Franz Nicolay on Dylan and "the dignified absurdity of show business"

The Hold Steady pianist and author discusses the Dylan shows he's seen

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Today we continue an occasional series I’m calling “Expert Recommendation,” where a prominent Bob Dylan superfan in the music world shares their experience in the live-Dylan world. We started with Jon Wurster and we continue with Franz Nicolay.

I’ve long been a fan of Franz as The Hold Steady’s dapper pianist, and he’s also appeared in a host of other great bands: World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guignol, Against Me!, and more. The Hold Steady just released a killer new album Open Door Policy, their first record to break into the Top 10. Here’s a video of them playing the full thing live:

In recent years, Franz has expanded his writing to the printed page. His first book, 2016’s The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar was named a “Season’s Best Travel Book” by the New York Times, and he’s got two more on the horizon: his first novel, Someone Should Pay For Your Pain, is out in August (more on that at the bottom) and Band People, a nonfiction study of the working and creative lives of musicians, will be out in 2022.

Now, without further ado, here’s Franz on the Dylan shows he’s seen (or in one case, 26 years ago today, tried and failed to see):

I don’t remember much about my first Dylan show (10/9/94, Orpheum Theatre, Boston; went with my dad) besides the charge of being in the room with someone to whom I had devoted the kind of intense attention only a teenager can channel. Looking up the setlist now, I must have been thrilled at “Jokerman” and “Two Soldiers”; Infidels was in heavy rotation for me and I could have played you every song on World Gone Wrong.

I tried again the next summer. Dylan was playing an airfield in Vermont with the Dead (6/5/95, Franklin County Airfield, Highgate VT), and I had just graduated high school. I made naive plans to meet a couple of friends at a specific gate at a specific time, and drove my truck over from my hometown in New Hampshire. The radio was broken, so I had a CD boombox and a bag of extra batteries strapped into the passenger seat, the music skipping on every backroad bump. Of course—I know now—the traffic on the two-lane road leading to the airfield was backed up for miles, and I finally arrived several hours too late to either meet my friends or see Dylan. I never could stand the Dead (the hegemony of jam bands in New England in the 90s was nearly total) and was a little too green at the time to really dive into the Deadhead world—I remember turning down at least one nitrous balloon—so I just wandered around the festival ground and eventually fell asleep, sober and uncomfortable, in the front seat of the pickup. 

I saw him at least once when I first got to New York—sometime in the late nineties at MSG Theater, maybe with Dave Alvin?—but then I was broke, and then I was busy, and time passed, and though I kept up on the albums, I wouldn’t have guessed that it had been twenty years since I’d seen him live. But now I live in the Bay Area, and I’m a grown man and a more or less professional musician with free time and a little disposable income, and you never know how long some of these guys are going to stay on the road, so I got tickets when I saw he was coming to Stanford (10/14/19, Frost Ampitheater). 

I couldn’t have been happier. A 78-year-old man with a Nobel Prize in literature, who actually wants to be Little Richard on the piano and a roadhouse lounge singer on the mic: pretty fucken cool. It was like a Terry Allen record or something; like, if things had turned out different and old Bob had been a cult figure instead of an era-defining cultural icon. “Neil Hamburger with amazing songs” is a pretty tight concept to begin with; and vaudevillians, crooners, and the dignified absurdity of show business is deeply my shit, so Bob’s whole latter-day vibe—the pencil mustaches, the big black hats, the embroidered and spangled jackets, the Elvis poses, the random statuary—is thoroughly satisfying. Mostly, he seemed to be having fun, entertaining himself, which was not obvious in the 90s. So much of his very public life has been spent seeming prematurely grizzled—how was he only 56 when Time Out Of Mind came out?—that it’s a treat to consider that a genuinely elderly Dylan might be enjoying the experience.

I was going to be in New York on Hold Steady business less than two months later, so the next day, I bought tickets for a Beacon Theater show (12/2/19). I went after band practice with my friend Ara, the drummer in the band the Slackers, who attends every year. Obviously the set list wasn’t changing that much—“Things Have Changed” replaced “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” as the opener—but I’ll listen to that gorgeous piano-based “Girl From The North Country” forever; and the show, tending toward the intimate, made more sense indoors. (If I had one nit to pick, it would be that Matt Chamberlain’s modern-rock drum sound felt heavy-handed in the context of the agile current band. Also very unfair that I’m expected to keep Matt Chamberlain and Matt Cameron straight in my mind.) We tried to put a finger on what felt so different, so relaxed and appealing, about this version of Dylan on stage. Ara was reminded of something Bob had said in a 1964 New Yorker profile by Nat Hentoff: “I don’t carry myself yet the way Woody, Big Joe Williams, and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to someday, but they’re older. They got to where music was a tool for them, a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel better.” That felt like it might be it: that he’d gotten to that place in his life and career where that playfully regal authority—that combination of dignity and playfulness, of self-conscious artist and jobbing performer—felt easy and natural to inhabit. 

Frankly, my favorite Dylan records right now are the 21st-century ones, so I’m happy for them to dominate the set. Would I recommend them first for someone who’s never heard Dylan before? Clearly not. But if I want to listen to Dylan now, I’m reaching for Tempest, or Love and Theft, or “Nettie Moore.” (Hot take: I thought Rough And Rowdy Ways was weirdly overrated. I always want more casual fans to appreciate the recent records, and  “Murder Most Foul” was astonishing, and did that thing that people still want from their artists, especially venerable ones: to “speak to the moment,” to eulogize the American century and the fading post-war dream and pervasive declinism and all that. And obviously Bob knows better than I do. It’s just that the ratio of pretty moldy idioms—I contain multitudes, crossing the rubicon, false prophet, first among equals, winter of discontent, and so on—was way higher than I would usually tolerate from another songwriter.) As far as ruthless, cold-blooded Dylan goes, the old kiss-off songs feel petty compared to the genteel, even empathetic steeliness of “Pay In Blood” and “Long and Wasted Years.” 

But the song that felt like a revelation to me on these shows was “When I Paint My Masterpiece”—hardly a deep cut or state secret, but not a song I’d spent a lot of time thinking about. I suppose as a young guy with artistic ambitions I understood it at face value—that someday I would create a masterpiece, and it would change everything. Now, as a middle-aged man who’s made a portfolio of things, some better, some worse, but none as good in the event as they were in my mind, I now hear the line “someday, everything’s gonna be different/when I paint my masterpiece” as brutal, pitiful, even shabby self-delusion: what feels like ambition can be a way to avoid the day-to-day reality of what your life is, in favor of a fantasy of what it might be. 

Thanks Franz! Here are downloads of all the shows he mentioned - including the one he didn’t get to in time, and my best guess about that late-’90s NYC show he saw.

1994-10-09, Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA

1995-06-15, Franklin County Airport, Highgate, VT

1998-11-01, Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY

2019-10-14, Frost Amphitheater, Palo Alto, California

2019-12-02, Beacon Theater, New York, NY

Franz’s debut novel Someone Should Pay For Your Pain comes out in August. A lot of people have said nice things for it, but here’s one that’s particularly apropos for a musician on tour:

“The life of an artist is really about giving. That’s especially so for the musician. You give all of yourself to your art and it’s likely you won’t get much back in return. It’s a tough world, but few can write about it as beautifully as Franz Nicolay. With Someone Should Pay for Your Pain, Nicolay gives us the sort of fully-realized, there’s no going back kind of story that’s hauntingly reminiscent of something between Denis Johnson and Nick Hornby, but filtered through the lens of somebody who has actually gotten in the van.”—Jason Diamond, author of The Sprawl

Pre-order it on Amazon or wherever you get books.