Doug types too much...
November 18, 2021
I had a friend once who warned me about Bob Dylan. And he was right. He told me not to expect too much. He told me Bob has good days and bad days. My friend was a Dylan devotee. Had seen him multiple times. Yet he still felt the need to warn me since seeing Bob live would be a first for me.
The venue was the John Paul Jones arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. Not my favorite venue. Not by a long shot. Okay, out of the small and not-so-small venues in Charlottesville, it is by far my least favorite. One, it was built for sports events. If memory serves, depending on seating configurations, you can squeeze about 15,000 people inside. I have seen multiple shows there and for some of those shows, we were seated along the side. Not necessarily bad except you’re in an arena designed for sports. It’s longer than it is wide. People in side rows at a sports event would stare straight ahead at the game. But when it’s a concert, they put the stage all the way down at one end, and if you’re not lucky enough to get floor seating, you sit on the side craning your neck the whole time in the direction of the stage. Did I mention JPJ is a sports arena? You see, that also parlays into an echo effect and uneven sound distribution.
Oh, and getting into that place and parking is a nightmare. What’s not to like?
Judy isn’t a Dylan fan. Nevertheless, we took our son Ivan when he was home from college. We wanted our kid to see a legend from our time.
I would love for the next sentence to be: “Mr. Dylan did not disappoint.”
No. We were disappointed. Elvis Costello was his opening act. Elvis came out with just an acoustic guitar and did right around a dozen numbers. He played well. His vocals were good. He was crystal clear in his delivery. His excellence did not prepare us.
Bob came out wearing a wide-brimmed hat that cast his face in shadow. The entire time. So it could have been anyone up there. He and his band went through probably 20 songs all at the same speed which was rushed. Bob spent most of his time behind a stand-up electric piano with his head leaning forward and down. Face in shadow. Because every tune was played the same and the sound seemed distorted, the audience had great difficulty in figuring out what he was playing. Out of everything he played, I was able to figure out only one: Maggie’s Farm. And that’s only because I heard him utter those 2 words. Everything else he sang was unintelligible, but I can definitely say I heard the words Maggie’s farm. Except when you go back and check the set list, he didn’t do that song, so I’m really not sure what I heard.
When we drove back to the house that night, I got out George Harrison’s triple-album Concert for Bangladesh. One of the album sides is old-school Bob Dylan doing some of his most famous songs acoustically and I played that for our son who said, “Wow, that’s definitely not the guy we saw tonight.”
It’s rare, but I’ve seen a handful of live musical acts in my time that disappointed. However, none of those experiences were at a Bob Dylan level.
Some instances were not the fault of the artist. Indeed, in the cases of Harry Chapin and The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, both of their encores were marred by inebriated fans jumping up on the stage and literally trying to take the guitar away from the singer mid-song. Each of the two times I witnessed that, it flipped a wonderful concert into an abrupt screeching halt. Harry and Gord both left the stage in the heat of anger and rightfully so.
So stuff like that doesn’t count. No. And just because Elton wrapped up things quickly when we saw him at the Hollywood Bowl back in the late 1980s didn’t require bottles getting thrown. But they were. He didn’t play badly, the audience was just too jacked.
No, when I talk about a performance going bad, it’s because they acted like Bob. They acted like they didn’t want to be there. I’ve seen shows that went awry, but that’s not really the same thing either. Also back in the late 1980s, we saw Guns N’ Roses open for The Rolling Stones in Los Angeles at an outdoor venue that seated over 80,000. When the Stones came out, they were absolutely professional and hit every nuance perfectly. Their warm-up band, however, fronted by an extremely messed up Axl Rose, was comparatively sloppy. I looked around us and was amused at the horrified moms who had come expressly to bring their pre-teens to see GNR and were subsequently exposed to many a slurred song intro peppered with all the 4-letter words Axl could fit in as he struggled to hold onto the microphone stand for support.
Some of the time, an act at least partially fails because it comes off as static. We like movement with music. It’s supposed to move us physically and/or emotionally. Bob Dylan didn’t move much. Nor did The Carpenters when I saw them way back in the early 1970s. I mean Karen’s voice is Karen’s voice, but she didn’t move from her mark. She sang every song IN ONE SPOT, and because of a long garment she was wearing, you couldn’t even tell if she was tapping a toe.
We saw Frank Sinatra on his very last tour when he was 80. He still had that voice, kids. He still had it. But he was cranky Frank. His performance wasn’t much longer than an hour. Like Karen Carpenter, Frank came out and didn’t move from his center-stage post. He didn’t walk along the front of the stage. Nope. The next day we realized why Frank stayed stationary – it was reported in a paper he remained in place in order to read his “invisible” see-through lyric prompter. Although Frank didn’t do laps, he did show a few Frank attitude flares. On one song, he started, flubbed the words, loudly groused “Sonofabitch!” into the mic, stopped the band and made them start the song over. The band was led by Frank’s son who was admonished personally by his father on another song that Frank didn’t think the band kicked off into right. When the brief show was over, a devoted fan approached the stage and set a dozen roses on the stage floor at his feet. Frank didn’t pick them up. Just turned to leave as throngs yelled for an encore. We didn’t get one. His parting shot that night was one not everyone saw, but Judy and I did.
