I’ll Let You Be in My Dream If I Can Be in Your Dream

1988-06-07, Concord Pavilion, Concord, CA

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As I mentioned last week, I’m taking a bit of paternity leave for the next month and have lined up a run of killer guest writers. That kicks off today with the great James Adams, who you may know as @bob_notes on Twitter (and if you don’t, it’s worth signing up just to follow him). Adams is an expert on Dylan history and fan culture and hosts the Bob-boots radio show “Pretty Good Stuff” for Aquarium Drunkard. He’s selected a historic show that celebrates its 32nd anniversary today. Take it away, James - and happy birthday NET! - Ray

Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour (NET) began thirty-two years ago tonight with a show at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California. The broad outline of what followed is familiar to many Dylan fans: 3,063 subsequent shows across five continents, performances for what must be millions of fans, and special stops along the way for David Letterman and Dharma & Greg, presidents, and the Pope.

Before all of that, there was Concord.

I’ve been to a few Dylan shows—not nearly as many as some of you freaks—and think about them every day. I also daydream about shows I didn’t see. Some of my fantasy selections are obvious to even casual fans. Newport ’65, Manchester ’66, anywhere on either leg of Rolling Thunder, or the Fox Warfield in San Francisco in November 1979. My other selections are perhaps a bit more obscure. Earls Court ’81, Krakow ’94, Newport ’02, and yes, Concord ’88.  

If you’re like me and you consider the NET to be its own distinct work of art, seeing Concord is the equivalent of watching Van Gogh load his paintbrush and make the first stroke on a new canvas. So much has flowed from the Concord headwaters that the idea of that first show now occupies a prominent place in my imagination. I’m jealous of those who got to experience the NET at the moment of its birth, who own that memory, and can share it with others.

Still, there’s nothing stopping us from daydreaming about the show and trying to piece together a picture of what it was like.

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It was a Tuesday. The weather was pleasant, with a high of 63° F and a low of 50° F, with a little rain earlier in the day. Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev were in power. George Michael, Rick Astley, and Debbie Gibson sat in the Billboard top ten. Crocodile Dundee II was the number one movie in America.

Bob Dylan had recently been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was at the nadir of his career. His previous two albums, Empire Burlesque (1985) and Knocked Out Loaded (1986) were artistically and commercially disappointing. A week before Concord, Dylan released Down in the Groove. Many fans consider it his worst album. In a 1997 interview with David Gates of Newsweek, Dylan remembered: “I’d kind of reached the end of the line. Whatever I’d started out to do, it wasn’t that. I was going to pack it in.”

But it wasn’t all bad news. Dylan’s first collaboration with his half-brothers in the Traveling Wilburys, in May 1988, resulted in a critically and commercially successful album. There were also large and profitable tours in 1986 and 1987 with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dylan himself would credit his work with the Grateful Dead for helping to balance his creative scales. And he cites a concert with Petty and the Heartbreakers in Locarno, Switzerland, on October 5, 1987, as the point where “everything came back, and it came back in multidimension.” It’s true that Dylan’s contributions to those tours were uneven, but there were high and creative points in both years.

As 1987 ended, a new path emerged for Dylan. Rather than retirement, he would turn toward a future that would require more touring, not less. “The shows with Petty finished up in December [actually, October] and I saw that instead of being stranded somewhere at the end of the story, I was actually in the prelude to the beginning of another one,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles Volume One. “I could put my decision to retire on hold. It might be interesting to start up again, put myself in the service of the public.”

That isn’t revisionist history on Dylan’s part. In a tour diary for Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, published just months after the NET began, editor John Bauldie recalled a conversation with a source in Dylan’s camp. “Bob wants to go on playing shows all the time,” the source said. “He wants an audience to follow him around from place to place, like the Dead.”

Which brings us to Dylan’s next proper concert following the 1987 tour with Petty, at an amphitheater thirty miles northeast of San Francisco. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Concord Pavilion has a capacity of 12,500. It wasn’t anywhere near full on 7 June 1988. Low attendance figures were common at the beginning of the NET, and another reality Dylan acknowledged in Chronicles. “In reality, I was just above a club act,” he wrote. “Could hardly fill small theaters.”

The show started at eight. Welsh rock band The Alarm (original punk name The Toilets) opened the show. In his tour diary for The Telegraph, Bauldie called The Alarm “a patently phony U2 clone version of what might once have been an interesting band.” Ouch.

