terms with the world had never been easy. He did not belong. Not in any crowd, anyway. Fame had made it all more complicated, and him more vulnerable. People stopped being people when they met him. There was awe, true enough, admiration as well, but people also felt they owned him. They felt connected to him in a way he’d never felt to others. At times he felt like a prisoner to their dreams. Their anticipations were much bigger than him, and sure a lot bigger than of what they anticipated of themselves. Fame ruled the world and he was only a pawn in their game. He had to brake lose. The only way out was by paying close attention to other people. What they said and what they were actually saying. There was layer upon layer of invisible skin. Seeing the real you at last. Earlier that same evening he had almost been sick by nervousness. One thing was being in the same room as Elvis, another thing was to be in the same recording studio. That was a very different world. And no matter how you looked at it, and no matter how many records you had sold, Elvis was Elvis. The King. Now he was here, right beside him.
A microphone stood like the last of the Mohicans in the middle of the dimly lit room. At the far end of the room, behind a glass wall, the technician sat bent over his tools. “I am in this recording studio with Elvis,” Bob told himself. “It’s past midnight and Elvis asked me if I wanted coffee.” He does not know what to reply. He did not want to be impolite or to do or say something which might offend Elvis. From the moment they met, he had sensed that was an easy thing to do. Bob had watched his steps. He had tried to relax and to sing as best as he could. They’ve been playing and singing together now for one hour, three hours? “Shit, I’ve lost track of time”, Bob tells himself.
There’s a clock high above the glass wall, but the studio light is too poor for him to see what time it shows. His mother should have seen him now. Her son, Robert, in the same recording studio as Elvis Presley! That had been something. He could not wait to tell her. In the early days, back in Duluth, Minnesota, before he could spell guitar, she’d danced on the living room floor as the radio played the latest Elvis records. Bob feels like pinching his arm. “Women,” he muses, “carries the universe inside their wombs. They give birth to you and then they give birth to your children.” In an instant flash he is reminded he has forgotten to call Sara. Now it’s too late. The children would be sound asleep.
“I’ll take a coke”, Bob finally says in a low, soft voice, running his hands restlessly through his hair.
There’s nothing soft in Elvis’s voice as he turns facing his assistant, a tall guy with swelling biceps. He’s been following Elvis’ each and every move all evening, at the same time eying Bob with visible suspicion.
“Bob wants a coke! And bring me one too while you’re at it. But no ice, you hear? No ice. Ain’t good for my voice.”
Bob noticed how Elvis had spoken to the assistant in a different kind of voice than the one he had come to know. No shyness. It was a voice used to carrying out orders. Jeff looks at Dylan with an expression saying: “I guess you know what coke is, punk!”, then smoothly leaves the room.
“You been to Vegas, Bob?”
Elvis sounds curious.
“Yeah, man”, Bob replies slowly in a crisp voice.
He stops tuning his guitar. “I must have tuned it hundred times already!” he thinks annoyed with himself. “Went there once to see a gypsy.”
With a plastic cup in each hand, Jeff enters the room. At the sound of laughter, he raises an eyebrow. He hands Elvis one of the cups. For a second it looks like he is going to throw the other right in Dylan’s face.
“You hear that, Jeff?” Elvis takes a sip. “Bob’s been to Vegas to see a gypsy. Ain’t that something?”
“Uhu”, Jeff growls.
“Any of the boys called yet?” Elvis asks Jeff.
Jeff shakes his head. “No, boss. You want me to get in touch?”
“Hell, no, I’m not that desperate. Tonight’s special. Bob’s here and all! Good thing they haven’t called. Means we got time. Plenty of it too. Like sitting on the dock of the bay. You know that song, Bob?”
With Jeff back in the room, Dylan looks increasingly restless. He hasn’t touched the coke.
“Sure”, Bob says and tries a few chords on the guitar.
“That sounds like it, Bobby”, Elvis smiles. “Listen, Jeff, why don’t you go down to the lounge and get some rest? Bob and me are going to be here for a while, watching the ships come in.”
