I waited too long. I’d known for weeks, if not months, that Bob Dylan was coming to play the historic Cain’s Ballroom.
I kept reminding myself to get a ticket but always found an excuse not to. I assumed a sellout was unlikely, and I had good reason. Less than a year earlier, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I drove to Little Rock to see Dylan in some sort of sports arena. At the last minute, due to trickling ticket sales, the show was moved to a ridiculously small nightclub called Nitelife Rocks. It was a fantastic opportunity to see a legend in such an intimate setting — and hats of to Mr. Zimmerman for not scrapping the gig entirely — but I started to wonder if general interest was on a steady decline.
But as fate, or perhaps some larger unknown cosmic entity would have it, my chronic procrastination led to one of the most memorable nights of my life. And it all started with a lie.
February 28, 2004. Saturday. I’m 23 years old. I’ve been working at a bookstore for a few years, slowly climbing the corporate ladder. I’m in charge of “community relations.” I set up author events, do literary outreach programs, and work with organizations (schools, arts groups) for in-store fundraisers. It’s a nice fit and it’s still a good time for the book world. A few years before the Kindle takeover. People are still buying real books on a fairly steady basis.
Listen to Jeff Martin tell the story of how he discovered, and then met, Bob Dylan.
It’s early afternoon. I see a regular customer and strike up a casual conversation, and eventually we land on the topic of the Dylan show. He’s going. Tells me it’s a sold-out show. I’m screwed. As the afternoon progresses, my frustration builds. Dylan means everything to me.
Of course I’d known of him throughout my life, but there was a specific moment when my relationship with Dylan truly began. Right after high school I moved to south Texas for college. The music in my life at the time and the years preceding was mainly in the Smashing Pumpkins/Weezer area of “alternative” offerings. Maybe some Mazzy Star from time to time. Dylan was Baby Boomer music. Not for me. Not yet.
Summer, 1999. I find myself standing in the music section on the second floor of a large Borders store, headphones on, scanning CD barcodes for short audio samples. Sitting next to David Gray’s White Ladder is a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I skip past “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as it’s one of the Dylan tunes I’m already familiar with. The second track, “Girl from the North Country” — that’s the moment everything changes. Over the next year I immerse myself in all things Bob, moving chronologically through his career, noting the stylistic changes. Looking back, I think of that revelation in BC/AD proportions.
After a late lunch in the bookstore break room, I make a decision. I’m going to the show. But how? Sneak in? Not possible. Tickets from a scalper? Money is tight. I head out to the floor and look at all of the Dylan-related books in the “Music” section. I grab a paperback copy of Dylan’s experimental (and mostly awful) prose poetry collection, Tarantula. The idea comes from wherever ideas come and in a flash. I work with schools often. Schools are always having silent-auction fundraisers, right? What if, just maybe, I can get Dylan to sign a copy of this book and then give it to a local school to auction off? No way. Not possible. I decide to give it a try.
I can’t go unprepared. I spend a few minutes at the computer locating the name and number for Dylan’s management company. Perhaps they can get me in.
No answer. It’s a Saturday afternoon, not exactly office hours. Oh well.
Driving onto Main Street, I can already see a few eager fans lined up outside Cain’s in the dim light of the late afternoon. It’s not too cold, high 40s/low 50s. As I pull around to the back, I see tour buses. This must be the place. Within seconds of putting the car into park, I’m swarmed by security.
“What are you doing here?”
“You can’t park here.”
“Are you authorized to…?”
I explain myself — who I am and where I’m from. I tell them I called Dylan’s manager — I don’t mention that the call took place only 45 minutes prior and ended with a recorded message. They tell me to wait. Not too encouraging, but not “get the hell outta here,” either.
Ten minutes pass before I see a large man and a new entourage heading my way. Let’s call him Jim McDonald. Why? Because he was tall, Scottish, and I don’t remember his actual name. Jim tells me he’s the road manager and asks me to tell my story again. I do. Same details. Same requests.