When we originally bought tickets, we were seated about halfway back near the center. Not bad, but not great. The day before the concert, the venue announced the seating plan had been reconfigured because Frank didn’t like the set-up. So, AT THE CONCERT, we were assigned different seats which ended up being on the right side of the stage, however our actual proximity to Frank in that new seating brought us much closer. As he walked off to fans begging for more, once he cleared the curtain, he did a downward sweeping backhand motion with his right arm to indicate that even though we hadn’t had enough of him, he’d definitely had it with us.
We’ve seen the B-52s a few times and they put on a great show. Usually. The 2nd time we saw them was in Virginia Beach at an outdoor covered pavilion on a summer night. It was over l00 degrees. Sweltering would be a good word. Debbie Harry was there too with Blondie. The bands were on a dual tour, taking turns at each stop to flip which band went on first. On our leg, Blondie played last. When I say the heat was overwhelming, that is not an exaggeration. Oh, hell no. The audience didn’t clap or stand up or jump up and down or yell or sing along. No. It was too hot for anything. We collectively basically sat on our hands for both shows. The bands – both of them – just stood there playing and singing. NO movement. When Debbie was doing her encore, heat-exhausted patrons were stumbling out of their seats to get to some air-conditioning. Hey, they still played through their sets. It was more than I would’ve done. So The B-52s and Blondie get a pass.
But James McCartney doesn’t get off so easy. He was performing in a small now non-existent club called The Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville. There were probably 200 people in attendance. For being the only son of Beatle Paul McCartney, he sure has stayed under the radar. If that’s intentional, I get it. Too much scrutiny is too much scrutiny whether you invite it into your life or not. However, I maintain that the mere act of going out on tour when you’re the only son of Beatle Paul McCartney is certain to invite scrutiny.
He went between guitar and piano. Played beautifully and precisely – he had chops, no doubt. He can sing, and in certain moments, he sounds like his father. But eye contact and connecting with the audience? Not so good on those. Which is made a little odder when you consider the size of the room – there were audience members (including me) sitting less than 6 feet away. He wore a pair of faded jeans with a raggedy quarter-sized hole in the crotch. Hanging down from the shredded hole in his pants was a long thick mass of thread, just dangling between his legs when he was standing.
After the show, his handler hung out with James as he signed CDs, including mine. Out of those in attendance, roughly 7 or 8 folks stayed behind for the signing part. He didn’t speak. He just signed what was put in front of him. When someone asked for a selfie, the handler jumped in and nixed the idea saying it would just become too much of a circus.
Okay. Really? If there are only 7 or 8 of us, how big would the circus tent have to be?
The final insult to injury unfortunately came from me. Someone I was with ripped off his single-sheet set list he’d left on stage and gave it to me. When I admitted the theft and asked him to sign it, he did sign, but I got my one look from him and it was withering. But at the same time, it was a look that said I wish I could just disappear. The set list had instructions in parenthesis between certain songs like “Go to the piano” or “Go to the guitar.” I guess he didn’t see the humor in that like I did. I mean, with the exception of covering Neil Young’s Old Man (which he did well, by the way), all of the set consisted of his songs. And since it was only him and a guitar and a piano, how complicated can that be to master without written reminders?
I hadn’t listened to his CDs for a while, so a few days ago, I revisited. I have several which is most of his catalog. I picked a full album and one of his EPs and played them from start to finish. What’s odd, and why I think he fails to catch on, is the songs themselves. Many of them begin with a good riff and/or beat and you wait for the hooks and the catchiness that never arrive. Plus I find that even though he has a nice voice, he tends to bury his vocals in the mixes. Hey. At least my CDs are signed.
One of the concerts I was most keen on seeing was Rickee Lee Jones when she came to the gorgeous Paramount Theater a few years back. Judy was not as keen as I was to go, but she agreed to endure. From the first time I discovered her album Rickee Lee Jones with the catchy Chuck E.’s in Love, I was a fan. And the thing is, I was young. Living in Germany at the time. I’d never heard her music – I bought the record because of the vinyl album cover art. I really dug the beret-wearing blonde smoking what looked like a Tiparillo. She just looked cool as hell.
I was not prepared for how good she was on that record and others that followed. I didn’t dig all her stuff, and some of her more experimental takes threw me, but for the most part, I thought she was the cat’s meow.
I scored really good tickets. GOOD tickets. Center seats, probably 4 rows back.
Just like with Bob Dylan, a friend reached out to me when he heard I was going. He warned me. He’d seen her back in the late 1970s when she was riding the success of her debut album. He wanted to love her, but the first thing she did when she hit the stage was plant a fifth of vodka on the piano which she drank directly from during the show. My friend said she was obviously drunk and seemed to be in an utter state of depression. His parting words were, “That’s one sad lady.”
Judy was probably right. We shouldn’t have gone.
Rickee took the stage with her band and she sat center. I’d waited for decades to see her and here she was in all her glory. The band seemed to take forever to get going. In the meantime, she polled the audience. “What do you want to hear?”