During changeover between acts, fans who had seen Dylan at any point in the previous fourteen years must have noticed that things had changed. Gone were the backing bands with their own names, reputation, and fans. Gone also were the backup singers and keyboards. The onstage equipment rig was simple, with Fender amplifiers and a small monitor setup for stage sound. The band was “the standard rock unit” of two guitars (Dylan and G.E. Smith), bass (Kenny Aaronson), and drums (Christopher Parker).

There was one other musician onstage with Dylan in Concord and it was a very big name indeed. Neil Young guested on guitar during all of the night’s electric songs. During the first decade of the NET, it was common for Dylan to invite friends onstage to perform with his band, and it’s interesting to note that the tradition began on the very first night of the tour. Unfortunately, besides Dylan’s introduction (“We got Neil Young here playing tonight”), there is precious little evidence of Young’s contributions on the surviving tapes. He was there, but it’s hard to hear him.

Concord established the format of Dylan’s show for the rest of the tour. It opens with six electric songs, followed by a three-song acoustic set where Dylan is accompanied only by G.E. Smith. A batch of three more electric songs ends the show, and then it’s on to the encores, which varied in number from night to night but usually consisted of two or three additional songs.

The band opened with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a song Dylan had never before performed live. It’s quick and driving stuff, with Dylan spitting the lyrics mostly clear and intact. There are breaks in the tune—and others that follow—that are ripe for a harmonica break, but Dylan won’t play harmonica on this first leg of the NET. It’s just another example of how the sound has changed.

“Absolutely Sweet Marie” is another live debut, proving that Dylan is rethinking the setlists themselves, mixing surprise selections alongside classics and revealing the influence of the Grateful Dead. It’s only the first night of the NET, but Dylan’s willingness to take chances and play rare songs will become hallmarks of the best years of the NET. “Masters of War” is a storm and some of that blazing guitar work must come from tonight’s guest, given an audience cheer for “Good ‘ole Neil!” as the song closes. Tonight’s version of “You’re A Big Girl Now,” is cleareyed but frustrated, fed-up, and hard. Dylan is chasing the song a little and there’s some interesting phrasing as a result, including “horses in UH-mid stream,” “a pain that stops ANA-AH-starts,” and especially “like AH cork-UH-screw to my heart.”

Although we have a hard time distinguishing who is playing what line on the guitars, it’s nice that Kenny Aaronson’s bass is loud in the mix on this tape. But his playing is notable for more than just volume. Throughout this show, and throughout Aaronson’s tenure in Dylan’s band, his playing is consistently excellent, steady and melodic, and not at all crowded with too many notes. I love current bassist Tony Garnier more than the next guy, but it’s nice to hear Dylan playing with someone else on bass guitar every now and then.

Dylan has rewritten “Gotta Serve Somebody” numerous times, and in the process continuously made it into something new. I’m not positive I have the opening verse of this version correct, but here’s a try at it:

You might be a professor, standing in the rain
You might be a dirty doctor, trying to pick your brain
You might be some congressman, riding on the road
You might be in a jail, ready to explode.

Another song from Dylan’s “Christian-era” follows. “In the Garden” has a fantastic reoccurring heavy-metal riff on guitar and every time it repeats I find my head and shoulders, my whole upper body, moving with it. The song may lack subtlety, but it’ll still get you moving, particularly in this form.

The acoustic break in the middle of the show was often the highlight of the night, and Concord falls in line with that trend. Dylan used the acoustic set to showcase folk and traditional songs, including some that had been absent from his setlists since the Greenwich Village days. So, it must have been a shock to hear Dylan start “Man of Constant Sorrow.” True, the song is on his first LP, but that was twenty-seven years and a million miles ago.

The first “Lakes of Pontchartrain” follows and it’s stunning. Dylan inhabits the song in a way that’s a defining characteristic of his very best performances. It requires no extra effort to believe him—to absolutely know it’s the truth—when he sings: “I’ll never forget your kindness in that cottage by the shore.” The audience clearly appreciated the tune, you can hear it on the tape. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is rushed but still quite good.