Then something crazy happens: “You’re not from this bookstore, are you?” Jim asks, pulling a crumpled receipt from his shirt pocket. I grab the receipt, flatten it out on the steering wheel, and take a look. What are the chances? “Yes,” I say, “that’s my store.”
Jim proceeds to tell me that just a few hours earlier, he and some other crewmembers, stopped by the bookstore to pick up a few Tulsa-related history books. It’s something of a tradition, from what I can glean. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you guys were coming,” I say. “Could’ve hooked you up with a nice discount.”
What followed this exchange still strikes me as strange a decade later. Jim asked me if I could still retroactively apply a discount to his purchases. Of course I could, but why? What was Dylan paying these guys that saving a few bucks on some books would be such a perk? But Jim was big and intense, so I said that I’d be happy to. “Great,” said Jim. “If you do that for me, I’ll get you into the show.
Bob’s not gonna sign that book, but you can watch the show.”
Jim reaches back into his pocket, pulls out a credit card, and hands it to me. “Just put the difference back on here.” I’ve known Jim for about 10 minutes, and he is giving me his credit card. I haul ass back to the bookstore, return the books at full price, and resell them with my employee discount.
The savings couldn’t have been more than $15 — and technically, I wasn’t supposed to use my discount for others. But, you know that old saying about drastic times and drastic measures.
Barbecue and Poetry
I return to the rear entrance of Cain’s, but this time, no swarm of security, no inquisition. I’m greeted like a returning hero. Jim puts his arm around me and pushes me into the door, through a hall, and past all the backstage hubbub.
“Have you eaten dinner?” Jim asks. I haven’t. Too busy scheming.
“Well, we’re all having some barbecue. Plenty to go around.”
I’ve been in Cain’s several times, but never in the loft overlooking the floor. We ascend. Bob Dylan’s band, minus Bob himself, are all eating and having a few laughs. Jim introduces me. I eat. I don’t say much; I just listen. I’m having the time of my life.
The band leaves. Jim returns. “You can hang up here for the show,” he says. “But keep an eye out to the left of the stage when Bob starting playing ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ When you see me waving, come on down and we’ll head out back to the buses and see if we can get Bob to sign that book for ya.”
I’m speechless. Is this really happening? I have two books with me. One is that paperback copy of Tarantula for the school auction. I also have a newly printed copy of The Flowers of Evil by 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. I remember reading somewhere — I think — that Dylan digs Baudelaire, and I think it might be cool to give him a gift. Why not?
The show begins. There are moments when I’m alone in the loft, looking down at friends, wondering how the hell this all happened.
The Man, the Myth
It’s a great show. Dylan plays piano mostly, with the occasional harmonica interlude. Soon enough, the first few notes of “All Along the Watchtower” flutter across the crowd. I look for Jim. He’s waving. It takes a few minutes to work through the crowd and reach the big Scot. I’m nervous. I don’t get nervous. The music fades as we head out the back door.
Jim places me at the door of Dylan’s tour bus. He tells me he can’t guarantee anything. Minutes pass that seem like hours. With no warning or fanfare, Dylan bursts from Cain’s wearing what looks to me like a tracksuit and a towel over his head, like a boxer fresh from the ring. He walks past me, I stretch out my hand and he shakes it briefly, his long fingernails digging into my palm. The whole thing happens in a flash, and before I know it he’s on the bus and the door is closed. Did he say something to me? I may have heard a muttered “How’s it going?” but I’ll never know for sure.
Books in hand, no autograph to auction, I walk back to my beat-up Saturn sedan, toss the books in the passenger seat, and sit quietly for a good long while.
I’ve told this story a million times. I’m sure I’ll tell it countless more. It becomes bigger in my mind with each passing year. Like myth. Like Homer had Odysseus, I have Bob. Jim gets a little taller. Dylan’s fingernails get sharper. When I look back at this random Saturday in February and attempt to put the pieces together, I always end up with a scenario that is far greater than the sum of its parts. But to quote T.S. Eliot, “Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 13, July 1, 2014.