You may have noticed that I call my dog the littlebrowndog. The reason I call him the littlebrowndog is because when I first saw him, that was my first thought. My two previous dogs were either 100 lbs. or heavier so this little 40 lbs. dog looks so small to me.
When the lights went up on the stage last night and I saw Bob Dylan in person for the first time, my first thought was Bob Dylan is the littlewhitehairedguy. Bob Dylan is a slip of a man, small and thin with tall white hair, except for his sideburns which are black. He wore loose white slacks and what appeared to be white sneakers and a black jacket over a white shirt.
He may be small in stature, but he is a huge talent.
I left the Adirondacks Sunday afternoon at 1 and planned to arrive at my motel in Liberty, NY by 3, take a quick shower and then drive the 12 miles to Bethel Woods with plenty of time to walk through the Woodstock Music Festival museum and check out the grounds before the Bob Dylan concert at 8. I had a plan. As we all know plans don’t always work out as we … well, planned. No problem up north, I zipped down the Northway until, ironically, I hit the exit that would take me home but, of course, I wasn’t going home. There was a car accident four exits south and I sat in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic for one hour. As the time ticked away it became obvious it would be well after 4pm before I arrived in Liberty. The only thought that kept me calm was that if I had left up north at the time I originally planned, it could have been me in that accident.
Once I got off the Thruway at the Kingston exit, the drive became more interesting. I passed a penitentiary, drove through an Indian Reservation, and saw many signs written in Hebrew at the end of long driveways that led to pockets of small cabins that accommodate Jews who live in commune-like communities. I passed Swan Lake and White Lake. I passed the Swan Lake Resort which is closed and for sale and looks very much like the resort from the Jack Nicholson movie, The Shining. I knew I was getting closer to my destination when I began to see large hand painted signs that read: “Every day is Earth Day” and “Give Peace a Chance.” At 5pm I drove into the parking lot of the Days Inn in Liberty; which, by the way, I would recommend if you ever go to Bethel Woods. It’s located on a busy street but it’s surrounded by places to eat, the rooms are quiet and clean and it’s only a 12 mile drive to Bethel.
A quick shower and I was on the grounds at Bethel by 6. I had anticipated another round of bumper-to-bumper traffic but it was a smooth ride to the parking lot. It’s a huge parking area, poles and street lights where pastures used to be. Chunks of crushed stone define driving lanes in that parking area. A paved road that leads to “premium” parking spaces runs alongside the graveled parking lot. The “premium” parking is much closer to the Shed which is the venue for the concerts at Bethel Woods although even from that parking area it’s a hike down a brick walkway.
Bethel Woods Entertainment Center for the Arts was what I expected, but was not what I had hoped to find. There was a spirit of love, gentleness, peace and generosity at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival that I did not feel at Bethel Woods. From the $15 fee to go into the Woodstock Museum to the $25 fee for “premium” parking, to the booths with colored lights that lined the brick pathway to the music Shed, some selling “genuine Woodstock” paraphernalia, it all seemed almost contrary to the spirit of Woodstock.
Feeling somewhat disappointed, I found my seat inside the Shed and began to wait for the program to begin. The man at the end of the two empty seats beside me struck up a conversation. He knew a lot about Bob Dylan. He had seen him perform four times. He warned me that at age 71 Bob Dylan’s voice was pretty shot and that I probably would not hear many of the classic Dylan songs that most people expect at his concerts. I had heard both of those warnings before but was excited to see this icon for myself.
Before last night’s concert I admired Bob Dylan’s poetry and music but he always seemed to be somewhat of a snob; one of those moody intellectuals who might reluctantly acquiesce to entertain. Last night changed my mind. Within ten minutes, it seemed obvious that Mr. Dylan did not like the spotlight but that he loved making music. The few times he did take center stage, he seemed reluctant to do so. When standing center stage he has a habit of lifting one leg at a time, bending it at the knee and pulling his foot off the floor. The gesture reminded me of a pony that didn’t want to stand still.
