Copps Coliseum



The first Bob Dylan concert that I ever attended took place on June 11, 1988 at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton (a large hockey arena built by the city to attract an NHL hockey team that the Toronto Maple Leafs made certain would never be placed there; it’s now known as the FirstOntario Centre). Copps was a fairly new building at the time (opened in 1985), and I recall that its acoustics were superior to those of Maple Leaf Gardens, the venue that Dylan had been regularly playing in Toronto in the 1960s.

I remember that I went with five friends from high school, which had just ended for me a few weeks before. One of those five was the girlfriend who had broken up with me on my eighteenth birthday three weeks earlier, so that was fun. I guess that’s the problem with buying tickets in advance. I know that one of the others was my friend Marc, who was very interested and knowledgeable about music, but not at all a Dylan fan. For some reason I can’t actively remember who the other people there were. Probably friends of the ex-girlfriend. I know that none of them were particularly Dylan fans. I kind of remember that they all thought the show was lousy, but they were happy to see The Jam, who opened the show.

This was a relatively early show on what is now known as the Never-Ending Tour, which began in June 1988 (Bjorner says it was show #22). Dylan was supported by a band led by G.E. Smith, the guitarist for Saturday Night Live who was famous for leering into the camera as that show went to commercial. Dylan’s earlier tour that year had featured Neil Young on guitar (Young was in a similar career slump at the time).

Things I remember: Dylan wore a leather vest and leather pants. The mix was somewhat awkward. He played an awful lot of hits. My friends felt that he hadn’t played enough of his hits and that he was an old man. I remember thinking that the show was pretty damn good.

I now have a (very poor quality) bootleg of that show. I can confirm that he wore leather pants and a leather vest (if the cover photo is actually from that show, which is not always the case with bootlegs). I can confirm that the mix was awkward (or the tape mic was hidden in someone’s armpit, which may be even more likely). I can confirm that he played a lot of hits. Indeed, as a line-up of Dylan songs this one is very difficult to beat:

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Absolutely Sweet Marie

Stuck Inside of Mobile

Ballad of a Thin Man

Simple Twist of Fate

All Along the Watchtower

To Ramona

Mr. Tambourine Man

I Shall Be Released


Like a Rolling Stone

Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

Gotta Serve Somebody

Maggie’s Farm

Seriously, that is as close as you can get to an all Dylan hits show. Obviously, the addition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” would’ve pushed it even further, but he only did three non-1960s songs, and one of those was on the pop charts at the time. Some people are never happy.

Re-listening to the show today, I don’t like it that much – I have a lot of 1980s bootlegs that I greatly prefer. I’ve never recalled this as one of the best Dylan shows that I saw, probably because I went with an ex-girlfriend and a bunch of people who complained the whole time. Just another Dylan disappointment.

I do have to say, though, the most interesting thing that I’ve learned from doing this project and reading through the accounts of Dylan’s extensive touring is that I have seen Dylan far fewer times than I always thought that I had. There has seemingly been a great expansion in my mind on this subject. For instance, I would have been certain that I saw Dylan prior to 1988, but I now know that I didn’t. People keep asking me how often I’ve seen Dylan, and I thought it was dozens of times, but now I don’t think it is even a dozen in reality. There is something about my memory that is really playing tricks on me when I cross-check it against the historical record. I definitely would have placed this show earlier in my own personal musical biography.

I couldn’t find any video from this show, so instead here’s The Lumineers doing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the very same venue twenty-five years later:

On edit: I graduated from high school in June 1987, not 1988. So my ex- would have been a full year’s ex- by this point. So now I can’t figure out why we were there together at all. The mystery deepens.

On edit: The Jam broke up in 1982. Who the hell opened this show?

On edit: It has been suggested to me that The Alarm opened numerous shows for Dylan in 1988. But who would confuse The Alarm for The Jam even a quarter century later? Also, I have now come to believe that I was at this show with an entirely different group of friends, but that they still didn’t like the show.

