I’m glad I went down to the river last night. The preacher was in town, and the congregation was called to assemble. He made his fourth tour through the city of smokestacks and steeples, the small city with the world on its streets. The people arrived with eager, happy looks on their faces, a blend of loyalists who grew up with the artist and younger adventurers. We had a beautiful scene outside the Tsongas Center as music lovers streamed toward the arena and the regular Tuesday night Riverwalk runners wove through clusters of people on the pathways. I met a woman, whose name I can’t recall, who had been with Dylan on the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour from the Plymouth, Mass., concert through Lowell and Madison Square Garden and on to the Zimmerman homestead in Hibbing, Minn. Mysteriously, she said, “I was one of the unknowns.”
A couple of the fans had been to Kerouac’s grave earlier in the day, making the pilgrimage to the grave the same way Dylan himself paid respects to one of the writers who influenced him as a young man. We had a reporter from San Francisco who writes a daily column on Dylan for an online publication. I met a teacher who told me he is the person he is today because of Dylan’s music and ideas. I haven’t seen so many gray ponytails in one place in a long time, probably since the last Dylan concert. I was reminded of the Gray Panthers elder activists from the 1970s. Dave Lewis teaches business at UMass Lowell; he had his green 1965 VW bus parked outside the Tsongas with doors open as a living artifact of the root-times of Dylan. Dave, Mary Lou Hubbell, and I handed out 700 copies of a commemorative pamphlet about Dylan, UMass Lowell, and the city to appreciative concert-goers—an instantly collectible essay by writer Dave Perry with pictures of Dylan in Lowell. In the parking lot, I talked to a guy who had been to the two previous shows, and he extolled the performance: “You’re going to enjoy this tonight, but he will only play about three songs from the old days.” The event had something of a feel of a high-school reunion, a gathering of the faithful for another dose of the sound and the voice that have already gone down in history. In the same way we drop the names of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens as legendary visitors to Lowell, this man will be spoken of for a hundred years or more when the cultural chronicles of Lowell are mentioned.
Bob Dylan was in good spirits last night on the UMass Lowell stage. I’ve seen him perform about ten times, and he offered a fine show, better in my view than in his last appearance at the Tsongas. He leaned into the songs and honored the words, shaping the phrases to fit his older throat. He opened strongly with “Things Have Changed,” and on the sixth number thrilled the audience with the first notes of “Tangled Up in Blue.” The floor was semi-packed and the seating bowl filled about a third of the way around—not a capacity crowd or even close, but the people who attend now are connoisseurs or new converts; the recreational rubber-neckers have been drained out of the “endless tour.” I understand the reason for the smaller crowds; this edition of Dylan is an acquired taste, and, honestly, I take some of it like medicine now. But it’s a unified field of creative work. You are there because you need to be there now—nobody is “making the scene” to be seen or to chase a celebrity. The preacher comes to town. The congregation assembles. “So let us not talk falsely now/The hour is getting late.”