Genius and goons
Sunday, December 10, Boston.
I call Elsa Dorfman, who photographed the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, the last time Dylan toured with strong women performers: Joan Baez,Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakley, and some fine feminine session musicians. I ask if we can publish her photos from last night, but she's more interested in talking about Patti.
"I loved her," she exclaims, referring to last night's show. "I'm interested in her from a girl's perspective. How old is she? 45? Oh, 48? I love it. I'm fascinated."
She says the camera-phobic Dylan operation "isn't interested in archiving his work. Nobody in Dylan's organization perceives he's a historical figure. It's a lack of vision. I said to Dylan last night, `I'm so glad we're here 20 years later. It feels like yesterday.' I remember 20 years ago when Dylan said, `You can't take any more pictures.' I thought, `You don't understand my field.' It's hard if you really want to live your life when you're part of history."
Elsa suggests that they ought to at least have a pool photographer at these shows. Patti Hudson, who flew in from Detroit for the tour last night, has permission to take pictures of Patti Smith and her boys, but clear instructions that Dylan is not to see any cameras. I'm still trying to get my photographer, Eric Antoniou, into tonight's show, for stage shots of Patti.
I mooch a ride to the Orpheum with Patti Hudson, and when we get there I hear a familiar melody wafting out the stage door.
" `Dark Eyes'! Patti's gonna sing with Bob tonight," I say. Word that something was up has leaked to me out of the Dylan camp. As we enter the hall, there she is, on stage, with Dylan's band. (Mind you, Dylan isn't rehearsing with her. But I guess he figures he knows the words.)
I stand there, awestruck, as Patti sings to the empty theater:
I live in another world
where life and death are memorized
Where the earth is strung with lovers' pearls
and all I see are dark eyes
"Beverly's gonna get to see her daughter sing with Bob," I think. Patti ends the song, and I slip out the back door, heading off to the Dunkin' Donuts for a Big One, black. I'm joined by photographers Barb Traub and Bill Kowenhaven, in from California and Maryland respectively. Barb and Bill are planning on taking guerrilla shots tonight, and I line them up as backups.
Raymond gets Eric into the show with permission to shoot Patti's set. My other friends must shoot covertly. Tonight I'm an outlaw, too. I've smuggled in a hand-held tape recorder -- one that won't make a quality tape, but that will help me transcribe Patti's improvisational raps. These are the most important parts of this tour, the girl's first utterings from the trance state in so many years. The stuff that bubbles up from Patti's unconscious during these raps is redeeming, empowering.
In witnessing her resurrection, we rise ourselves. To be present for her journeys into the dreamscape is to share the voyage. As Raymond once said, "She's so creative, she makes you creative."
In memory of Kurt Cobain, Patti sings her new song, "About a Boy," for the first time on this tour. "Hey boy," she chants, "you go far from tear's delight/the tears and smile of your child/far from spontaneity/from the cold purity of nature." The haunting minor-chord progression is a perfect vehicle for Lenny's signature punk style. (He is a lead-guitar wizard in his own right.) She finishes, "He was just a boy, whirling in the snow."
She's pushing 50, but Patti has not abandoned her respect for, and fascination with, youth and its artistic, revolutionary power. Which explains the attention she showers upon young Oliver.
Introducing "Walkin' Blind," she tells the audience, as she has every night, "This is a song by Oliver Ray." And she motions toward her young pal, "This is Oliver Ray."
Patti is an artistic benefactress. She wants Oliver to have everything she didn't have at his age. She spies talent, and is midwifing it, getting him into songwriting, into photography, into any creative outlet that sparks his interest. She has a track record of recognizing a certain kind of greatness in young, undiscovered men:Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carroll, Verlaine, Shepard, Kaye. And although I've heard him strum only the most rudimentary chords on the guitar, struggling with the rhythm, I accept it on faith that Patti will succeed in her quest to make Oliver Ray famous.
No young artist ever had a more devoted, attentive mentor. She buys him guitars (one of the same year and make as the six-string Gibson that Sam Shepard gave her in the early '70s), and she's played "Walkin' Blind" every night of the tour. The kid walks on stage with Verlaine, and is the only one to be introduced. Seated there, hair covering his eyes, strumming an acoustic guitar, he seems so ordinary. Boston filmmaker Michele Wilde cracks, "He's an ancillary bit of information I didn't need." But this, I decide, is part of his charm. Oliver is an archetype: the Everyboy. Just a kid in a cap and a sweatshirt, strumming a guitar. Hell, there are 10,000 boys -- and girls -- in Boston who could be up there doing the same. Of course, at some point, Oliver's going to have to pick up his own torch and run with it, but he'll have been given the most generous head start a young artist has ever had.
There's a flipside for Oliver, though, to being backed by a group that might well be the greatest rock-and-roll band on earth. At each show, during this two-chord Delta blues-influenced song, it's Tom Verlaine who steals the tune, scribbling timeless notes on the Jazzmaster guitar that Patti has loaned him for the tour.
