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Shadowboxing with Bob Dylan in Kansas City

The voice of a generation touched the heart of my late wife and me years ago

To paraphrase Edmund Spenser, nothing is fixed on earthly soil, as the Elizabethan poet noted in “Two Cantos of Mutabilitie” to The Fairie Queene.

And nothing, except perhaps modern orthography, is fixed at a Bob Dylan concert.

For my first time ever, I got to sit in the front row at a Dylan gig, which took place this past Sunday night at Kansas City’s Midland Theater, a 1920s movie palace built in the Renaissance Revival style.

The tickets were purchased by my dear friend, Garrett, whose mother, Robin, another dear friend of many years, showed me around K.C. for five days.

Certainly, it was a joy to see the Bobster, but it was the first time I saw him without my wife, Barbara, who passed away last month.

It was Barbara, who introduced me to Dylan’s music in the late 1990s, not long after she and I started dating.

Barbara and I saw Dylan play with Paul Simon at the Pond in Anaheim in 1998.  We also saw the Bobster in concert with Merle Haggard at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in 2005.

As we all know, when you see Bob Dylan at a live venue, there are always guessing games as to how he will transform his songs and how long it will take those of us in attendance to identify each tune.

Dylan, who sometimes changes lyrics for individual songs, frequently changes the time signatures at his concerts, so as to make many of his numbers, even those that are extremely well-known, almost unrecognizable at the outset. 

Dylan’s desire to stay fresh, to reinvent himself and his music, has long been a part of his appeal as an artist, and it is well understood by fans. 

We all know that Bob Dylan is a chameleon, a mutable form, who gets energized and stimulated by giving his folk art, which resonates from long ago, a protean quality.

If Dylan was up to his usual tricks with time signatures on Sunday night at the Midland Theater, he was reliable in other regards.

Bob Dylan loves to play the part of an outlaw, as he did Sunday night, and he may particularly love the idea of being a prizefighter, who spars with the audience and shadowboxes until the last bell tolls.

If memory serves, Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One begins with a vignette in which Dylan, newly signed by Columbia Records, walks into Jack Dempsey’s Bar in New York with a Columbia executive.

While I can’t remember the actual exchange, as recounted by Dylan, it goes something like this.

Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champ from the 1920s, sizes up Dylan, a thin youth, roughly 20 years old at the time, and gives him advice along the lines of, “You’re going to need to put on a little weight, kid.”

The Columbia executive, perhaps John Hammond, the scout who signed Dylan, then says, “He’s a singer, Jack, not a boxer.”

The champ, who fought one of the most famous boxing matches of all time against Gene Tunney, replies, “Oh, well, then good luck to you, kid.”

Dylan has always had a passion for the sweet science.  And even if, on Sunday night, Oct. 20, the Bobster did not sing one of his homages to boxing greats like Muhammad Ali, Davey Moore or Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, he nonetheless pattered around the stage on the balls of his feet. 

As previously stated, he played his gig at the Midland Theater, a movie palace built in 1927, the year of the famous “long count” fight between Dempsey and Tunney.

And on Sunday night the Bobster did a blues rendition of all the songs in his 19-song set, which included two encores. 

Some of the beats and riffs on some of the tunes Sunday night reminded me of the music in the Mickey Rourke movie, Homeboy, a 1988 film that was barely released in the theaters.

Again, if memory serves, Dylan, in Chronicles: Volume One, praises that film, in which Rourke plays an aging boxer, a so-called tomato can, who has pugilistic dementia and who could die from one more blow in the ring.

In Dylan’s book, he talks about riding his motorcycle in the South and going to see Homeboy, in which, in Dylan’s view and in mine, Rourke gave a sensational performance.

Dylan gave a sensational performance too on Sunday at the Midland, and he was by no means punch-drunk, though he did seem frail.

Life on the road and plenty of hard living, as we know from songs, like “Tangled Up in Blue,” can take a toll on an artist, especially a 78-year-old, like Dylan.

Besides padding around the stage on the balls of his feet and evoking an aging pugilist, Dylan played electric guitar on the first couple of numbers, the piano on many others (no surprise there), and the harmonica very movingly on a few songs, such as “Make You Feel My Love” and “A Simple Twist of Fate.”

An inspired venue for a concert revolving around the eternal and the transient, the Midland has Roman columns, a cupola with a crystal chandelier, gilded balconies and gold leaf throughout.

It was a perfect setting for Dylan to play “Early Roman Kings,” a song from Tempest, one of his relatively recent albums.

As it turned out, Dylan played quite a few songs from his albums of the past 20 years or so.   

One of the highlights of the evening for me came when he played, as I mentioned earlier, “Make You Feel My Love” from Time Out of Mind.

