By Ross Altman, PhD

Bob Dylan at Bren

When you think that you've lost everything

You find out you can always lose a little more

--Trying To Get To Heaven—Bob Dylan

At nine minutes after 8:00pm Bob Dylan and his five-man band walked out on the stage of the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine and picked up his guitar. We were already in strange territory, and the concert hasn’t even begun. I haven’t seen Dylan play guitar in over five years—piano only these days, the only instrument in his photograph—he clearly had an opening statement to make. Especially since he only played it that one time all night. The song he opened with is Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ from his album Together Through Life. Is that it? No—that is only half of it. It was co-written by Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead—who passed away September 13. It was Dylan’s farewell to Hunter:

"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"

Oh well, I love you pretty baby

You're the only love I've ever known

Just as long as you stay with me

The whole world is my throne

Beyond here lies nothin'

Nothin' we can call our own

Well, I'm movin' after midnight

Down boulevards of broken cars

Don't know what I'd do without it

Without this love that we call ours

Beyond here lies nothin'

Nothin' but the moon and stars

Down every street there's a window

And every window's made of glass

We'll keep on lovin' pretty baby

For as long as love will last

Beyond here lies nothin'

But the mountains of the past

Well, my ship is in the harbor

And the sails are spread

Listen to me, pretty baby

Lay your hand upon my head

Beyond here lies nothin'

Nothin' done and nothin' said

That was it, the beginning of a great concert.

From 1964—It Ain’t Me Babe; from 1965—Highway 61 Revisited—and from 1971—When I Paint My Masterpiece.

It Ain’t Me Babe, his farewell to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash,who recorded it, and passed away five years ago.

Highway 61 Revisited, his farewell to God—via Abraham (the name of Dylan’s father) and Isaac—the Biblical story of one man’s willingness to sacrifice his son in war:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin' me on”

God say, “No.”

Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but

The next time you see me comin' you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where you want this killin' done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61”

When I Paint My Masterpiece, his farewell to Levon Helm of The Band, who recorded it first for the Band and sang lead in 1971 on Cahoots. The Band’s drummer and lead singer passed away April `19, 2012. Dylan devotes the first half of his concert to saying farewell to all the greats who have brought his music to life.

I’m sitting in the cheap seats with the students and note that the young man in front of me is reading Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles: Volume One. I also take note of the date—October 11—and recall that three years ago just two days later October 13 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s starting his new Never-Ending Tour on the virtual anniversary of his crowning achievement—back in the saddle again. When I Paint My Masterpiece is his thinly veiled comment to the Nobel Committee—I’m not done yet. I’m still painting.

My favorite song of the night—besides seeing and hearing Dylan play his guitar and pay tribute to Robert Hunter—is hearing him play his song for Lenny Bruce for the first time in eleven years—2008—and sing it with such feeling—without a trace of his famous recalibration of his phrasing. It’s a broken masterpiece; yet another farewell:

Lenny Bruce is Dead

Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost’s living on and on

Never did get any Golden Globe award, never made it to Synanon

He was an outlaw, that’s for sure

More of an outlaw than you ever were…

It breaks your heart to hear it. But here Dylan rewrites (as he often does) his recorded version on Shot of Love. Instead of Golden Globe and Synanon he sings:

Never made it to the Promised Land, never made it out of Babylon

I prefer the less poetic and more specific “Synanon.”

Number two is Thunder on the Mountain:

The pistols are poppin’and the power is down

He even has today’s weather in his set.

I’d like to try something but I’m so far from town

The sun keeps shining and the North Wind keeps picking up speed

Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

Then there are the signature songs that express Dylan’s sense of his own mortality—the songs that give rise to Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, but with an ominous unromantic twist.

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears

--William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

Like Kristofferson’s recent song in the same vein—Feeling Mortal—everything reminds him of death, and he makes no apology for it. “Trying to Get to Heaven” (Before They Close the Door), leads to Not Dark Yet for the first time live since 2012:

Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb

I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from

Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer

It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there

Then you have Soon After Midnight, leading to the first encore, and another lament: Long and Wasted Years.

And Pay in Blood, in which he winds up alone:

You get your lover in the bed

Come here I'll break your lousy head

Our nation must be saved and freed

You've been accused of murder, how do you plead?

This is how I spend my days

I came to bury, not to praise

I'll drink my fill and sleep alone

I pay in blood, but not my own.

There’s only one way out, which he reaches for earlier in the song—

I'm sworn to uphold the laws of God

You could put me out in front of a firing squad

Before the last song in the concert:

Gotta Serve Somebody

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk

Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk

You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread

You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes

You're gonna have to serve somebody,

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Girl From the North Country stands apart from this world weary view—a breath of fresh air that reminds one of the sense of hope one always brings to a Dylan performance. Perhaps that is why it became the title of his upcoming Broadway show, based on the songs of Bob Dylan. It went from London to the great white way, where it opens next February 7, 2020. It also enriches the concert with yet another farewell—the duet Dylan did with the late great Johnny Cash, that became the opening track to Nashville Skyline:

If you’re travelin’ to the north country fair

Where the wind hits heavy on the border line

Please remember me to one who lives there

For she once was a true love of mine.

Along with Lenny Bruce, it’s the most beautiful song in the concert—until the last encore—in which Dylan pays an unspoken farewell to one final hero—George Harrison, who backed him up in the Concert for Bangladesh, August 1, 1971—on It Takes a Lot to Laugh It Takes a Train to Cry from Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan and Harrison: —together again. Who could ask for anything more?

I see somebody in the parking garage and he motions me to come over. “What did I think of the concert?” I rave a bit and ask him what he thought. “It felt like a funeral.” I didn’t know what to say, or how to reply—until now. Whoever you are, thank you.

As I drive away from the concert I look for an In and Out Burger and—a miracle! I’m the only one in line—the first and only car. It’s never happened before~ thank Bob!

The date of Dylan’s concert, October 11 is my London friend Mary Kuper’s 70th Birthday~ Happy Birthday, Mary!

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); presides over the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; writes for FolkWorks; you may reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.