“Handle With Care”



In 1988 Bob Dylan changed his name to Lucky Wilbury and released an album with his four brothers, Nelson, Otis, Lefty and Charlie T. Their first single, which hit number two on the pop charts, was “Handle With Care”. This was a revitalization of Dylan’s career. I was completely certain that it was a sign of the apocalypse.

How bad was “Handle With Care” to the eighteen year old me? It was so bad that my father bought the album on CD (one of the first CDs ever to come into our home – I didn’t buy my first until three or four years later, I was convinced that the whole thing was a complete scam by the record companies). For me, the Traveling Wilburies were, literally, your father’s Dylan, and I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. I remember that I sort of actively sought to shun the song and to avoid listening to it.

The problem was that the song was popular, the album was popular, and, dispassionately, it is a far superior single to “Silvio” (which, of course, I also didn’t like). The Dylan renaissance was beginning all around me and I wanted nothing to do with it. I had become a cranky young man railing about Dylan selling out! Dylan, who had disappointed his fans in, at least, 1966, 1969, 1972, 1979, and 1982, had finally disappointed me. Ironically, what drove me from him was the decision to release a well-produced album.

I was a bit dim when I was eighteen, but so are most people at that age, so it wasn’t my fault.

Listening to the song, it’s actually pretty good. Roy Orbison is certainly the highlight, but the whole supergroup thing works well because it doesn’t seem like a cluster of egos and clashing notions. The whole Wilbury’s project only sometimes works, but this is an example of it gelling.

There is an extended version (by about two minutes) that was included with the CD single (alongside the b-side, “Margarita”). It is quite the step down in terms of production. It adds about a minute of the guitar part at the beginning and then seems to sample the chorus with bizarre over-production that makes it sound like the song is being recorded in an echo chamber. This version also really foregrounds the drums more than the single does, presumably to make it more club friendly. It’s quite the disaster – phasing synth noises have been added to the bridges, for example. It’s not better in any way, it’s just more, and this is not a song that needed “more”.




“Silvio” marked Dylan’s return to the pop charts in 1988. The song, co-written with The Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, peaked at #5. It was the only single off the album Down in the Groove. I recall that it further cemented my growing break with Dylan.

Down in the Groove was released at the end of May 1988. I graduated from high school in June of that year. I dutifully bought Down in the Groove, and found it even more lacking than Knocked Out Loaded (nothing even close to the quality of “Brownsville Girl”). I was pretty out of touch with top forty music at the time, but I was aware that “Silvio” was receiving air play. I had no idea that it was as popular as it was until Wikipedia told me so.

“Silvio” is quite the ear worm of the Dylan song. The chorus:

Silver and gold
Won’t buy back the beat of a heart grown cold
I gotta go
Find out something only dead men know

is pretty much the only thing that I ever recalled from the song. Even today I didn’t really know any of the lyrics to the verses – they seemed somewhat irrelevant, and they pretty much still do today.

I do recall dismissing this song as sub-standard Dylan partly because it was co-authored with Hunter. I was pretty anti-Grateful Dead at this point in my life, and so I felt the song was contaminated by their involvement with it, which is, of course, utterly nonsensical in retrospect. My attitude was that Dylan didn’t need to be co-writing with inferior talents, which is also bizarre because my favourite Dylan song was co-authored with Sam Shepard, and my favourite album that year was Desire, which is mostly co-written songs. Consistency was not the hallmark of my high school years.

Dylan is clearly a fan of this song. He has played it live 594 times. It entered the repertoire in 1988 and it really didn’t leave for a long time. Bjorner even found it noteworthy to mention concerts where it wasn’t played over the following decades.

Listening it today with fresh ears I don’t like the back-up singers and their “whoop whoops”. I do like the piano. Musically it’s better than most of Dylan’s output in the 1980s, but it still feels really slight to me. It’s not actively offensive or anything, just a sort of blank. This version sort of sounds like the novelty song from Inside Llewyn Davis: