1975: Abandoned Love
On a Thursday night in July 1975, I headed out to see Ramblin' Jack Elliott at The Bitter End in New York City. Because I wanted to learn his technique, I got there early enough to get a seat near the front so I could watch him play guitar. After the first set, a P.A. announcement told us we were welcome to stay for the second set if we honored the two-drink minimum. As the lights flashed on and I got up to leave, I glanced around the club and was stunned to see Bob Dylan seated toward the back with Jack, wearing the same striped tee shirt and leather jacket he had on in a photo with Patti Smith on the cover of the then-current Village Voice.
Naturally, I sat right back down. There was absolutely no way I was leaving at that point. Soon, others began to notice him, too, so Jack and Bob left their seats and went backstage. But when the engineer set up another microphone, we knew Bob was going to sit in. The electricity in the room was tangible as the club began filling up with more bodies. Finally, Jack came out and started his set. After a couple of songs, he began "With God on Our Side." After the first few lines, he turned his head toward the back of the stage and said, "Bob, you want to help me out on this?" The place went nuts as Dylan walked onstage. I can still see that shy look on his face as he nervously squinted out into the audience. He was so nervous, in fact, that he didn't notice that the capo on his guitar was crooked and buzzing badly.
Their first song was "Pretty Boy Floyd," with Bob singing harmony and his guitar buzzing right along. Then Jack started "How Long Blues." After the first verse, he looked at Bob in a way that seemed to ask him to sing a verse. Bob simply shook his head and mouthed something inaudible. When the song finished, however, Dylan began strumming his guitar. But since it was still buzzing, he asked Jack to trade instruments with him. At that moment, everyone in the room was in a trance; it's not every day one gets to hear an impromptu Bob Dylan performance in a tiny club. After a couple of lines, we realized he was performing a new song, with each line getting even better than the last. The song was "Abandoned Love," and it still is the most powerful performance I've ever heard.
Ramblin' Jack started strumming along in the beginning, but he soon realized the rarity of the moment and stopped and stepped to the side. As Bob sang, the nervousness so evident earlier vanished completely. He was so moving. There he was, hitting us with new material, with everyone hanging on his every word. It was an incredible feeling to be in that small club listening to Bob Dylan perform a new song. We all felt we were watching history in the making. After he finished, he returned to his seat near the back of the club and quietly watched the rest of the show. Jack appeared so speechless and overwhelmed by Dylan's performance that he started his next song with Bob's buzzing guitar.
Later, as we began filing out into the night onto Bleecker Street, we could see Bobby Dylan through the outside windows, leaning over his table and deep in conversation with someone, the candle in front of him highlighting his face. It's a moment I'll never forget.
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