A Minute-By-Minute Analysis of Dylan's Shambolic 2003 Springsteen Guest Appearance

2003-10-04, Shea Stadium, Queens, NY

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Seventeen years ago today, Bob Dylan made one of his highest-profile surprise appearances of the 21st century. He joined Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Shea Stadium on the final night of their 14-month Rising tour. It did not go well! 

The video is a fascinating trainwreck, saved only by their good humor as they all realize it is falling apart. Watch along while I break down the video to figure out what went wrong.

0:00 - Is that the guitar? I believe Bruce's famous Telecaster is mostly retired, but the fact that they had a cameraman shooting this handoff makes me wonder. Did they bring it back for this final night?

0:09 - "We have my great friend and inspiration with us tonight, Mr. Bob Dylan."

0:24 - Right off the bat, Bob looking jittery. He struggles with the mic stand, not making any obvious adjustments. This popped-collar leather jacket and jeans look is something you would never see at one of his own concerts.

0:41 - Bruce looks a little apprehensive right? Want to take bets on whether they’ve ever rehearsed this?

0:51 - Less than a minute in and things are already in shambles. Bob's moving his mouth in the general vicinity of the mic stand, but not really close enough. Is he talking to Bruce, or has he forgotten how a mic works?

1:07 - Okay, vocals suddenly started halfway through the verse. Just technical difficulties with the mic, I guess. You're off the hook Bob! Maybe things are about to improve. (Ron Howard voice: They didn’t.)

1:13 - That was it? He sang two muffled words that sounded like they came in the middle of a line. If you hadn't read the YouTube title, would you even know what song this was yet? Bruce is going over to talk to him.

1:20 - Whew, here we go. He's actually singing. Or, you know, growling. This gives the first indication that the song is "Highway 61 Revisited." Technically.

1:52 - You think of Bruce as a master showman, right? Not here. Noting how he's standing, watching Bob and facing the band to try to corral this mess. Sorry, audience, you'll have to look at his ass for this entire song. We’ll say he’s reprising the Born in the USA shot. 

1:53 - Despite Bruce's best efforts, the band appears to have no idea where they are. They just play the same blues vamp over and over.

2:07 - Looks like Nils Lofgren is going wild on slide guitar. Sure do wish you could hear it! Might be the best part about this song.

2:19 - You already sang this verse, Bob. It's literally the only verse you've sung. Pick any other verse.

2:40 - Okay, it's coming together more now. Even with everything working better, though, "Highway 61 Revisited" seems like an odd choice. Lord knows the E Street Band are capable of playing anything, but one-chord blues-rock doesn't really make use of their full talent (excuse me, Tallent). Pick a song with a melody, a sax part, some piano chords for Roy, something!

2:53 - I enjoy seeing Bruce watch Bob so intently. He's just waiting for him to say "highway 61" - the only part he can easily make out - so he can cue the band that a verse is done. He looks so pleased when he finally catches it. "I know that bit!"

3:05 - Bob looking at Bruce and laughing makes me think Bob knows this is a trainwreck. That makes me like this 20% more. We’re all just having fun here!

3:21 - While I watch - and don't hear - Nils, I wonder, where is Clarence Clemons during all this? He is on stage right? I saw the E Street Band a couple times before he passed and, even when Clarence wasn't playing sax, he still looked cool as hell shaking maracas or something. We need more Big Man! For that matter, Roy Bitten and Danny Federici are also presumably onstage, though you wouldn't know it from this video. Roy pops up in the background once or twice; I didn't catch a single glimpse of Clarence or Danny. (Or Nils' face; the camera tracking him seems to have gotten stuck on the zoomed-way-in setting.)

4:15 - My favorite moment in The Last Waltz is right when Dylan finishes "Forever Young." His portion's over, right? But he keeps idly strumming his guitar. You see Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko watching so intently to see what Bob’s about to do. Bob really drags the moment out too, noodling away for a while without telling them anything, before suddenly crashing into "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." Bruce and bassist Garry W. Tallent watching Bob reminds me of that. But, you know, with less satisfactory results.

4:20 - I'm coming around on that leather jacket look. Pretty slick. Bob looks more like a castmember in The Sopranos than the guy onstage who is actually in The Sopranos. They really should have performed “Silvio” instead.

4:49 - You notice in these wider shots that there is also a microphone set up for Bruce. Was this supposed to be more of a duet? Bruce hasn't used it.

5:05 - Bob just bailed on that verse a line early. How's Bruce supposed to cue the band if Bob skips the "down highway 61" part? It's the only part anyone can recognize!

5:56 - This is just a sonic mush now. Not quite a trainwreck any more, but getting pretty tedious. I feel like this boring blues riff has been repeating for hours. Bob is supposedly soloing over it, but you can't hear him well. And when you can, you wish you couldn't. How do you have Bruce, Nils, and Little Steven all on stage and none of them gets a solo while Bob gets about eight?

6:27 - Bruce finally sings! Six and a half minutes in. He gets in exactly two words: "Highway 61!" of course. Even those two inject a dose of energy. Bruce hollering along throughout might have gone better. This moment is the entirety of Bruce’s vocal contribution. Anyone hoping for a repeat of their 1995 "Forever Young" duet will be disappointed.

6:32 - Turn up Nils! Turn up Nils!

7:07 - Finally, a little screen time for Little Steven as we near the finish. This whole performance has Big Little Steven Energy.

7:26 - Bruce is calling it. He's laughing. Little Steven is laughing. You get brief glimpses of Roy and Patti Scialfa in the background. Can't see their faces well, but they're probably laughing. What a mess!

7:44 - This moment right here is easily the best part of the whole video. Bob's shuffling off, Bruce stops him and they share a laugh, presumably about how badly that went. Awww…

7:55 - Bruce: "I wouldn't be here tonight without him!" Double awww…

Later - Before "Land of Hopes and Dreams," Bruce elaborates: "It was Bob’s work that, when I was first trying to write songs… at a particular time in our country’s history…he was one of those fellas who came along and has been willing to stand in the fire. I remember when I was growing up in my little town, he just made me think big thoughts. His music really empowered me and got me thinking about the world outside of my own little town. I don't know if great men make history or if history makes great men but for me, Bob's one of the greatest, now and forever."

Though Dylan’s performance was a real fiasco, the rest of the Springsteen show is fantastic, so here it is:

2003-10-04, Shea Stadium, Queens, NY [Bruce Springsteen ft. Bob Dylan]

Find the index to all shows covered so far in this newsletter here.

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