Devoted fans offered up suggestions, any one of which I would have loved to hear her do. Each time someone shouted out a song title, she simply nodded, but didn’t say anything. And then a loud woman toward the back yelled, “You play anything you want, honey!”
That made her smile. That was the answer she was looking for – what any serious artist probably wants to hear. And I was totally okay with that. I just was so excited to see her.
The band was great, although there was a time or two where she got pissed that someone wasn’t playing something right and she stopped the song to counsel the offending musician and then they’d start over.
I’m not so sure she was sad. But she sure acted like she had no interest in being there. I almost felt like she was more pissed that she had to go through the motions for us. The arrangements were sometimes different from the recorded versions which was fine, but like with Dylan changing things up, it could take a verse or two to figure out what song she was doing. As I recall, she didn’t bother with an encore, but maybe that’s me remembering it wrong.
Those are all the duds I can recall off the top of my balding head. So when I ponder the countless number of musicians I’ve seen in my life, my luck has actually been pretty good.
I remember a professional musician and I got in a conversation years back after he’d been summoned to play backup for Herman’s Hermits at a gig in Vegas. Herman was in an agitated state and wasn’t the nicest guy to be around. But my guitarist acquaintance blew it off – “Everyone’s entitled to a bad day.”
Hey, I get that a performer can have a bad day. I know exactly when mine was. Even though mine wasn’t a musical misadventure, it did involve being on stage.
It was my first play WORKING MAN that I wrote the first draft of in 1976. Looking back on that original version, it’s easy to see it is not my finest work. But at the time, I thought it was. Sometimes you just can’t tell me anything.
It’s been so long since I’ve looked at that version that I don’t remember how I get stabbed in the end scene. But I do. Either my wife in the play stabs me or I commit hara-kiri. On opening night, after being stabbed, I acted out my death throes on a couch facing our tiny audience of mostly people who had wandered into the enlisted club by accident.
Behind the couch, I had filled a Baggie with “blood” and tied it to a string hung off the back of the furniture. The special effect was set up so I would get stabbed, turn away and fling myself, collapse with my stomach against the couch, reach behind the couch, pop the Baggie against my shirt, return the Baggie behind the couch, and then roll around to face the audience again. BIG shock factor with all the blood that came from nowhere.
That was the plan anyway. Went great in rehearsal. Percentage-wise, most of the plan went without a hitch. Except when I popped the bag against myself, I thought I’d tossed the empty bloody bag and string back behind the couch again.
Well. Put it like this. In the heat of the moment, I failed to make sure I had thrown the bag back behind the furniture where the audience couldn’t see it. In the heat of the moment, I thought I was pulling this off brilliantly. And of course, I didn’t just die in my first play. No. I had to express pathos on my way out. Lots of it. A whole pain monologue. So there I was bleeding, moaning, saying whatever lines I thought were brilliant at the time. That’s when I heard a snicker or two.
What had gone wrong in my final charged moments?
I heard some guy in the front row say it.
Then I heard someone else whisper.
“He forgot the bag.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I discovered my special effect exposed. The bloody bag hung from a long white piece of string right down the center of the dark couch I was sitting on. So on the premiere of my first ever play that I wrote, I had what kind of looked like a used Tampon as a background.
Okay. I was humiliated. Devastated that I had disappointed not only the audience, but myself. But when I look back with retro-glasses, I find humor in that moment. And for all 8 or 10 patrons we had that opening night, they walked away with a story to tell.
Oddly enough, when the base newspaper came out a week later, one of the folks who had seen my faux pas-cursed opening night had sent in a fan letter that the paper printed. As I remember (I have the clipping somewhere in an old scrapbook), my one cheerleader pointed out that we’d had some “technical difficulties,” but he wanted everyone to know that we still had entertained and he wished us luck in future productions.
So, yeah, I get it. I had a Herman day. But bad in a different way from Bob Dylan or James McCartney. I was upset. Pissed at myself for not having enough chops at the time to pull it off.
I got better as I went along. Less than a year later, I would end up living in Germany and being accepted into the now-defunct American Theater in Wiesbaden. We ended up rewriting and staging a brand new version where I don’t get stabbed at the end. I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk another bag moment.
And I must say, unlike Mr. Dylan or Mr. McCartney, I have never walked out on a stage because I didn’t want to be there. Nope. I always wanted to step out there and do my best. I wasn’t always successful, but I did always want to be there entertaining.
In the early 1960s, before The Beatles became famous, they played in some dangerous dives located in the infamous Reeperbahn district in Hamburg, known at the time as a beyond seedy area.
A local club owner named Bruno would yell “Mach schau!” or “make a show!” repeatedly, despite the fact the pre-fab four were stomping around playing 6 – 8 hours straight, 7 days a week – all under the influences of low wages, boatloads of free beer, amphetamines, drunken sailors picking fights and throwing bottles, prostitutes, filthy cramped sleeping spaces, and precious little food.
I never needed anybody to yell “Mach schau” at me – that’s already in my bones. And I never went on stage with a big hole in the crotch of my pants. But if I did, and my dad was a billionaire, I know what I would ask for at Christmas.
C’mon, Paul. He’s your son. It’s just a pair of pants.