“All right, Bob, let’s hit the docks,” Elvis says.
He puts the cup aside, leans towards the microphone and the room is filled with soft, warm voices. The walls have disappeared. There’s a mild breeze blowing and the sound of seagulls in the distance. I am almost carried off to the shores of New Jersey when something catches my attention. Something is moving very carefully in a remote corner of the recording studio. Holding my breath, I stare wide eyed at the figure slowly moving along the wall, towards the control room. The person is not making any noise, not even the faintest sound can be heard. There’s a small light bulb over the entrance door. For a second the light shines on the face of the stranger. I see the blue coloured John Lennon sunglasses.
It’s Lark Skyrider.
An unlit cigarette between his lips, the leather jacket wrapped around him like a long, black coat, he opens the door to the control room and steps inside. I look at Bob, I look at Elvis. They’re too occupied with the music to notice anything. As the door to the control room opens, the recording technician lifts his head, an expression of astonishment on his face.
Any minute now and he will raise the alarm. Sweat is running down my spine. Lark Skyrider hands the technician something. Looks like a magazine. I move closer and glue my face to the glass wall. It’s an edition of Playboy Magazine. A broad grin appears on the technician’s face. He leaps from one photo to the next. Lark Skyrider stretch out an arm, turn off the recording device and remove the tape ….
“Hey, man, watch it!”
Before I realize what is going on, Raymond has grabbed the wheel. In the last minute he stirs us clear of a big, nasty truck. The driver holds up his finger. I open my mouth but cannot utter a damned word.
What, exactly, was I going to say? That I can’t stand Elvis? That I did not see the truck, but in a vision instead saw Lark Skyrider lifting a tape from a Nashville recording studio? Some things are better left unsaid. I make some hoarse noises and point feverishly at the plastic bag at Raymond’s feet.
“Ah, mas cerveza! Con mucho gusto.”
Raymond hands me a beer.
“This is what salvation must feel after a while,” I mumble.
Somebody is blowing cigarette smoke into my right ear.
“Now, be a good lad and concentrate on the driving,” Lark Skyrider whispers.
For a while all is quiet on the Western front.
The truce is shattered with a wild yell.
“Girls!” Raymond shouts.
I hit the brakes.
We’ve reached the outskirts of Gothenburg. The traffic is heavy.
Heads spinning in all directions.
“You can’t be serious?” I ask Raymond. “You actually mean those freaks inside that dirty wreck of a bus?”
Raymond gives me a wry smile.
“Wow! Boys! Look at those freaks!”
There’s a shiny, happy smile on The Kid’s face. “They must on their way to the same concert as us!”
“Hasn’t somebody taught you to raise your hand before you speak, Kid?”
Lark Skyrider press a finger hard against the car window. It leaves a greasy mark for weeks to come.
“I wonder at which archaeological site they’ve been dug up?” he asks. “Maybe we can find a woman for you among them, Kid? Wouldn’t that be nice? Someone all natural. Fresh from the stable in the morning. No make up, no perfume, no painted toe nails, no Kama Sutra turning you into a jelly fish”.
The Kid tries to open his mouth.
In the next second, Lark Skyrider rolls down the window, howls:
“Any girls on board the magical, mystery tour want a free ride in a Ferrari?”
The freaks look at us with contempt.
I drive on as fast as the traffic permits.
“You see, Kid, the devil’s shining light can be most blinding.”
Lark Skyrider paternally pats The Kid on his knee.
The Kid has that old, forlorn expression on his face again. It must be the burden of travelling all the way
to this town to see Tom Petty.
“Time to eat, boys!”
Raymond scratches his belly.
It’s the signal we’ve been waiting for. Time has come to park the car and go hunting for a place to eat.
“This looks like a good place!” The Kid says with an enthusiasm only the innocent can muster. Before we can tie his feet he’s already inside.
“The boy is a bloody menace!” Lark Skyrider hisses as we enter the restaurant. “Hell, look at those paintings!” He points an angry finger as some canvas hanging on the wall. “Green moose by a yellow lake in an orange sunset! What is this place, anyway?”
