The man in the long black coat: Bob Dylan on Leeson Street
I’ve seen Bob Dylan play live about 30 times across the world but nothing beats that first encounter. And when I bumped into him on the street, it was anything but an accident
Ian O’Riordan with his signed album at the spot on Dublin’s Leeson Street where he met Dylan in 1995
Bob Dylan live in 2012. Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for VH1
The plan was to hang around the Point Depot for the afternoon and act like one of the roadies. There is no easy way of getting to Bob Dylan, only the lucky way, and when you’re young and free and obsessed with three chords and the truth, that’s all it takes.
It was a grey Tuesday in April 1995, and by then, Dylan was my god. Charles Bukowski always said the gods should be left alone, that one didn’t bang on their door. All I wanted to know was where Dylan was staying that night, not to bang on his door but just to wait outside it.
Three enormous black trucks filled the parking lot, facing out on to the Liffey. Dylan was in town, live and in person. From somewhere inside the Point, the band ran through some bluesy bass and drums. Dylan didn’t bother with the soundchecks (I knew that already), and at that moment might well have been cycling around Martello Tower or walking down Raglan Road.
When the man sitting in one of the trucks climbed out for a cigarette, I casually passed by, said a quick hello, and stalled for just long enough to ask did he know where the band were staying. He briefly stared me in the eye, then reached back into the truck and pulled out a small spiral-bound notebook. “Stephen’s Hall Hotel,” he said, after flicking through a few pages. “Leeson Street.”
Knock-knock-knockin’ on Ian’s door
In the couple of years since borrowing Highway 61 Revisited from my younger brother – then his copy of Robert Shelton’s unauthorised biography, No Direction Home – Dylan had come banging on my door, and I couldn’t stop myself from letting him in. No one actually recommended Dylan. I had heard some of his stuff in school but didn’t particularly like it. And my dad never played any Dylan records, although he does like Woody Guthrie.
Yet within those couple of years I’d obsessively borrowed, stolen or else bought Dylan’s entire catalogue, by then about 30 albums, and hearing those for the first time – the creative sustenance of the songs, their phrases and rhymes, the startling authenticity of his voice – simply outplayed anything I’d heard before. Now, I can hardly imagine being blessed by hearing Desire, Blonde on Blonde, Saved, and Blood on the Tracks for the first time, all within a few weeks of each other, but I did, because Dylan had completely taken me over. Most of the songs also sounded great on my beat-up Yamaha guitar.
Then his 1995 European spring tour was announced. Dublin was the last date, and there was no way I couldn’t be there. At 23, and just out of Brown University, I was still living in the US, starving broke and trying to make it as a long-distance runner. I got home, somehow, then blew whatever cash remained on my Dylan ticket. If at that point someone had offered me an Olympic medal in exchange for that ticket I would have said, “No thanks”.
Elvis Costello played support that night, and I just wanted him to end. Between sets someone lit large bundles of incense, just before Dylan’s unmistakable profile emerged from the blackness behind the stage. The spotlights were turned up and there he was, wearing a purple silk shirt and black pants with silver stars down either leg. “Crash on the levee, mama, water’s gonna overflow . . . ”
Thirty shows later
In the 30 or so times I’ve seen Dylan on stage since, nothing has surpassed that revelatory moment of live introduction. I’ve seen him in Lowell, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island; I was at the Belfast show in 1998 and the Vicar Street gig in 2000; Dylan’s played 15 shows in Ireland since 1995, and I’ve seen them all; last Halloween night, I caught up with him again in Amsterdam.
For me, Dylan remains as utterly relevant now as he did in 1995, or indeed 1965. Some of his best work has come in the 19 years since: Time Out of Mind; Love and Theft; Modern Times; Together Through Life; and Tempest. His three seasons and 100 shows of Theme Time Radio Hour remain essential listening. He’s also won an Oscar (for Things Have Changed for the film Wonder Boys), starred in his own film, the hugely underrated comedy-drama Masked and Anonymous, and inspired the critically acclaimed I’m Not There, released two months prior to the death of one of its stars, Heath Ledger.
That first night at the Point, it seemed like a wild and enormous miracle that the man who went from folk hero to electric villain in the 1960s, re-emerged in the 1970s with songs such as Isis and Tangled Up in Blue, then went conservatively Christian and increasingly reclusive again, was now standing on the stage directly in front me.
So the following morning I pulled out his debut album, Bob Dylan, on vinyl, also borrowed from my younger brother, then cycled the few miles to Leeson Street. Stephen’s Hall Hotel has a small flight of steps in front of an old Georgian doorway, and I stood around for about an hour with no sign of anyone coming or going. I recognised a couple of band members, definitely Tony Garnier, his bass player. Still no sign of Dylan.
Success at last
Then, emerging from an archway beside the hotel, dressed in a long, black leather coat and a Russian fur hat, carrying himself with that slow bouncy walk, there he was, live and in person. Dylan turned the corner and walked up to me, to the foot of the hotel steps, just as a large silver people- carrier pulled up to the kerbside.
Few artists, musical or otherwise, have endured such a double-edged relationship with their fans as Dylan has. When he went electric in 1966, some fans shouted “Judas”. When, later, some fans would shout for Like a Rolling Stone, Dylan would play When You Gonna Wake Up? Indeed, David Kinney has just released a book, The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, in which he chronicles some of the true fanatics or genuine creeps who have hounded Dylan for much of his 73 years.
Already knowing that, and with Dylan standing directly in front of me, I presented him with his debut album and a black biro, and he looked down at the gently smiling face of a 20-year-old Bob Dylan.
“Who’s that?” he asked, raising another gentle smile, while at the same time taking the biro and writing his sprawling signature across the front of it.
What do you say to your god?
“We just love you in Ireland,” was all I could muster.
Which is why, maybe, as long as the miracle that is Bob Dylan keeps coming back, people like me will always be waiting.
NEVER ENDING TOUR: FOUR GOLDEN MOMENTS
On June 7th, 1988, Bob Dylan played to a small crowd at the Concord Pavilion in California. By the end of the year, he had played 71 concerts, this sudden increase and lasting frequency in the 26 years since now suitably dubbed the Never Ending Tour.
By 2007, he’d played more than 2,000 shows; so far in 2014, he has played 17 shows in Japan alone, and two in Hawaii. Last month he turned 73, and after resuming the European leg of his tour in Cork this evening, will play another 20 times in 13 different countries by July 17th. Then, it’s off to Australia and New Zealand.
Here are four great moments from seeing Dylan live: