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LIVE ONSTAGE TONIGHT

Even the marquee reads surreal.  Like stepping into a forties film of fedoras and stage clothes on loan from the Grand Old Opry.  We've come here from all over.  The lead singer of Cake at the 1920's ticket window, desperate.  Do they know who he is, he wants to know, and there's no arrogance in his voice.  It's a plea, a last ditch effort to be a part of it tonight.  Scalpers are working the street out front.  A buck and a quarter for a place to stand and they'll sell them all before the doors open.  Five nights in L.A. and the opening act is a surprise.  There are rumors of Beck, Jewel, Neil Young, and Sheryl Crow, but it's all incidental.  As most things are in the shadow of a legend.

We have come for something we can't explain.  To return to the past, to put it to rest, all of us in one way or another putting it on him.

The room goes dark and the shadows take their places on stage.  He is at the back of the line.  The wild-haired silhouette makes its way against the back wall.  He's coming.  It is black.  And then white.  The shape of him not ten feet away from me.  His guitar is waiting for him in front of the drums, the neck of it resting on a white rolled up towel.  Green towels for the rest of the band.  He picks up the guitar and the lights flash once more as the announcer goes at it boxing style, mumbling, rumbling so as I can barely make it out until he gets to the end.  “Ladies and gentlemen, BOB DYLAN.”  Ladies?  Gentlemen?  He must be reading off a card, because he couldn't possibly be looking out over us.

And he is there, under the lights.  Everything touchable falls away under the spell of him.  The possibility of anything is here and so electric that I am afraid for anyone to brush up against me, afraid of what the shock would do to us.  The black pants have white stitching running up the side of each leg and are lit blood red to match the floweredy stitching on his long jacket.  His cuff links shine silver in the red light.  He's made friends with the old man in him without letting go of youth.  For this window of time, at age fifty-seven, they sit together within him, the old man in a gray and black bow tie, the boy in black patent leather shoes, new and Sunday school stiff and I see him on the way down the road and I see his footing falter.  And I wonder what rebellion feels like in the winter.

We are background noise as he finds his way with the music, the stage, the energy of the room.  It's as if a photographer fairy is sitting on his shoulder whispering, “Now pretend you're a rock star,” and he shifts his stance, points his guitar at a man down front and fixes his face in rocker defiance.  Giving us our image of him.  Then the music comes again and we're not there.  Only his guitar and this song from his past.  From our past.  Strangely foreign yet intimate in this bedroom we've created, incense burning, bodies rubbing up against those of strangers in the dark frenzy of a little common ground.

The music is coming on to us, using the body, the mouth, the fingers, the eyes of our icon to do it and there are moments when we get all caught up in it and can't remember if it's him or the music.  But he's up there in a suit worthy of Johnny Cash and in a moment of vision-like clarity, we see that he is that.  He has become what he pretended to be, what we wanted him to be.  To separate him from the music or the lights or the bow tie or the dance is impossible.

I listen and I wonder why only he sounds this way.  Maybe it's because he's singing from someplace else...some netherland of his insides...from the fringes and the core of his most secret places at the same time.  And I feel at times tonight as if it would be less intimate if he confessed his greatest sins.  I am shy to watch him.  Like I've slipped into the priest's side of the confessional.  Strange response to a public event.  I paid to be here...but not as much as he did.  

I am here because I need to look at him.  To see if he means it.  Or if he's conning all of us.  Including himself.  But he takes the dare every time.  And you get the sense that the dares are flying at him from the inside machine gun style.  Wheel's on fire...this wheel shall explode.

It's been over an hour.  He's soaked and it's not hard to tell that he is forcing himself to end songs, that he wants to keep going.  Forever. 

We're getting the long version, but in his mind, he's cutting it short.  The words are eaten up by the mike and fed back to us through the amps, distorted and distant.

He's looking now from eyes set so deep that at times it seems they have disappeared, like a skull, bones and holes where the windows used to be.  Frozen, I'm frozen.  Not holes at all now, but lasers looking into me from the stage, daring me...to what?  Look back?  Because it's burning me up to hold his gaze.  I look away.  Look back to find he never let go of it.  And everyone wants to believe the one giving birth under the lights is looking at them.  To believe the creator could actually draw strength from one of our smiles.  Fantasy.  He wasn't drawing anything from me.  He just fixed his eyes and played a little truth or dare in the middle of a song.  Or maybe he was looking through me.  But communication doesn't always involve dialog and we spoke last night.  Don't look back.  And for the first time, I understood about not looking back.  The thing is, if you ever look away, you've lost it.

Forever Young now.  It has looked for most of the show as if his eyes are sweating and I wondered if he was feeling this too.  The truth is, even though this is the “Never Ending Tour” and even though he's been sick and maybe even sick of playing for us, he's as high from the night as we are.  So Forever Young comes now and he's saying it to us and singing at the same time.  A ballad about us.  But really now, about him.  Stay forever young.  What, Bob?  What is it?  Are you sad because you aren't.  What do you see when you look out over us?  Do you wish us well?  Think us clever because we've chosen you to sit on thrones built of our deepest voids?  Do you hate us because more of our lives are in front of us?  Do you want to scream, like Morrison that we're “all a bunch of idiots” for looking to you for anything?  The man down front with the fedora who probably shows up at all your concerts, do you despise him?  Love him?  Pity him?  You're singing Be Courageous.  The insistence in your voice is compelling.  I will be.  My heart is heavy under a stranger's burden, a stranger who doesn't know my name.  But I'll be courageous.  Even though it's the hardest thing you could ask, I'll do just about anything asked me with this kind of urgency.  I share your burden.  I just didn't know it until you showed it to me.  So pass it down and don't sweat any tears for me.  But forever young...forever young is a dream.  Like you are.  And just like we can't ever be as much a part of you as you have been of our lives, you can't get back to forever young.

Looking now at a poster hanging on the back of my door from 1965.  It's the morning after and my husband tells me that it was entirely sad and yet not.  We sit looking at that poster for some time without a word.  “Sad, why?” I ask him.  “Because he was that,” pointing, “and now he's not?”  He's looking at me now, like explaining death to a child.  “Yes.  Because he was that, and now he's not.”

And I think how I'm glad he's not.  Glad I saw him last night instead of twenty-five years ago.  He is everything he was and to that many more lifetimes.  Looking into the depths of those serious tortured dancing eyes, I'm glad they had twenty-five more years of nights to see before I saw them.  Forever Young?  Maybe not.  But maybe that doesn't matter when you're forever courageous.

by Delight Underwood

You can read more about Bob Dylan at his official website.



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