We find a table and sit down. Lark Skyrider orders a beer. Then he orders a bottle of red wine, another beer and asks the waitress to bring us something to eat.
“Gretchen, honey,” he says, “we’re hungry!”
She looks a bit confused, but finally manages to say in that sing-song voice typical of Swedish waitresses everywhere:
“I strongly recommend the catfish.”
After a short power talk, Raymond and I decide to go for the catfish. Lark Skyrider wants a steak. And The Kid? What about you, Kid?
“Porridge for the boy,” Lark Skyrider tells the waitress.
The pimples on The Kids face light up like fireworks.
“Don’t look so sad, Kid. Porridge will do you good. Make you grow. God knows, maybe you can even buy shaving cream before Christmas?”
We drink, talk and smoke while we wait, and it’s only after waiting for 35 minutes where nothing has happened, no catfish, no steak, no porridge for the boy and absolutely no waitress, that there’s a small commotion at our table.
The waitress casually drops by. I thought she’s come to pay us handsome lads a social visit. To my disappointment her only message is to tell us to be patient. And quiet. Stuck inside of Gothenburg with the restaurant blues again.
“Come and sit down with us, Gretchen!”
Lark Skyrider taps his lap.
The waitress turns pale and run into the kitchen.
“You sure got a way with women,” Raymond tells him.
“Comes with the territory.”
Lark Skyrider finishes his drink, gets up and the next minute he is standing on the chair.
The restaurant is suddenly dead quiet The other guests, some well behaved Swedes looking forlorn and very Swedish, stare at him with a mixture of amazement and horror. Perhaps they did not realize before until now that we were Norwegians? Well, that’s about to change now. The painted moose shakes it horns. Lonely days are over. Friends have arrived. Takes a moose to recognise a moose. The orange sunset slides down the wall.
Standing on the chair, Lark Skyrider bows to the restaurant guests, then recites in a loud and clear voice:
You must learn to leave the table
When love is no longer being served
Just show them all that you are able
Just get up and leave without saying a word
There’s no applause.
“Roy Orbison,” Lark Skyrider explains. “Or somebody.”
Raymond looks sceptical.
“Yeah. Somebody. Ma Rainey or Beethoven. Or maybe your aunt?”
Being a man of peace, I hurry to avoid further skirmish by telling a tale of Om Kalsoum and Dylan visiting the pyramids, but I don’t get further than to the Sphinx before a male waiter approaches the table.
“The guy walks like a peacock,” Raymond says. “Norwegian restaurants would be a lot more fun with waiters like him around.”
The peacock suspiciously wants to know what’ve ordered.
Happy to oblige, we tell him.
“And, feathers, what about another bottle of wine?”
Lark Skyrider makes an attempt to get up from his chair again.
“No, please not!”
I didn’t know peacocks could make such awkward sounds. They can change colour too. The waiter’s face have gone from white to red in a second.
“I’ll bring you another bottle of wine, but please remain seated!”
Am I mistaken, or there a trace of panic in his voice?
Can’t blame him, though. The mere sight of Norwegian tourists can make anyone wish they’d gone somewhere else.
“He sounds like a flight captain,” I say to Raymond.
“Wouldn’t surprises me if he returned with seat belts,” he replies.
“Don’t forget the wine,” I tell the peacock. “You see, we’re on a mission.”
“Yes, I understand. I do. Absolutely. I’ll be back with a bottle of wine in a minute.”
Then he rushes off faster than it takes Bob Dylan to leave a concert stage. When he returns with the wine, something must have happened to his hands. They are trembling worse than the hands of Dylan’s sound technician.
“That guy resembles Roger McGuinn”, Lark Skyrider comments. “Same voice, same movements. Makes one wonder if old Roger has Swedish ancestors. Wouldn’t surprise me.”
