"I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis soon"
1997-08-23, Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA
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For months after Bob Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident, rumors swirled about what had happened to him. He was paralyzed. He was in a coma. He was, like McCartney, secretly dead. It took years for the truth to emerge. Even today it's a little fuzzy ("kinda bad but not that bad" being the general consensus).
31 years later, another Dylan health scare - one that probably put him closer to death than the motorcycle accident had - got cleared up pretty quick. "Bob Dylan has been admitted to hospital suffering from severe chest pains and a disease as opaque as some of his lyrics," The Independent led off their story, picking an odd time for a jab at his music. His European tour, due to start in a couple days, was cancelled. When he came out of the hospital a week later, his record label issues a press release:
Bob Dylan was released from the hospital this weekend where he had been undergoing medical tests and subsequent treatment for pericarditis brought on by histoplasmosis. He was admitted on May 25. Doctors are continuing to treat him and are confident that Mr. Dylan will make a full recovery in four to six weeks.
When asked about his plans for his recovery period, Mr. Dylan said, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm just glad to be feeling better. I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis soon."
While it is unknown exactly how Mr. Dylan contracted histoplasmosis, the fungal condition which resulted in his illness, doctors believe that the severity of his condition was due to the length of time between the onset of symptoms and the eventual diagnosis.
Mr. Dylan was forced to cancel a European concert tour that was to begin June 1 in Cork, Ireland. He plans to fulfill his U.S. concert schedule, and has recently completed work on a new album that will be released later this year.
All in all, much less intrigue than the motorcycle crash. But, had Bob not been days away from embarking on another leg of the Never-Ending Tour, there there could have been. "If we [hadn't had] to cancel those shows, you would never have known I was sick, because I most likely wouldn't have told anyone," he said in a subsequent interview. Imagine the rumors that would have swirled then. The entire narrative of Time Out of Mind being his mortality album (despite it having been written and recorded before his health scare) might not have taken hold to the degree it did.
For our purposes today though, the key line in that dry press release is "He plans to fulfill his U.S. concert schedule." And he did, but it took a lot out of him. In another interview, conducted just a few days after today's show, he told Edna Gunderson: "I'm doing as good as I can under the circumstances. I'm taking medication three times a day. Sometimes it makes me a little light-headed and dizzy. And I need to sleep a lot. I did get the doctor's OK to do this tour. I guess I'll make it through… I wanted to do these shows because I'd committed to it. I don't have the energy I usually have, so I have to save it all to perform."
Though that sounds like a pretty rough way to travel around the country, conserving all his energy for the stage paid off in the performances. This set at the Wolf Trap delivers a raw and ragged punk energy that recalls his beginning-of-the-NET shows in '88 but with a more versatile backing band. His voice sounds a little rough, which some chalked up to his hospitalization, but it's not like it sounded that smooth beforehand. Rough or no, he delivers every song with gusto, even the oft-sleepwalked-through warhorses.
And - an important point - there weren't that many warhorses. Though he didn't preview any Time Out of Mind songs (he blamed "the bootleg situation" when Jon Pareles asked him why not), he apparently used his down time to dig through the back catalog. He performed "Blind Willie McTell" for the first time on this tour. "Tough Mama" too. Today's show features both songs, as well as his second-ever performance of "Stone Walls And Steel Bars," debuted at a May charity event that marked his final pre-hospitalization performance.
Perhaps even most notable than the songs he did play was one song he didn't: "All Along the Watchtower." Prior to this tour, Dylan had played "Watchtower" at every single show for seven years. That’s over 700 times in a row, usually in the third slot. For someone who's got the reputation as an ever-changing enigma, that's pretty damn consistent. Have the Stones even played “Satisfaction” that many times in a row? But, after his hospitalization, he finally gave it a rest.
Bob’s apparent new-lease-on-life energy even comes out in his banter. He introduces opener BR549 by drawling that that they're "gonna be around a loooong time!" - that’s mostly funny in retrospect as BR549's steel player Donnie Herron would join Dylan's band in 2005, where he remains to this day. A loooong time indeed. A few nights later, Bob drops an intriguing line introducing other opener Ani DiFranco too: "I’d marry her if I wasn’t already married." A joke presumably, but you never know. People didn't find out about his second marriage for many years - is there a third we don't know about?
At this show, he shouts out Bucky Baxter's daughter, whose name he can't remember, and invites her onstage to dance during "Leonard-Skin Pillbox Hat." Per an attendee's report:
During Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, a girl from the fifth row (one in front of me) walked past wearing -- you guessed it -- a leopard skin pillbox hat. Security must have let her get right up front, because a minute or two later she suddenly emerged from the crowd there and started dancing onstage. Well, mostly she was just jumping up and down, but anyway she quickly became part of the show. She tried to put her hat on Dylan, who was very visibly and obviously genuinely amused, but he wouldn't let her. She sort of bowed at the end of the song, and he bent down to kiss her head, but she straightened up at that moment and appeared to bump right into his advancing lips. He might have a fat lip tomorrow, but he didn't seem to mind.
Dylan's cancellation of his 1997 European tour was his longest unplanned break from the road until…right now. I wonder if this show offers any previews of how he might return. It would be hard to imagine he'll return reinvigorated - he's been plenty invigorated already the past few years. But it's a sign, perhaps, that good things come to those who wait.
*** More info on the book here… ***