The rock star ambles from the shadows. Fifteen thousand fans lift their phones as he takes his place in the spotlight, wearing a black suit that smooths his rumpled silhouette. He doffs his fedora and takes a little bow. Here come the drums, then the horns and harmonica. Then he sings.
"Well, they'll stone you when you're tryin' to be so good … They'll stone you just like they said they would. … They'll stone you when you're tryin' to go home … They'll stone you when you're there all alone … But I would not feel so all alone … "
He turns his microphone to the audience, and all 15,000 scream:
"EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!"
The rock star grins that mischievous, mustached grin.
"Tampa!" Bob Dylan yells. "You want to get stoned with me tonight?"
• • •
Obviously, this never happened. Bob Dylan, an arena-filling, crowd-pleasing, hit-slinging rock star? Not lately.
Dylan, 75, may be a Nobel laureate, but as a performer he remains frustratingly enigmatic, brushing his monumental artistic legacy to the margins where no one can see it. Fifty years after releasing his iconic LP Blonde on Blonde, he'd rather dress like a stagecoach driver, sing Frank Sinatra and play cozy venues like Ruth Eckerd Hall, where he has a show Nov. 19.
More power to him, I guess — he's Bob Dylan and we mortals are not. But it's time to reckon with the effect this is having on his legacy.
The l-word is a big thing in music these days and will be for the decade-plus to come. This year's deaths of David Bowie and Prince has reframed how we view the original rock legends who still walk among us. Our time with them has never felt more limited; our opportunities to celebrate them never more precious.
And as we take stock of who's left, it has never been clearer that Dylan, as always, is the outlier.
All around him are contemporaries basking in the adulation of their golden years — yet none of them are phoning it in, delivering anything less than top-dollar entertainment for fans who can afford a ticket. Paul McCartney is playing three-hour, career-spanning concerts in cities all across America, including some he's never visited. Bruce Springsteen is playing four-hour shows, the longest of his life. Brian Wilson is playing the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds front to back; Roger Waters has toured Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. Neil Young and Willie Nelson just hosted their 31st Farm Aid. The Rolling Stones are selling out stadiums. Leonard Cohen, 82, just dropped a new album, and Chuck Berry — 90-year-old Chuck Berry! — has one coming next year. You can go on and on like this.
Now consider Dylan. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in October, sparking the widest public celebration of his work in ages, he initially refused to acknowledge the honor. It was briefly noted on his website, then scrubbed. For two and a half weeks, he didn't return calls from the academy that awards the Nobels, a snub one committee member called "impolite and arrogant." No one, not even Dylan, knows if he'll show up in Stockholm to accept his prize in December.
When Dylan came to Ruth Eckerd Hall in 2015, he played 19 songs. All but five were from 2000 or later. That is his right; he owes the public nothing and should play whatever his muse compels him to play. He's not a nostalgia act, not some baby boomer jukebox. He's Bob freaking Dylan. Isn't that enough?
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The answer, it seems, is maybe not. Dylan's show at Ruth Eckerd Hall is sold out. But on the morning he won his Nobel, the 2,180-seat venue still had good seats available.
• • •
Oh, Bob's rolling now. He just reeled off a string of classics — the rollicking Subterranean Homesick Blues; the devilish Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and Tombstone Blues — and the arena is feeling it. It's easy to forget, but those early songs still feel sharp and vital, so full of fire and life. It sounds like Tom Petty and Jack White jamming with the Avett Brothers.
Then Dylan reaches for a vintage Martin acoustic. This is a thrill. He doesn't play as much as he used to, a side effect of age and some say arthritis. But his guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton settle in beside him, and the room goes as quiet as a Greenwich Village coffee shop.
First comes Girl From the North Country, a gorgeous folk ballad from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, then Shelter From the Storm and Visions of Johanna. Dylan whispers to his sidemen as they work out what's next. They settle on the dreamy Come Rain or Come Shine, from Fallen Angels, Dylan's new collection of covers from the Great American Songbook. And who knew? In this gentle, winsome arrangement, it sounds just as classic as the rest. The old man's still got it, doesn't he?