He takes a hard puff on the cigarette, blow smoke ring. They drift towards the painting of the moose. I wipe my eyes. Are they’re hanging around on the horns of the moose? I am beginning to wonder what four sweethearts like us are doing in dump like this, when Raymond returns to the subject of the day.
“I hate Empire Burlesque. It’s over-produced and kind of lazy. Saved, however, that’s an album for eternity!” he says. “Everything fits. The music economized. Powerful voice. And what did the press say?”
Raymond looks at us.
“Boys, you know what the journalists wrote?”
“Yes, Raymond, as a matter of fact we do”, I reply. “And if we didn’t, it would not be too hard to imagine what they’d written.”
“I guess Bob was right after all”, Raymond says slowly. “Nobody at that time understood how good the music was. From 1979 to 1981 the concert audiences were booing everywhere. And those shows are among his best! Things like that can make anybody bloody indifferent to public opinion.”
It’s a wonderful day in Gothenburg, Sweden. We’re all in a good mood. Not tired at all. A bit hungry, but not worse than the dogs outside remain safe. And my friend Raymond has just now said more than two coherent sentences without fumbling. Make you proud to be a Norwegian. Lark Skyrider, however, has not come to celebrate national pride. Leaning across the table, an intense expression on his face, he says in a voice that can scare the dead:
“Every time Bob has tried something new, the audience and damned journalists gets pissed off! The more challenging Bob is, the harsher the reviews. It’s been the same story from Newport 1965 to Copenhagen 1987. The cry of “Judas!” follows him everywhere. In 1981 the newspapers wrote that people walked out of his concerts, like our pal Raymond did later that very same year.”
“I’ve said I’m sorry.”
Raymond sounds hurt.
Lark Skryrider looks at him thoughtfully for a moment, then says:
“At least you’re no journalist.”
I breathe easier. It’s a truce now. On one front. But, as we’re soon about to discover, on the other fronts the battle is raging. Lark Skyrider takes a big swing at the wine glass. Canons loaded, Lark Skyrider immediately goes on the attack: “During a concert in April 1981, Dylan asked the audience: “Anybody left yet?” But this is also good, guys, ‘cause it shows that Bob’s still moving. Mentally, artistically. Not only is he still creative, but perhaps more importantly he, and his music, remains controversial. It matters. It touches you. It does not leave you indifferent and lukewarm. It either ignites you or makes you want to leave the concert. The newspapers and media freaks don’t understand what it’s all about. They have no fucking idea what it’s all about! The day the journalists starts embracing him and give his concert top rating, it’s all over. Baby blue or baby red herring. Bob’s finished. Good reviews equal artistic stagnation. Boys, here’s to bad reviews for ever!”
Lark Skyrider dries his mouth on the sleeve of his black leather jacket and raises his glass. We toast to bad reviews. The Swedish wine bottles gets empty remarkably fast. Just as the feeling of hunger is in the process of being replaced by an irresistible thirst, the male waiter brings us the food we ordered last summer. Gretchen is nowhere to be seen. Too bad. I had started to wonder how she looked like in Läderhosen. We order a couple of beers to cut the spleen, and are almost done eating when The Kid deems it appropriate to stick his nose into something which is not his business:
“Who’s going to do the driving home?”
Sipping from his orange juice, The Kid looks from Raymond to me, somehow avoiding looking at Lark Skyrider.
“Him,” I toss my head in Lark Skyrider’s direction.
The Kid’s face looks like a dead tuna.
“Something wrong with your juice, Kid?”
I never knew Lark Skyrider could speak so gently.
“Can I get a cigarette from one of you?” The Kid sounds kind of shaky.
“You don’t smoke”, Lark Skyrider reminds him. “Now eat up your porridge, Kid, and let’s head out of this joint.”
We pay and leave.
The catfish tasted like glue.
As the door closes behind us I think I hear a faint noise, like some applause or something, but with all the squatter coming from The Kid, it’s hard to tell.
We are late for the concert.
