Bob Dylan began his first tour in seven and a half years on January 3, 1974 in Chicago, supported by The Band, who were not merely the backing group but co-headliners. They did forty shows, and I’ll have a lot to say about this tour this week as I listen to it (of course, Before the Flood is a good way for you to keep up with it as well).
Before I get to that, however, I’ve been reading some of the early-1974 press coverage of Dylan. He had avoided the press for most of the past several years, so with the return to the spotlight I’m sure that the media was eager to get a hold of him and put him on the record. Nonetheless, he gave only a couple of interviews. Bjorner lists interviews with the New York Times, Washington Post, Time and Newsweek, and Ben Fong-Torres also wrote a lengthy report about touring with Dylan for the first seven or eight shows and trying to get a chance to talk to him (which he never really does).
The best pieces is the one in Rolling Stone, which you can read in its entirety here (and kudos to Rolling Stone for putting so much (all?) of their archive online for free, I had to hassle with my university’s paid subscriptions to read the other articles).
I want to cut out a large part of the Fong-Torres article because it directly addresses one of the things that most interests me about Dylan – the fact that he stopped talking to his audiences. Just as a refresher, if you listen to the Town Hall Concert or Carnegie Hall, Dylan was a chatty cathy – he was a funny performer, and very charming. By the time he was getting big at Newport he’d cut the talk way back. On the 1966 UK tour he used talk as a weapon in the rock half of the shows to try to shut the crowd up. That’s some of the most interesting rock talk I’ve ever heard. At Isle of Wight he basically said “Nice to be here” and introduced “Quinn the Eskimo” by talking about Manfred Mann, and at the Rock of Ages show he talked briefly before “Like A Rolling Stone”. Now Torres is reporting that he basically has stopped speaking from stage, telling Montreal that “It’s always good to be in Montreal!”, but that’s about it. Here’s Torres speaking with Robbie Robertson about this:
But the Band and Dylan are nervous, too, said Robertson, and that partly explains the lack of communication from the artists to the audience, beyond the music and a wave, a peace sign or a clenched fist here, a nod from Robbie’s guitar there. First, Robertson maintains, there’s no need to talk. You say hello by showing up onstage; you play familiar music and don’t need to introduce numbers. A new number from Dylan is obviously new. “So you’re kind of . . . it’s meaningless talk.”
“Just remember, when Bob first started to play, he used to do more talking than music. He used to just talk and talk and tell stories, jokes and carrying on, you know. It’s a different thing. And also, I think in his case, everybody takes it to such a degree that it’s embarrassing, almost, to say anything. I mean, they start, you know . . . “
To analyze what he meant by “We’ll be back in 15 minutes”?
“Right, they start counting to 15 backwards . . . they just take it and they get silly.
One critic in Chicago, a man with a background in theater, accused Dylan of holding back and concluded: “Maybe Dylan just isn’t a performer.”
Dylan, in Montreal, responded: “They just don’t understand.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s got nothing to do with that kind of atmosphere. What the critics expect is what they expect. It concerns me more with getting it to the people.
“It’s basically music, not a music-hall routine.”
Interestingly, Dylan will start to talk more by the end of the decade, and we’ll get to that when we get to it, but I found this pretty interesting, since it’s something I’ve always wondered. Off the top of my head, I can only recall personally seeing Dylan talk from stage maybe once in my life.
The other pieces in the NYT and WaPo are not really that interesting, with one exception, which probably spoiled the opportunity for all other journalists to get Dylan on record. When Dylan spoke with Tom Zito of the Post he was asked why he wasn’t doing benefits for politicians, while he had done George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. Dylan replied: “George McGovern wasn’t starving. He just wanted to be President.” The story goes that Dylan asked Zito not to run that quote, having thought better of it, but Zito didn’t grant the request. Dylan only gave one other interview in 1974 after that, ending his brief reunion with the press.
Anyway, read the Rolling Stone piece – it has a great scene with Dylan and The Band in Toronto going to see Ronnie Hawkins, and is otherwise a beautiful example of the genre of RS writing where the reporter reflects on hanging out in hotel rooms being ignored by the subject of the article that Cameron Crowe nailed so well in Almost Famous.