Ryan Bartelmay finds a way into the
New Yorker Festival's Bob Dylan tribute

This past weekend, I took a Greyhound bus to New York City with one thing in mind. I needed to find a way to get into the New Yorker Festival’s "Bringing It All Back Home: A Night of Bob Dylan to Benefit PEN." I was assigned to cover this for Gadfly ’s Bob Dylan week, but tickets had sold out; not even a press pass was available.

The New Yorker Festival, which began last year as a celebration of the New Yorker’s 75th anniversary, held this, its second festival on May 18-20, 2001, and featured some of the more recognizable artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and scholars of the latter half of the 20th century. Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Chuck Close, Ang Lee, Steve Martin, Chuck D and many, many others showed up to speak about their work, read their work, discuss other artists’s works, and sit on panels and debate work. Overall, the weekend offered a heaping dose of culture.

On Friday night, the festival featured some of the more prominent names in fiction, reading their selections in bars, cafés, and bookstores strewn throughout lower Manhattan. I did have a ticket to one of these shows, a reading by Matthew Klam and Jonathan Franzen. Both had been included on the New Yorker’s list of 20 best fiction writers under 40 a few summers ago.

The reading was held at the Fez, in the basement of the Time Café in the East Village. It was on a stage where jazz bands or comedians normally perform, in a dimly lit, bohemian-type room with loungy red candles on the tables and exposed brick walls. Both Matthew Klam and Jonathan Franzen proved worthy of their New Yorker accolades. Each read for 45 minutes: Klam read the title story from his latest collection, Sam the Cat and Other Stories, and Franzen read from his upcoming novel, The Corrections. The audience played along, laughing at the right time and clapping at the right time and drinking their two-drink minimum. Feeling like children being read to, they were giddy and smiling when it was all over.

One elderly gentleman who shared a table with my friend Fred and me had flown in from Chicago with his wife to attend the festival. He was excited about attending an interview with Norman Mailer the following afternoon (Mailer was reading that night with Martin Amis). I, on the other hand, was busy planning my pitch to persuade the doorman to let me in to the Dylan tribute the following night. Maybe if I told him I was from Gadfly magazine, on assignment to cover the tribute, he would let me in. Would something like that even work? I hoped it would.

Billed as a series of artists (writers, musicians, scholars) paying tribute to a man who has inspired them and so many others since the early 1960s, "Bringing It All Back Home" was to be held at Town Hall on 42nd Street, just off Times Square—the site where Dylan played his first major concert in April 1963, after leaving the Greenwich Village coffeehouses. I wanted to hear what a few literary folks and musicians—people who I admired like Rick Moody, TC Boyle, Tracey Chapman, and Graham Parker—had to say about him.

When my friend Fred and I arrived at Town Hall at five minutes to eight, the sidewalk in front was bustling with a mix of suits, ties, beards, Birkenstocks, and a few folks with Bob Dylan concert T-shirts. Would I have a better chance of getting in if I were wearing a concert T-shirt? I wondered. Or would that take me out of the realm of journalist? Would that make my line look like just that, a line? How often do these doormen get a line about covering an event for a magazine? I was starting to not like this idea.

Outside Town Hall, a few men with New Yorker shirts and walkie-talkies guarded a Volkswagen Passat. I thought it strange that anyone would surround a car with velvet ropes in front of Town Hall. I found it so strange that I left Fred and walked up to a man with a walkie-talkie and asked why it was there. He told me Volkswagen was a sponsor of the event, which I should have guessed. Then, I asked him if he had any tickets. When he turned me down, instead of giving him the journalist line I’d been rehearsing in my head, I simply asked, "Are you sure you don’t have any tickets?" I was desperate and starting to feel like it was going to be an early night, and I didn’t want to talk to the doorman. Of course this guy with the walkie-talkie couldn’t help me. He was crowd control, or rather car guard, but he was 25 yards from the door.

Another walkie-talkie guy, a younger one, approached and asked the car guard what he thought about scalping. Scalping? I’d never thought about scalping. I liked this idea.

It was about this time that Fred showed up with, of all things, a scalper. But the scalper wanted $100 a ticket—that was an almost 400 percent mark up. We haggled with him, told him to do it for Bob Dylan’s birthday (this was Fred’s pitch, and he wanted to try it out on the doorman). It worked on the scalper, and we got him down to $60 a ticket, double the face value. I did have to get into the show, after all, and I didn’t really want to talk with the doorman. The seats were in the third row, too. Fred was sold. He asked the scalper to wait while he went to the cash machine. It was then that my car-guarding buddy walked behind me and, ever so quietly, whispered into my ear, "Don’t buy the tickets."

I turned around to look at him, and he nodded and walked into the crowd.

"No sale," I told the scalper. Fred looked at me, questioningly. "We don’t want the tickets," I said.

"Suit yourselves. Third row," the scalper said and left.

"What are you doing?" Fred asked. "Don’t you have to get into this?"

"I think I got us some tickets," I said. I went over to my new friend, who told me to wait over by the box office. A few minutes later, he came over, took Fred and me into the lobby, handed me two tickets, and walked away. He excused himself through the crowd and resumed his place by the Passat. I went after him. I was going to give him the journalist line—I needed to try it out on someone. It had been running through my head since the bus ride to New York. But, in the end, I just asked how much I owed him. "Nothing," he said. I asked his name and shook his hand. His name was Bill.

Fred and I made it to our balcony seats just as the show was beginning (the show lasted over two hours). It kicked off with the opening to D.A. Pennebaker's Don’t Look Back—Dylan flipping the lyric cards. Then came the folks paying tribute. Graham Parker told a story about being on tour with Dylan, and then he played "I Threw It All Away." Anne Waldman read a poem paying homage to the Shaman, Bob Dylan, while her 16-year-old son improvised on the sax. I was waiting for the audience to start snapping, but they never did. TC Boyle read a piece about wanting his hair to look like Dylan’s on the cover of Blonde On Blonde. He told the audience that all writers wanted to be Bob Dylan, and that’s why they formed bands. Rather, that’s why he formed a band—a very bad band, he said. Rick Moody read a prose tribute to his favorite album, Blood On the Tracks. The Esquires—David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and David Steele—did a ten-minute, raw-and-rocking cover of "Idiot Wind." Bobbie Ann Mason told the audience that Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote somewhere that he wanted a poet to come and sing in the American idiom. She believed this to be Bob Dylan. The Boston University professor and literary critic Christopher Ricks talked about Dylan’s brilliant use of rhyme. Patti Smith said Dylan’s songs helped her, a wallflower, come into bloom. Then she sang "Dark Eyes" a cappella, and I almost started crying. Greg Brown and Rickie Lee Jones each came out separately with their acoustic guitars and covered a Dylan song, as did Tracy Chapman. The final performance of the night was from the man himself, in a recording from the Steve Allen Show, when he played "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol."

In the hallway of Town Hall there’s a framed newspaper review of Dylan’s 1963 performance. He was 21 years old. In the review, the critic referred to Dylan as part Woody Guthrie and part Rimbaud. I’m not sure if this comparison has ever been made about any other musician or will ever be made again. But I do know this critic saw Dylan for what he was to become, a singing poet of unquestionable influence and genius. These fellow artists coming together to pay their respects at Town Hall gave proof to this fact, and I was fortunate to witness it. Thank you, Bill. And thank you, Bob.