After his song, Oliver leaves the stage without comment, as he has each night. The band breaks into "Southern Cross," which Patti dedicates to Oliver, with its closing line, "Cross over, boy, cross over!"
I whip out my tape recorder and cover the blinking red light with my finger, holding it low enough to avoid detection by the big, burly security guys. That night, I also tape "Mortal Shoes," a great song that came out of a jam session last summer with the band and Verlaine.
The band blasts into "Not Fade Away." Thank goddess I have this recorder here. The speed-rap tonight is stellar. She babels: "Thought I heard a rumble beneath me/there was something in my feet/the ground was just a-crumblin'/I knew I had to/I was worried/I didn't have too much time."
Each night her rap talks about walking somewhere and getting into some kind of trouble, then freeing herself from it. But every tale is totally different. She continues:
I knew I had to speak for myself/I knew I had to say somethin'/I knew I had to justify my existence somehow/I just couldn't think of anything to say/I couldn't think of one thing to say/thinkin' nothin'/thought about it/maybe I'll go outside/just pray. . . . didn't say nothin'/just listened/and then I stopped listening/I listened for a long time and then I stopped/I forgot to listen/I forgot to do anything/I just ceased/just ceased to be/just sat there/just sssat/just sssssssssssat . . .
The Boston crowd rocks. This is the best audience so far. Even the jaded music writers in my row are on their feet, screaming during the song.
The song ends and everyone is cheering loudly for an encore when a 250-pound security guy reaches across four seats for my tape recorder. I yank it back, claiming to have permission, lying, dropping Raymond's name.
Miraculously, they leave the machine in my hands while they run off to look for Raymond. I slip the tape into someone else's pocket, and install a blank impostor in its place. But they never come back. So I slink off, my heart beating extra fast from caffeine and conflict.
I see Raymond in the aisle. He smiles, "I hear you're bein' a bad boy."
"I'm just tryin' to transcribe the `Not Fade Away' rap," I explain.
He rolls his eyes and says, "If you get caught, we have to disown you." For a moment I'm thinking he means for the rest of the tour, but his voice lacks that level of gravity. I find the lobby and light a cigarette, stumbling across Hewitt Pratt, my new pal, who is sporting a huge fat lip.
"I was trying to unload some tickets at face value," he says. "And three scalpers descended on me and beat me up." Hewitt is pretty shook up, but reports that he's okay. Damn, this music scene is unpleasant: scalpers, security goons, humorless power-tripping by bit players, a camera-phobic Dylan and his context-impaired staff. I remember Patti's proclamations during an interview last September, about how she wanted to do it differently. She said she wanted to beat high ticket prices, for one. These seats are $35 and up. Not that they ain't worth it for this bill. But opening for Dylan has meant certain compromises that I hope won't become the rule for her future tours.
Dylan is singing: "Can't stand the suspense anymore/can you tell me who to contact here, Señor?" His band has that Wild West villain look, Dylan in black velvet and silver trim. He's been impeccably dressed each night, fronting the Men in Hats band: J.J. Jackson on guitar, Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and mandolin, Winston Watson on drums, and, on bass (with the nerve to have different first and last initials), Tony Garnier.
Dylan has really taught himself to play electric guitar, and it's clear that he derives at least as much joy out of doing that as he does out of singing his songs. I'm standing by the side of the stage, watching him, when a mysterious figure comes up behind and tickles me. It's Stipe. A few minutes ago, I saw him consoling Hewitt, whose father is dying in Arizona, and who burst into tears early in the Dylan set. Stipe and I have barely talked, but he's obviously a good guy.
Raymond comes out beside the stage, too, and shows me Dylan's set list. There it is: "Dark Eyes."
Dylan calls Patti onto the stage. She stands beside him, humble and proud. She sings the verses, and Dylan joins her for the tag lines:
I can hear another drum
beating for the dead that rise
Whom nature's beast fears as they come
and all I see are dark eyes
He gazes into her eyes while singing from the same microphone, smiling ear to ear. Patti has to sing the song both lower and higher than Bob to keep harmony. And she still has the range to do it. As she walks off stage, the crowd rises.
Bob speaks: "A lot of girls have started since Patti's started, but Patti's still the best."
Raymond Foye, who at 16 dreamed of getting the patriarch and matriarch of poetry-rock to sing together, stands there, beaming, having forged reality from dream.
Dylan grabs his electric guitar, sings "Jokerman," and I decide he's not a bad guy after all. He just gave our girl her rite of passage. He really is the Pope.
I know he's missingJerry Garcia. Every show on this tour features tributes to Jerry by both artists, Patti and Dylan. Dylan plays "Silvio," co-written by him and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. And his first encore each night is Garcia and Hunter's "Alabama Getaway." Plus, he's singing about a dozen of his own songs in the styles the Dead performed them. When Jerry died, Dylan told a reporter that he'd been "like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he'll ever know." He told a friend of his, "Jerry was the only person who understood what it was like to be me."