Ballads of a Thin Man

An excerpt from: Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

In the dressing room in London, the guitarist was looking for a melody. He picked tiny notes off the strings until they fluttered, snapping in the air. The singer turned his head, caught the tune, the title flashing up: sure, "Strange Things Happening Every Day," Sister Rosetta Tharpe, when was it, 1945? Closing in on Tharpe's own guitar line, the guitarist felt for the syncopation in the rhythm, and the song came to life in the singer's mind.

On that last great Judgment Day

When they drive them all away

There are strange things happening every day

She was shameless, the singer remembered: purer than pure when her mother was alive, backsliding after that. She came onto the Lord's stage in a mink; she had a way with a guitar few men could touch. She was the black church in the Grand Old Opry--she'd even recorded with Pat Boone's father-in-law, Red Foley, Mr. "Old Shep" himself. On the other hand, Red Foley had recorded "Peace in the Valley," hadn't he, the spiritual the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey had written as the Second World War began? The sainted gospel composer, in earlier days known as Georgia Tom, who'd put his name on dirty blues? The singer shook his head; why was he remembering all this? His memory raced ahead of him. For some reason he remembered that "Strange Things Happening" had topped the black charts the same week Hitler killed himself. It was April 30, 1945; the singer was a month short of four, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was thirty. "There's something in the gospel blues," she would say years later, "that's so deep the world can't stand it." Now he heard the song as if the war had ended yesterday, as if it were the first time he'd heard it, wherever that had been--off some road he'd never remember anything else about, like waking from a dream you had to get up and live through.

If you want to view the climb

You must learn to quit your lyin'

There are strange things happening every day

The guitarist was beginning to mumble the words, faking them, getting only the title phrase. The singer grinned as he made for the door. " 'Strange things happening every day,' he said. "She got that right."

Bob Dylan walked out of his dressing room in the Royal Albert Hall. It was May 26, 1966; for two weeks he'd been up and down England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales. Two days before he'd crossed the English Channel to celebrate his birthday onstage in Paris, dropping a huge American flag as the curtains opened for the second set, the crowd going mad with rage as if he were throwing America's war in Vietnam in their faces--come on, hadn't they started it?--then taking in the headline in Le Figaro the next day: "LA CHUTE D'UNE IDOLE." It was kind of a quiet night, actually compared to... he'd been in control. It wasn't usually like that, not this month, when the whole previous year felt like it was packed into a bomb that wouldn't stop exploding. Most nights abuse came raining down as if he could bring the weather with him, as if hate were the wind at his back, the storm waiting in every next town.

He walked out of his dressing room. He knew that when he sang his folk songs--most of them no more folk songs than a Maytag washing machine, except unlike a Maytag washing machine they didn't rely on electricity--a few older numbers, to please the crowd, or tease it, but mainly those long, odd songs that no longer made anyone laugh, "Visions of Johanna," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Desolation Row," when he stood still, picked strings, and appeared as any singer might have appeared in the years or centuries before him, the people in the audience would show respect, even approval. He knew that when he finished that set, left, and came back with the Hawks--the piano player on one side of the stage, the organist on the other, the bass player and the guitarist at his sides, the drummer on a riser behind them--the trouble would start; the problem was, he never knew just when it would start. "How do you get your kicks these days?" an interviewer asked him a few months before. "I hire people to look into my eyes, and then I have them kick me," Dylan said. "That's how you get your kicks?" "No," Dylan said, "then I forgive them. That's where my kicks come in." It wasn't that easy, though; once the second set began, it was as if the two sides--the six on the stage, those in the crowd who had set themselves against them--were trying most of all to drown each other out.

"Dylan questions the comparisons drawn between charity rock events like Live Aid and USA for Africa and the student activism of yesteryear," a reporter wrote in 1985, then let Dylan speak: "The big difference between now and the '60s is that then it was much more dangerous to do that sort of thing. There were people trying to stop the show any way they could... Then, you didn't know which end the trouble was coming from. And it could come at any time." He could have been talking about politics, in the narrow sense that the reporter was framing the issue; he could have been talking about the kind of politics that in 1966 occurred whenever he opened his mouth. And it was so stupid. Almost every night, the music lifted off the stage, so strong it was like a body, and there were moments when he couldn't believe he couldn't take his hand off his Fender Stratocaster and touch it. It was hard to hear, and hard to believe anything could ever be better. And then, at just that instant when the timing between a group of musicians was life itself, when the smallest mistake, the mistake you knew could never happen, would throw the world off its axis, when a physics no scientist would ever understand was all there was, the shouting would start, as if the audience that understood nothing understood one thing: ambush. A note, a chord, the start of a rhythm, and, then, "COCKSUCKER."

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