Dylan ends his acoustic miniset with a sparse and earnest Blowin' in the Wind. Between each pluck, you can hear a pin drop. But the ovation at the end seems to roar for days.
• • •
I made my Dylan pilgrimage. I was 19 and in college; he was 58 and in the midst of a creative resurgence. He was coming off two good-to-great albums, 1995's MTV Unplugged and 1997's Time Out of Mind, and on the verge of a third, 2001's Love and Theft.
He was on tour with Paul Simon in Charlotte, N.C., and at this point in his career, he still played the hits. All Along the Watchtower. Lay Lady Lay. Like a Rolling Stone. He even joined Simon to sing a few songs, including Knockin' on Heaven's Door and The Boxer. It was great.
Josh Ritter made his Dylan pilgrimage, too. It was in Spokane, Wash., on the day of his high school graduation in 1995. There, again, Dylan played a pretty crowd-pleasing set: Masters of War, Just Like a Woman, Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.
"I'm from Moscow, Idaho," said Ritter, a singer-songwriter frequently compared to Dylan. "I never saw freaky people. But I got to see freaky people. And that's the first time I ever smelled weed, you know? It was cool."
Hits. Duets. A little bit of smoke. A celebratory atmosphere befitting an all-time icon. Today, any teenagers hoping to make a Dylan pilgrimage of their own — do those even exist anymore? — would experience none of that.
There's no question Dylan could craft a concert that would appeal to fans of all ages; his reservoir of beloved songs is unmatched. A fun factoid: In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the 500 greatest songs of all time. The list included five Dylan tracks from 1965 alone, including Like a Rolling Stone at No. 1.
"I don't think it would take much to get a bunch of people to come see Bob Dylan," said Kevin Preast, senior vice president of event management at Amalie Arena. "If he came out and said, 'It's the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde, and I'm coming in and I'm going to play that album start to finish, uninterrupted,' yeah, I think people would come in droves."
But that's not Dylan's M.O. He doesn't crave the hassle and attention of a big arena tour. He plays what he wants, where he wants. And that's the way his biggest fans like it.
"I really have always believed — and believe even more strongly now — that if you have an audience that takes time out of their life, pays money, good money, to come see a show … they're paying you to be an explorer," Ritter said. "Dylan has always said that his songs are blueprints, and he treats those songs differently every night. He's exploring, and it's his own way of doing it. It may be a way that's different from everybody else; it may be more or less brave. But that's his way of doing it."
Perhaps one day he'll consent to a hits or anniversary tour — or even a farewell tour — and more fans will be able to relive the history he made live and in person, if only for a night. There are signs he's got it in him.
In an essay about his paintings published this month by Vanity Fair, Dylan wrote that "the key to the future is in the remnants of the past. … Your past begins the day you were born and to disregard it is cheating yourself of who you really are."
At October's Desert Trip festival in California, he dusted off Like a Rolling Stone, Highway 61 Revisited, Masters of War and Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35 for the first time in years. On the day he received his Nobel, he played guitar on stage for the first time since 2012.
"If he decides that's what he wants to do, he'll do it," Preast said. "And it'll be successful, because he'll do it the right way, and he'll do it for the right reasons."
• • •
Encore time. What will he play? What's left to play? On what note will this epic night end?
Dylan shuffles out alone. He doesn't speak, but then, he doesn't have to: He's just laid more than a half-century of genius at our feet. What it all means, we are free to discuss amongst ourselves later on.
He takes a seat behind a piano at center stage and plays a tender arrangement of the benedictory Not Dark Yet, a song about the clouds that gather and loom overhead as we age.
"Shadows are falling, and I've been here all day … It's too hot to sleep, time is running away … Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear … It's not dark yet, but it's getting there … "
We're all rapt. No one wants this song, this night, this lifetime to end. We want to remember Dylan exactly this way, playing beautiful, meaningful music for generations of fans who still want to hear it. Finally, he is letting us. And it's everything.
Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin @tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.