What was Bob Dylan’s most controversial move? Going electric? Going country? Finding Jesus? In hindsight, these moves are seen for what they were – Revolutionary. Time and time again, Dylan rewrote the songwriting rulebook. He knocked down whatever walls tried to limit him, and in turn, expanded the musical landscape, and extended artistic horizons.
However, his collaborations with the Grateful Dead, starting with a six-date tour in 1987, are still misunderstood by a large portion of the Dylan fan community. Clinton Heylin, for example, wrote that the tour “represent(ed) one of Dylan’s all-time worst career decisions.”
I feel the exact opposite. In the decade before that tour, Dylan’s career went from critical acclaim, sell-out tours, and number one albums, to a crisis in confidence and writer’s block. Dylan was alone, with no one to look up to. Jerry Garcia and the other members of the Dead helped him reconnect to his own music. The Dead’s unconventional business model of constant touring and changing set lists must have appealed to Dylan (but not the open taping).
I was fortunate enough to see the first “Dylan & The Dead” show on Independence Day, 1987. You could tell the Dead were pushing Dylan. It was tough love. He was out of his comfort zone. No one really appeared to know what was happening next, including the musicians on stage. It was riveting. You could feel the melding of musical minds.
Something important happened on that tour. Something revolutionary. It directly lead to the so-called “Never Ending Tour,” which started in 1988, and is still going strong (as far as we know). An ever-evolving organism, loosely based on the Dead’s model. Dylan started covering Grateful Dead songs, and collaborated with the band’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, on his most recent album of original material, Together Through Life. Even Dylan’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” was based on the Dead’s arrangement.
Howard Weiner’s new book, Tangled Up In Tunes: Ballad Of A Dylanhead, is the end result of the “Dylan & The Dead” collaboration, the zenith of his musical fanaticism that lead him to over 100 Dylan, and 200 Dead/Garcia, shows. He deftly chronicles his journey, with an ear for music, an eye for detail, and head full of ideas, driving him (almost) insane. It is the American Deadhead’s dream, from adolescence, through the murder of John Lennon and the attacks of 9/11, to his 100th Dylan show in Las Vegas in 2009.
This is his story.
Who is Howard Weiner?
I’m a music lover. I want to turn the world on to the artists and songs that inspire me. Below my name, I want my tombstone to read: “Tangled Up in Tunes.”
Tell us about your radio show.
It’s a show called Visions of Dylan which I created for WBAI a few months after Dylan began his own show, Theme Time Radio Hour. Handpicking the songs and weekly themes for Visions of Dylan was a labor of love. My program featured a mix of Dylan originals, covers, and live performances. The possibilities were endless, but the one thing I learned from Dylan was that a radio show is more compelling when its theme driven.
How did you get into the Dead, and then Dylan?
As a teenager, I worshipped the classic rock of the ’70’s. Initially, I didn’t get the Grateful Dead. They’re an acquired taste because their music is an eclectic mix of several American musical genres. Once I got the taste for Jerry Garcia’s guitar, I was hooked. Their best music existed in an exotic world of bootleg tapes, and every night they played, improvisational genius beckoned.
I always had a fondness for Dylan’s anthems, but I didn’t have my Dylan epiphany until I borrowed my friend’s car and heard Blood on the Tracks for the first time. Sweet Jesus, I flipped out when I heard that tape. I went out and bought every Dylan album and studied them like a man possessed. A few weeks later, a Dylan/Dead tour was announced for the summer of 1987. This twist of fate was mind-boggling.
How did you decide to write Tangled Up In Tunes: Ballad Of A Dylanhead?
After catching a tremendous run of shows by Dylan in April of 2005, I had a burning desire to write a book on Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.” I was a witness to essential music history, and I felt compelled to document it. I jumped right into the book without a game plan, and after seven years of writing and rewriting, I finally crossed the finish line.
How did getting your MFA Degree in Creative Writing help with your book?
I realized my initial drafts of the book were too journalistic. As someone who saw 300 Dylan and/or Dead shows over three decades, I had to tell my story as well. Why was I on this never ending quest? I had to let the reader stand inside my shoes. At The New School, I had the good fortune of learning from Jonathan Ames, Greil Marcus, David Gates, Robert Polito, and Ann Hood. Hopefully I picked up on some of their mojo.
You refer to many specific experiences and performances in your book. Did you keep a diary, or did you do it mostly from memory?
Once I decided I was writing a book I meticulously documented my experiences, but prior to that I relied on memory and concert recordings. I have an incredible capacity to recall musical experiences. My brain, however, doesn’t function as well in other areas.
What would be a good example that would illustrate how fanatical you are about the Dead and/or Dylan?
I was in Memphis after seeing Dylan at Autozone Ballpark in 2005. I could have spent my last day in the “Land of the Delta Blues” partying on Beale Street, but a voice in my head was telling me to make a road trip to Little Rock to see Dylan. The only problem was I didn’t have a car, so I took a $400 taxi ride to Little Rock. It was an unforgettable voyage into Razorback Country with a Memphis cabbie.
What does your place look like? Is it full of Dylan and Dead paraphernalia?
My apartment is overrun with CDs. I collect all the good stuff: Miles, Coltrane, Otis, Van, etc. But I’d estimate that there’s about 7,000 Dylan and Dead CDs in my crash pad. Thankfully, I don’t collect much memorabilia.
What would you say to, or do for, someone who did not understand either Dylan or the Dead?
I’d ask them to read Tangled Up in Tunes, and pray.
Here is an excerpt from Tangled Up In Tunes: Ballad Of A Dylanhead:
A thousand die-hard Dylanheads had a sing-along with Bob during the second tune, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” If you didn’t dig Dylan, you were on your way home or headed for the exit. The rest of us were in for an enchanted evening. Dylan slid into a playful “Just Like a Woman.” The precipitation intensified as he yelled, “Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain.” On August, 27, 2006, the Lord said, “Let it rain on that tiny ballpark in New Hampshire.” And so it rained—a relentless downpour, similar to the ending of Grapes of Wrath.
Dylan loves the slop. He could have written the night off as a lost cause and shortened the show, saving his best tunes for another gig with a bigger crowd. However, Dylan felt a kinship with these New Englanders. Dylan performed as if he wanted to put on a poncho and serenade us from the pitcher’s mound. It was a soggy fantasy camp.
Another plane took off from Manchester airport and sailed through the clouds, fifty feet above the stage. Dylan howled, “Where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one?” Phil, Rich and I moved closer to the stage. There may have been 1,000 fans left to hear “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Standing in the pelting rain, we were invigorated. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes “Hard Rain” is just hard rain.
“Highway 61 Revisited” left burn marks. “Tangled Up in Blue” was better than any version I’d heard since 1998. Almost every night we get “Like a Rolling Stone,” but Bob was more deliberate with it on this night. Denny Freeman kicked out a great solo. The band was in no hurry to leave. They may never play in front of such loyalists again.
If you were Bob Dylan, how would you say goodnight? Dylan started off with his usual routine, taking bows with his ten-gallon hat in hand and his Cowboy Band stoically lined-up behind him. Suddenly, Dylan reached into his hat and grabbed a fistful of a mystery dust and soft-tossed it at the crowd, as if he was performing a baptism. Johnny Appleseed strikes again!
How can someone buy your book?
It’s available on my website, or on Amazon.
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