Slow Trolley Coming (by Graley Herren)
1981-11-04, Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH
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We’ve got a special guest piece today by Graley Herren. Herren is a Professor of English at Xavier University and author of a number of books, most recently Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (the paperback version just came out last month).
He’s currently working on a book called Dylan in Cincinnati, a study of Dylan’s many concerts in Cincinnati over the years. It won’t be out for a while yet, but he was kind enough to offer an early excerpt tied to Dylan’s 1981 gospel-era shows at Cincinnati Music Hall. So without further ado I’ll turn it over to Prof. Herren!
One of the many joys of listening to Dylan bootlegs is overhearing “Bob Talk”: those moments between songs when Dylan occasionally addresses the audience. As readers of Flagging Down the Double E’s know, Bob Talk has been relatively sparse in recent decades, apart from band introductions, which have become the occasion for locally specific humor on the Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour. But Dylan talked a lot (too much?) during the gospel tours of 1979-1980 when he was prone to preaching mini-sermons from the stage. Even after his religious fervor started to subside in 1981, he was still in a chatty mood on some evenings.
One such occasion is November 4, 1981, the first of two concerts Dylan played at Cincinnati’s Music Hall. He speaks to the audience several times on that opening night, but one special piece of Bob Talk is worth pausing over and contemplating.
Between the third and fourth songs, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “I Want You,” Dylan tells a little story about a previous trip to Cincinnati. The sound quality of the recording is poor, so Olof Björner, the head scribe of Bob Talk, simply inserts ellipses in place of the indecipherable bits. However, after listening to the bootleg an obscene number of times, with the volume jacked up to Newport ‘65 decibels, I can share the following transcription:
I want to thank you, Cincinnati. Was there a place in Cincinnati called . . . what was it called? Ollie’s Trolley? Something like that? Do they still have that here? I wrote a song there one time, sitting in Ollie’s Trolley. Can’t remember exactly when. But I do remember where. It was in Ollie’s Trolley.
The Ollie’s Trolley restaurant chain has an interesting history, as vividly recounted by Keith Pandolfi at The Bitter Southerner. The original creator was Oliver Gleichenhaus. His Ollieburger became a favorite local delicacy in the fifties and sixties at Ollie’s Sandwich Shop in Miami. Gleichenhaus counted celebrities like Dean Martin and Joey Bishop among his patrons when they visited Miami, and he bragged that comedians Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles sometimes wrote material at Ollie’s.
By the early seventies, John Y. Brown was looking for his next big venture after successfully franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken. He heard about the Ollieburger, scouted it out in South Beach, and after several attempts eventually convinced Gleichenhaus to let him rebrand the restaurant and market it on a larger scale.
Brown opened the first Ollie’s Trolley in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1973. Over a hundred locations followed during the seventies, but the franchise never took off the way Brown had hoped. He sold the business in 1978, the year before he was elected Governor of Kentucky. Today the only three remaining Ollie’s Trolley restaurants are in Louisville, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. The current Cincinnati establishment didn’t open until 1993, but there were two Ollie’s Trolleys in downtown Cincinnati when Dylan played Riverfront Coliseum on October 15, 1978, his only confirmed trip to the city between 1973 and 1981. So the story he tells from the Music Hall stage is entirely plausible.
Ah, but which song did he write there? He doesn’t say. If we consult Clinton Heylin’s Still on the Road, which lists all of Dylan’s extant compositions from 1974-2008 in chronological order, we see that the first known performance of the minor, forgettable “Legionnaire’s Disease” was at a Detroit soundcheck on October 13, 1978, two days before the Cincinnati show. So we’re getting close but can rule that one out. Dylan’s next known composition debuted at a Nashville soundcheck on December 2, and it was a major, epoch-making song: “Slow Train.”
Granted, Dylan’s teasingly vague story plus Heylin’s approximate timeline add up to circumstantial evidence at best, not concrete proof. Still, I’m astounded to discover that Dylan may have written at least part of “Slow Train,” the end-of-times jeremiad that launched his gospel period, in a downtown diner. Maybe the muse who served Dangerfield and Rickles at South Beach made the trip north, dishing out Dylan’s Ollieburger in Cincinnati with a side order of inspiration.
I neglected to mention one important detail, and that’s the design concept of the restaurant. Each Ollie’s is housed in a replica trolley, so customers sort of feel as if they’re eating in the dining car of a train. “There’s a slow trolley coming up around the bend” doesn’t exactly inspire fear and trembling, does it? All the same, it’s pretty wild to think that the creative wheels for “Slow Train” may have started rolling in an immobile trolley in October 1978—a full month before a San Diego fan threw a silver cross onto the stage and Dylan knelt to pick it up, around five weeks before he began prefacing “Señor” with a cryptic stage rap about meeting a mysterious old man on a train, and a good six weeks before he gave the work in progress its first test drive before a concert in Nashville.
“Slow Train” was eventually bound for glory, but its original station of departure just might have been the humble Ollie’s Trolley in Cincinnati.
Thanks Graley! While you wait for the full ‘Dylan in Cincinnati’ book to come out, pick up his latest ‘Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s ‘Time Out of Mind’’ in preparation for the album’s 25th anniversary next month.
Subscribe to Flagging Down the Double E’s to get more stories like this delivered straight to your email inbox. For example, other entries pegged to 1981 shows so far include these three:
Jim Keltner Talks Thirty Years of Drumming for Bob Dylan
1981-07-10, Drammenshallen, Drammen, Norway
Dylan's Non-Gospel Gospel
1981-07-25, Place des Sports, Avignon, France
The Most Well-Known Song Bob Dylan Has Ever Sung
1981-10-25, Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA
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