He seemed most comfortable to the right of the stage at the keyboard, just another member of the band. And what a band it was; three guitars, drums, bass and a second keyboard. The music they played was straight up rock and roll, blues, jazz and funk. All the pieces had a definite rhythm that would pull you right in and just as the rhythm became comfortable they would crank it up and literally rock the house. It felt like I was sitting in someone’s parlor listening to them jam. Bob sang every song and it occurred to me he had finally grown up. He wasn’t the angry young man anymore; he was an accomplished musician who loved his work.
It also occurred to me that there were times when his voice sounded like Jimmy Durante doing an impression of Bob Dylan. But then he’d bring a word up to that high place where no one but Bob Dylan goes and I would smile to myself and think, yup, that’s Bob Dylan alright. I also developed a theory about his annunciation. It seemed to me that if he wanted the audience to understand something, he could be articulate. The best example is this: the band was rocking a song and Bob Dylan was singing along and I wasn’t sure what he was saying when suddenly, very clearly he sang, “Do you think I’m too old? Am I past my prime? Well, what have YOU got?” Brought down the house and he kept singing, didn’t miss a note.
Another interesting twist in the concert that kept everyone on their toes is he would sing one of his classics, with a totally different cadence and melody but the words were the same. He was at least a minute into Like a Rolling Stone before I heard him sing, “And say do you want to make a deal?” and realized what was coming next. I think it dawned on most of the crowd at the same time because a roar filled the Shed.
The concert lasted a little over an hour and I was sorry that it ended. He introduced the band, sang the last song and walked off the stage after a thank you to the audience and most of us felt, given his reputation, that it was over. Nevertheless, most of the audience kept clapping and much to my surprise Bob Dylan and the band came back onto the stage and sang an almost completely unrecognizable, yet fantastic version of Blowing in the Wind. One final bow and those pony steps, and he was gone.
I ended the day the way I started, in bumper-to-bumper traffic and fell right to sleep when I got back to my motel room at 1:30 this morning.
Before the Dylan concert, when I was chatting with the man next to me, he told me that the site of the original Woodstock concert was about two football fields away from where we were sitting in the Shed. He told me there was a plaque with the names of all the bands that performed at Woodstock and that the outline of the original stage was still visible in the open fields. How could I go home without seeing the original concert site when I was so close? I simply could not.
This morning I got up, packed my car and drove back to Bethel Woods. This time I drove past the museum and Shed down a small hill and pulled off into a small parking area. After walking down a short lane, there it was in the distance. Down at the bottom of the hill was a stage-sized defined area outlined in small stones, green and covered with clover-like plants. I opened the gate and took the walk down to the stage area where I stood in the middle looking up at the sprawling hillside and could imagine every inch taken up by happy music lovers doing their thing. I could imagine Janis Joplin standing there, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and Stevie Nicks. I watched a man about my age walking across the”stage” with a young couple. He had been at the original Woodstock and led them up the hillside to show them where he had camped. Two couples were walking down and around the hillside as though it was sacred ground.
Surrounded by the quiet, peaceful simplicity of the hillside, it felt like sacred ground to me. As I looked around, in that moment, Bethel Woods redeemed itself. While music certainly was the purpose of Woodstock, I do not think it is just the music that makes people like me visit the concert site, stand on that “stage” and feel something special happened there. That site resonates with the spirit of Woodstock, with everything good that was a part of my generation’s need for peace, tolerance, kindness and taking care of each other. This may sound naive in today’s cynical world, but the site resonates with the LOVE and HOPE that those kids believed in.
Those kids are the same kids that have created today’s world that in so many ways is the opposite of what they hoped for back then. Nevertheless, for me today was an epiphany. It reminded me of what was important to me back then and driving home gave me time to rethink some things and make new commitments. It’s never too late.