The Kid had told us no rock and roll concert with due respect for immortality and crying teen-agers starts on time. So, we had walked around town, had a few more beers, and had almost forgotten where we were, and why, when The Kid looked at his watch and with a worried expression said we’d better hurry to the Scandinavium.
By the time we get there, Roger McGuinn is on stage, alone with an acoustic guitar.
The place is packed. It’s pitch dark, and those Swedes have a nasty habit of sticking their big, smelly feet everywhere. Moving between the rows and seats is like crossing a minefield in World War I. After what seems like an endless journey through dark heat, Raymond finally finds four free seats high up at the Scandinavium. Stretch out your hand and you can touch the ceiling. One could have seen the stage quite well if it hadn’t been for the amplifiers and stuff, but at least the sound wasn’t too bad. It only became a mess when Dylan came on stage and everybody got nervous. Tom Petty broke a string, Benmont Tench fell of his chair by the piano and the sound technician slipped out through the back door.
“The sound was horrible”, one of the politically correct, Danish journalists had written after the Copenhagen concert. “He wrote about the sound inside his own head,” Lark Skyrider explained.
“Once upon a time”, Roger says into the mike, and for the last time during the show one can hear each word clearly, “Bob wrote a song called ….”
“Mr. Tambourine Man,” sighs Lark Skyrider. “Hell, this is worse than that damned restaurant The Kid dragged us into”, he utters into the darkness.
“I only hope Bob doesn’t play Blowing In The Wind”, Raymond sounds unconvinced.
“There is Tom Petty! There is Tom Petty!”
The Kid is jumping up and down waving his arms.
Lark Skyrider push him back into the chair.
“Yeah, and you’re Michael Jackson!”
He puts his blue coloured sunglasses on The Kids nose.
I am suddenly aware of the blonde, cute looking Swedish girl sitting on the seat next to me. Her leg kind of touched mine, I guess. I lean a little closer. There’s this softness in her body. A smell of midsummer and strawberries. She’s maximum 18.
“He’s good”, I say and point my finger towards the small figure down at the stage.
“Oh, yes, very good!” She smiles at me. “Is he Bob Dylan?”
From the direction of Lark Skyrider I hear someone uttering the word “Lolita”, followed by roaring laughter, but I have no time for literary discussions.
“No”, I politely tell the cute blonde, “that’s Tom Petty.”
She looks thoughtful for a second, asks:
“But which of them is Bob Dylan?”
It’s a metaphysical question.
I’m sure glad she asked it. Somehow that very question had escaped my vivid mind the last 10 hours. We’ve travelled more than 300 kilometres, taken two days off work without permission and Raymond and I even had to eat that catfish. I feel her warm, fresh breath against my cheek and the politics of sin running through my veins. Temptation is not an easy thing. Bob said that.
“Don’t you know who Bob Dylan is?”
I move a little closer.
“Yes I do”, she replies. “He’s an American folk musician”.
She looks so healthy and young. I’m sure she plays Blowing In The Wind on a guitar made in Japan when the nights gets cold and lonely, singing with a voice that can melt the snow. There’s a candle burning on the window frame. A cup of hot, herbal tea on the floor beside the big, brass bed where she sits in a tight t-shirt, guitar in her lap, blue eyes staring sad and longingly into the Swedish night.
“And you came all the way from Norway to see him?”
I love the way her questions make me feel.
How was I to know you’d be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone
Shine your light on me.
We had come from the remote Kingdom of eternal snow and ice in a galaxy far, far away. About five hours drive from here. I should have told her:
Don’t fall apart on me tonight
Yesterday’s just a memory
Tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be
But it felt as I was stuck inside a painting hanging in the Louvre. Couldn’t make a sound.
“You must like him a lot”.
Her voice sweet and warm. In another lifetime I would have thought she’d offered me shelter from the storm.
“That’s right. Only problem these days is that Bob doesn’t seem to like us that much”.
“Oh, that’s sad”, she says and rest her head on my shoulder while Roger McGuinn sings Eight Miles High in a duet with Tom Petty.
