Listening to recordings of Dylan’s 1974 tour you get to hear a lot of different kinds of clapping and cheering. The first song of any show usually brings a huge ovation, because people are so happy to see him. This was, at the time, the most lucrative concert tour ever put on. It was completely over-subscribed, and fans were ravenous for Dylan and The Band. The early ovation is a cheap and easy one that simply comes from showing up.
Dylan’s acoustic set seems to get bigger applause than the electric stuff, still, and eight years later (all of this, of course, based on semi-dodgy bootlegs so I don’t want to make any definitive claims). Almost every song gets applause at the end of the first line of the lyrics, which is typical of so many concert audiences that clap to say “Yes, we know this one and we approve of you playing it”, and certain songs get huge ovations (“Like a Rolling Stone”) while others gets smaller applause (most of the material from Planet Waves) . So it goes.
What is fascinating, though, is the reaction to one single line.
When Dylan recorded “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” on Bringing It All Back Home, it didn’t seem like it would become one of his most important songs. He played it a lot on the 1966 tour, and has played it a lot throughout his career. I gave it a provisional seventh on my list of his “best of all time”, and it is one of my favourites. It’s chock full of aphorisms – it’s Dylan’s Hamlet, endlessly spinning off catchphrases:
While others say don’t hate nothing at all / Except hatred
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phoney
It is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to
But live in 1974 there is the one line that gets the huge reaction – after a couple of shows the performers even stretch the pause to accommodate it the way that a comedian leaves space for the peals of laughter:
Even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked
With the Nixon presidency crashing down – he will resign before the end of the year – this phrase is the greatest punchline possible for the Dylan audience. Listen to it on Before the Flood – it literally brings the house down.
One of the most curious things I’ve read about the ’74 tour this week, is this article in Rolling Stone about Dylan visiting the Governor’s mansion in Georgia after playing in Atlanta (possibly my favourite show from the tour that I’ve listened to, but there’s a lot of them I haven’t heard). Jimmy Carter had sixteen tickets for this show, and then hosted a party for Dylan afterward. They ate grits (actually, Dylan didn’t). It’s just so bizarre. By far the best part of the article is the bit where Gregg Allman shows up late and Carter greets him at the door in jeans to tell him the party is over. I would so love a video of that.
The Dylan/Carter relationship is an interesting one, apparently pushed by Carter’s son. It would have been fascinating to hear them speaking. Carter was touted in the article as a possible vice-presidential candidate, but, of course, he would go much further than that two years later. At his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, Carter quoted this line from the song:
He not busy being born is busy dying
It’s a super-quotable line – maybe Dylan’s best aphorism. It would make a good tattoo. I just can’t shake the image of Carter hearing it at the Omni on that January night, contemplating his future. Maybe it’s why he put on the jeans to greet the late-arriving Allman…
Here’s an earlier version that may have escaped the wrath of Dylan’s lawyers simply because of the special pleading: