After searching endlessly for a spot in the ocean of a parking lot and joining the hundred or so other people who had parked illegally, I trekked over to the amphitheater. Carnival lights began to rise before the setting sun as the masses gathered before the entrance. I saw steam rising from inside, and only upon entering the theater and its aroma of barbecue cooking did I know that no fan of Bob Dylan would go hungry tonight. The line on the OC Fair billboard read “Let’s Eat.”
‘Carry on Wayward Son’ played from a 97.3 raffle kiosk as I stood before a large tent selling an overpriced selection of Dylan souvenirs: two or three T-shirts, some bumper stickers, one poster and a harmonica. The whole thing struck me as funny and I wondered if Bob had seen any of these things.
I had in fact expected to encounter a crowd of middle aged men dressed in clothes too young for them–leather jackets, tighter jeans and wayfarers. I did. I noticed too how the women weren’t being dragged along in obligation but seemed maybe more excited than the men. At Springsteen concerts, it was usually the opposite. I actually wondered for a minute if it was the women who’d dragged their men to see Bobby. This was a crowd that on such nights seemed to stretch almost as painfully as their tight jeans to relive a glorious fragment of their youth, a youth long since abandoned now in these early years of 21st-century America.
Yet maybe it hadn’t been abandoned. I wondered whether it was an energy that merely slept waiting to be rediscovered, never so greatly needed amidst dismal times, in a time that indeed marked a slow start to this new century. I thought of all these things as the sky lie now cast in deep purple, stretched out above us all in a cooling summer night.
It was then that I began to see new faces suddenly appear, almost as though materializing out of thin air. They were young faces. Faces no older than mine. Smiling and eager. Every young woman I saw was beautiful, some scantily dressed or costumed in hippy gear or both. Every guy I noticed now looked like one I could have gone to school with. Inside the seating area, in the actual theater, I saw a kid, maybe 12 years old, take a seat next to his father in the row in front of me. And yet it was the kid who was wearing the Bob Dylan shirt, not his dad. It was the kid who led his dad to the seat, the kid who seemed to be dragging the parent to see Bob Dylan. 12 years old.
In the final minutes before the show, beneath a nearly black sky and a full moon, the amphitheater sat packed. Upon the grassy slope that marked the end of the stadium seating, fans sat cross-legged or lying down like Middle Eastern royalty on either the grass or on their rugs; celebrating, conversing, waiting.
The lights went out. A booming voice announced the man that all had come to see. I could just make out a few of the pre-recorded words though the cheering of the crowd. Poet-laureate, rock hero, 80s has-been, troubadour, Bob Dylan.
I thought for a fleeting second that the first man to enter the stage was the man himself. Then as more characters dressed in the same lavender uniform positioned themselves on stage, I knew otherwise. ‘That’s not him.’
The band stood ready. A second passed. Then, from stage right came a little man dressed in black and dark green, prancing to his keyboard while putting on a circus hat. The crowd erupted. ‘That’s him.’
He stumbled onto the stage not so much like a drunk, but more like he’d just finished fooling around with a groupie and saying, “Oh, that’s right I gotta show to do.”
This was July 15, 2011. He’d released his first album almost fifty years ago. It was called ‘Bob Dylan.’
Throughout the show I stood waiting for some moment where he’d look at me in a predestined way and pass the torch, similar to his own story about when he’d gone to see Buddy Holly many years ago.
I still don’t know for sure if that happened. But I do remember looking around that night seeing everyone pinned together gazing at and celebrating the presence of the man on the stage. Every few seats I’d see people standing up and dancing, or convulsing romantically in some strange Dionysian wave. I saw a middle-aged interracial couple holding each other and swaying to the music of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Even Dylan was dancing to the sound of his band, or kicking his leg up in the air when playing the keyboards to match a distinctive snare drum beat.
Suddenly a crazed and angry fan marched over and told the two cheering kids in front of me to sit down “or you’re outta here.” He was a heavy set, biker type who seemed like he’d spent too much time as a bouncer, throwing out empty threats tonight like he was some stadium official. The kids instead asked that he stand up. As the fake, fifty-something-year-old bouncer stomped away like he was about to raise hell, the man sitting next to me told them not to sit down. He was dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket and asked if he could take a hit from the bud they’d lit. “Thanks man, you guys rock.”
Yet something about it was strangely unsettling and I couldn’t figure any of it out. I looked to Dylan then as if to find some sort of answer.
What was he going to do about it? What made it his responsibility? The world is what it is. All he could do was sing his songs. The man was 70, and somehow he still sang them well. Was it for himself? Was it for his music? For his band? For God?
He continued to dance on stage. Whether the audience loved him or hated him, whether there was peace or chaos in the crowds, none of these things seemed to matter in the least. He was there for some other purpose. He was on a mission, fulfilling some other duty.
And as I thought about all these things I saw him lower his head, with his circus hat obscuring all but a wide and shining, almost mischievous grin. He might as well have winked at me just then before finishing his set, nodding as he did to the audience, in some strange obligatory way, and prancing offstage and back into the darkness.
The audience filed out of the amphitheater as the angry man threatened the two kids. I walked along the fairgrounds, along funnel cake stands and Ferris wheels trying to think of what to make of it all. A man played ‘Piano Man’ on a carnival stage and the crowds sang with him in joy. Music did that to people, I thought. It should at least inspire some kind of happiness for people, if only for a moment, to remove them from life on earth and maybe bring them to life on another.
I walked back into the night, into the growing silence of an empty parking lot. I put in my earphones and began listening to my own songs, scratchy demos that I’d recorded in the past month. Something in the moment made it seem strangely appropriate. I think was just done with the silence.