When the electric guitars and rhythm section return it’s for the live debut of “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore,” a Dylan original from Knocked Out Loaded. It’s the only song Dylan will play from his five previous studio albums, and it never gets moving. Maybe it’s the simplistic arrangement or the reflection of a song that’s not capable of carrying very much weight to begin with. The first-ever electric version of “Gates of Eden” follows and it’s so much better. It pulses in a way that sounds menacing and hypnotizing. Dylan fumbles the opening of a verse but the band covers down and plays through, they’re right there with him. Dylan’s delivery is sharp and clear.

“Like A Rolling Stone” closes the main set and it’s fine, right on target for an audience that clearly appreciates hearing the hit. “I want to thank you people for being so nice,” Dylan says as he returns for the encore, and again there’s no doubt that he means it, it’s true. That final song is “Maggie’s Farm” and Dylan does it proud and loud.

I’m judging from the tape, but the show must have been a dream come true for many in the audience. Four live debuts, Dylan enunciating, a show-long guest appearance by Neil Young, and a new band that’s unsubtle but perfectly suited for these songs and this sound. It seems clear that the audience got their $20 worth.

Not so, said the San Francisco newspapers. They didn’t think much of the gig. Reporters from both the Chronicle and the Examiner panned the performance, accusing Dylan of mumbling, playing obscure or unrecognizable songs, and even failing “utterly to appear as if he cared about what he was doing.”

That reaction doesn’t match the clear enthusiasm for Dylan’s performance that you hear on the tape. It’s also inconsistent with an eyewitness report Bauldie quoted in The Telegraph: “First show I was surprised how easy he was – really great, got right into it. Neil Young was there right from the beginning and that helped a lot. It was an excellent first show – everybody who saw it was amazed how good it was. Then the reviews next day were terrible. We were shocked.”

The press criticism stung. Dylan’s next show, two nights later in Sacramento, is notorious for its abbreviated length, lack of encore, and Dylan’s foul mood. It was at this moment that legendary promoter Bill Graham, who was putting on the first four shows of the tour, informed Dylan’s manager Elliot Roberts that Bob was going to have to do better. And the shows did improve, significantly.

Nevertheless, ill feelings lingered. At the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View on 11 June, after a performance of “I’ll Remember You,” Dylan referenced the Concord reviews. “I don’t think that’s an obscure song, do you?” he asked from the stage. “Was that an obscure song? I don’t think so.”

What the San Francisco reviewers missed was the very obvious emergence of a new and louder and bolder and more adventurous and energetic version of Bob Dylan. It was closer to the rock and roll combos of Dylan’s teenage youth than almost anything he had assembled since, excepting maybe a stint with The Plugz in 1984. That new development solidified throughout June and the rest of the summer, as the tour snaked from the coast of California to the Atlantic, and back again. This new Dylan was a road warrior and traveling troubadour who wasn’t afraid to change the setlist, visit any venue, or play songs he’d never played before. We’ve had plenty of other Dylans in the meantime, but the one born in Concord has always been in the background, headed for another joint, and liable to circle through your city at some point this year, or the next.

Until now, of course. Because of COVID-19, we will soon enter the longest break in Dylan’s touring career since the NET began in Concord, 1988. Tomorrow (June 8, 2020) will mark exactly six months since Dylan’s most recent gig, in Washington DC. Only one NET break has been longer, when Dylan didn’t tour between 19 October 1988 and 27 May 1989 (seven months, 1 week, and 1 day, part spent recording Oh Mercy). When most Dylan fans think of a break in touring, they remember his scary bout with histoplasmosis. But that rare heart condition only derailed Dylan’s touring plans for a couple of months in the summer of 1997.

Dylan’s absence is not by choice, of course. He was scheduled to take the stage of the White River Amphitheatre in Auburn, Washington tonight. It was to be the third night of another tour that would have taken him again from coast to coast.

I’m convinced that Dylan will tour again, just as soon as he can. The official statement announcing the latest batch of canceled tour dates says as much, and I have no reason to suspect otherwise. In fact, I’ve already added that next leg of touring to my Dylan daydreams.

1988-06-07, Concord Pavilion, Concord, CA

Special thanks to Andrew Muir. His book One More Night: Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour helped me frame this piece and was my source for the newspaper accounts cited here. I also relied on “Dear Diary: On The Road Again,” by John Bauldie (The Telegraph, No. 31, Winter 1988), Bob Dylan Performing Artist: 1986-1990 and Beyond by Paul Williams, and Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: Day by Day and Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades.

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