This song, whose studio version features Dylan on the piano, has for years been a favorite of my wife’s and mine.  It is a song we experienced together, because the album came out in 1997, right at the time that Barbara and I started dating.

I will always remember how we listened to that song and that album on the ride home from the Bay Area, as we celebrated our first wedding anniversary in 2002.

On Sunday night, Dylan shuffled around the stage in white shoes, held a microphone and sang that beautiful number in his gravelly voice.  A minute or two into the tune, he got out his harmonica and used the harp to play the melody.

Dylan and his band also performed “Not Dark Yet” from Time Out of Mind.  That song, like much of Dylan’s late period work, has sometimes been overstated for its gloom.  But there is no question that Dylan was giving a strong message that could not be missed on Sunday night, when he sang the title line, “It’s not dark yet,” then delayed before uttering with appropriate wryness, “But it’s getting there.”

On Sunday night, Dylan looked more like a gangster from the Roaring Twenties than a pugilist, as he wore those white shoes and a dark suit.  In keeping with the racketeering or Prohibition-era image, some of his band members wore dark fedoras, while Dylan flaunted his full head of dark hair.

But Dylan is never other than mysterious and paradoxical.

His gray pants included a white floral design, in the form of an olive branch.

To paraphrase from one of Bobby’s own songs, was Bob Dylan, like Satan, coming as a man of peace? 

Dylan did not play any songs from Infidels, the 1980s album that includes the tune, “Man of Peace,” but he did perform a bluesy version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” from his Christian period, a phase that just preceded Infidels.

“Gotta Serve Somebody,” which Dylan played on piano, concluded the set on Sunday night, before Dylan added two encores.

The first encore was “Ballad of a Thin Man,” whose stabbing put-down — “Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is.  Do you, Mr. Jones? — reminded us that a song written in the 1960s about a thin man will always be relevant, including in the present day when a clueless and hateful man, however bloated, runs our country.

Then, Dylan finished with “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” another song from the sixties, also from Highway 61 Revisited, whose title song he cranked out earlier in the evening.

Whether he was singing about God and Abraham in Jerusalem, or about more modern matters, Dylan mixed the eternal with the flux of mutability.

Positioned close to Dylan’s piano on Sunday night was what looked to be a bust of a goddess.  If that bust conjured perhaps the early Roman period, other props on the stage conjured the Prohibition era.  Several Madame Tussaud’s-like mannequins, adorned with tuxedos and ballroom gowns, decorated the stage, which gave the set the feel of a museum or a dressing room from a vintage epoch. 

It also reminded the concertgoer of walking through modern Rome, where, as has been pointed out before, you might come upon a ruin or a piece of Renaissance sculpture in the middle of a street.

My wife, Barbara, and I, like so many others over the centuries, had such an experience five years ago when we visited the Eternal City.

The song, “Early Roman Kings,” which Dylan played on Sunday night, directly addressed this tension between the eternal and the impermanence of our lives on this planet.  “Fly by night,” Dylan rasped, “like the early Roman kings.”

Of course, some moments remain indelible and cannot be erased or altered, unless we forget them.

Years ago, I got to know Dylan a little bit.  As I wrote in a piece on the occasion of Dylan’s 75th birthday, I joined an outfit around the time that Barbara and I got married.  That outfit, unbeknownst to me, was owned by the Bobster himself. 

Barbara and I would sometimes see Dylan at this special club, a museum of a sort, which included a boxing gym.

We belonged to the gym for about two years, and, during that time, I had periodic conversations with the master.  But Barbara was too shy to say anything to him.

One day, late in our tenure at the gym, I approached Dylan, who was sitting on an apron of the ring, where he rested in his sweats after a workout.

I spread my arm and gestured to Barbara, who was seated on a couch nearby.  Then I told Dylan that she was one of his biggest fans.

“It’s so embarrassing,” said the legend, who was fatigued and sweating that day years ago, as he was this past Sunday night, when beads of perspiration occasionally dripped from his face onto the stage.

“No,” I said to Dylan with a smile on my face.  “No, it’s good.”

With a characteristic twinkle in his eye, Dylan smiled back.  “Oh,” he said.  “Okay.”

We hugged each other briefly, and a little later, Dylan walked in front of Barbara and over to a corner of the gym.  He hoisted a baby, who may have been one of his grandchildren, if not a secret love child, as Barbara speculated.

Bob Dylan then placed the infant before a speed bag, which the baby rapped ever so lightly.

Barbara used to talk about this memory quite a bit.  It meant so much to her.

She and I were fairly convinced that Bob Dylan had staged that scene just for Barbara, who had never said anything to the great man, one of the greatest artists and voices of the generations.  

That is the kind of memory, like Bob Dylan’s music, that will stay with me, as it stayed with my wife, until the end of time.

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