Then lights are turned off and the sound technician grabs his box of pink pills. Something is happening, but we don’t know what it is. We still don’t when the stage suddenly is cast in a dim, sparse light, like a distant camp fire of Nubian lion hunters gone astray on a dark and starless night. Tom Petty & The Heartbrakers have melted into the shadows. If you squeeze your eyes hard together, you can almost see the silhouette of a short guy standing in front of the stage. The friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame. He wears a golden, silk shirt loosely tied around his waist, a black t-shirt underneath, black Lewis 501 and motorcycle boots, and threw away his razor somewhere between Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
The guy doesn’t look at the filled stadium as he rages into Like A Rolling Stone with an urgency as if he’d written it in the wardrobe seconds before going on stage.
“This is not folk music!”
She doesn’t sound happy, but I’m to preoccupied staring at the guy in the golden silk shirt and black jeans on the stage to pay attention. There’s a soft touch of lips on my cheek. A faint sound of clothes rustling. I don’t know whether I’m listing to my heart beating or to Bob, but when he stops singing, I turn my head. Her seat is empty. She’s gone.
“Fading legend looking tired”, our friend the Danish journalist had written. “The disappointment poured down the walls of the concert hall as aging hippies listened their tired hero.”
Lark Skyrider had read the review out loud for us from the back of the Ferrari earlier that day. “Journalism is commercialization of the heart!” he said in disgust, and threw the newspaper out of the car window. Well, according to Bob, Nicodemus had come at night so he wouldn’t be seen by men. Not that it seemed to bother Lark Skyrider. when he later on, at a roadside motel making an ordinary Norwegian hotel lobby look like Caesar’s Palace, added philosophically:
“Dylan and his audience will always be at war with each other. On 27th May 1966 in London, Dylan told the audience this would be his last concert in England ever. After a fabulous version of Balled Of A Thin Man some idiot yells out loud: “Judas!” “I don’t believe you,” Dylan shoots back, tuning his electric guitar. “You’re a liar!” he shouts as he plays the opening chords of Like A Rolling Stone. He turns to Robbie Robertson: “Play fucking loud!” What a concert!” Lark Skyrider eyes are glowing. “I got the tape somewhere in the car.”
By now we’re well into the last song of the night.
Everybody, the audience, Tom Petty, The Heartbrakers, the stage workers and the nervous wreck behind the sound board, all believe they’ve managed to survive one more Dylan concert. From here on it is smooth sailing. A couple of more chords now and it’s back to the comfortable hotel room. Free at last. Tom Petty has already unstrapped his guitar. Dylan’s back up singers, The Queens Of Rhythm, are also ready to call it a day’s work. But the lonesome figure in front of the stage doesn’t look up or move an inch. With his gaze fixed on the stage floor, as if searching for a magical door to infinity hidden somewhere between the soles of his motorcycle boots, and the electric guitar being the key to unlock it, he keeps on playing. The song should have ended by now. Would have been perfect. Right on schedule. But we live in a strange and unpredictable world. There’s a hard rain a-gonna fall. Whatever was supposed to be no longer applies. The keyboard player shakes his head. He shouts something to the guy up front. No response. The Heartbrakers exchange bewildered glances. An annoyed Tom Petty hooks his guitar back on. One of the women in The Queens Of Rhythm steps up to the mike and starts singing. Finally, Dylan looks up. A shadow of a smile flickers across his face. Then he’s gone.
Outside, the red Ferrari is waiting.
A big, wild cat eager to roam through the night.
Car keys swirl through the air.
“Bring it all back home,” I tell Lark Skyrider.
The roaring of the engine is the sound of home. It’s all quiet in the car. Lark Skyrider is staring out on the road ahead from behind his sunglasses. Soon the city lights are behind us. I close my eyes. As if in a dream I hear Raymond’s quiet voice:
“There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived
If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive
But without you it just doesn’t seem right
Oh, where are you tonight?”
Copyright John Michael Hudtwalcker 1987, 2018.
In cooperation with Skyrider Entertainment.
All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Agent Smith.