‘Bob Dylan – The Day I Was There’ (BOOK REVIEW)

It’s a measure of the Nobel Laureate’s enduring magnetism that the variety of anecdotes about him remain so engrossing throughout Bob Dylan – The Day I Was There. Invariably, those entries that are most riveting illuminate those that are more prosaic, a perception that should induces an open-minded attitude in readers, one fostered with wry good humor in the ‘Preface’ composed by British music publication Melody Maker’s Chris Charlesworth.
The pages of prose are peppered with a procession of graphics that imbues nearly four hundred fifty pages with a discernible momentum akin to a musical performance. Photographs blurry and otherwise appear alongside reproductions of various memorabilia such as concert tickets and posters, the inclusion of which reflects written submissions ranging from short off the cuff paragraphs to more involved recollections, all of which are more or less lucid depending on the occasion (one teenager avows he lost his virginity the night he first saw Bob Dylan in concert?!). And the sources vary greatly from devoted fans knowledgeably attending their latest show to then-fledgling recording engineer Rob Fraboni working with Bob and the Band on Planet Waves in 1974, then on to the wholly uninitiated not quite sure, at the time, why or how this passing moment in their life would eventually turn so memorable.

Predating his odyssey to New York in the early Sixties to fulfill a destiny the man himself described so vividly in his own book Chronicles Volume One, these stories lead via wildly circuitous routes to the threshold of Dylan’s ‘born again’ period in 1979. Suggesting in graphic terms just how independent and courageous this songwriter and musician has been during his life, those write-ups devoted to the spontaneous intervals on stages around the world, with his varied and diverse backing bands, come across as microcosms of the many directions the native of Minnesota has taken in his life and work. And more than a few of such experiences qualify as epiphanies for the contributors who recall them.

The nature of the events as described, combined with the way in which they are described, mirrors to a great degree the multiple and mercurial changes Bob Dylan has undergone over half a century in the public eye. As a result, it’s a tossup to decide the best way to approach Bob Dylan – The Day I Was There: reading cover to cover, arbitrary absorption in perusing the pages (chronologically as arranged or otherwise) or adopting a selective focus on similar voices, i.e., all the pieces written by collaborators, all the concert goers, all the random happenstances, etc.

Whatever the approach, the man’s various personae become clarified within the approximately twenty-year timeline covered in this book. Staunch folk traditionalist, firebrand contemporary songwriter, anarchic electric musician, subdued rustic—any single one would suffice for the entire career of a lesser artist. If it seems remarkable a single individual has metamorphosed so often, credit goes to designated author Neil Cossar for his discerning collation of the pieces, following the approximately six-month solicitation/collection period, and thus depicting this evolution.

Ultimately (and appropriately), it’s the unknown names rather than the famous ones (Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, to name two) that reaffirm the breadth and depth of Bob Dylan’s impact as a man, an artist and a cultural figure. James Doherty’s pre-show encounter in 1966 suggests Dylan could remain approachable (if he so chose) even as he ascended to superstar celebrity status. This same fan also depicts how enthralling were the Nobel Laureate’s acoustic/electric performances on his tour that year, a wholly positive reaction contrary to that of the purists who booed and/or walked out. Meanwhile, in a similar vein, Ray Foulk’s enthused reaction to the 1969 performance with the Band at the Isle of Wight festival goes sharply against the grain of much common perception. And various accounts of concerts from 1978, including sixteen year-old Neil Fletcher’s, clarify Bob’s powers as a bandleader extended well beyond that aforementioned epochal phase when he was on the road with the Hawks (later to become the Band).

However a reader absorbs Bob Dylan – The Day I Was There, the hope for a sequel may be inevitable, if only to gain insight into the controversial gospel phase beginning just as this edition concludes, but also because a series of similarly-conceived compendia would prove a valuable reference tool for fans and dilettantes alike. Such a project may take some time to produce, but there’s certainly a wealth of insight and information to absorb in the meantime.

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