Listening to Live 1961-2000, it strikes me that the most outrageous act Bob Dylan has ever performed was to sing “Handsome Molly” the way he does here—which is to say the way he sang it in the Gaslight Café in the fall of 1962.
Imagine walking into the Greenwich Village joint in late October, maybe early November. “Folk music” is it, really all that matters now, if you can get your mind off John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev playing chicken with the world, Freedom Riders being beaten and left for dead in Alabama, and whether you’re going home alone tonight. You’ve probably seen Bob Dylan before; of course you’ve heard of him. You’re too cool to admit to admiration, let alone envy. Maybe you’re a little scared. Isn’t it about time for this guy to expose himself for the fraud he has to be?
You came in late, to show you could be here or not be here, just checking the scene on your way to somewhere else. “‘No More Auction Block,’ man,” someone says, indicating what you’ve missed. Sure, like he’s a slave, you’ve seen people try that act before. You feel comforted when he goes into “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos.” He seems a little bored with the song, or the place, or maybe people like you. (Stop thinking that way! He’s got nothing on you!) “Cocaine”—everybody does that, big deal. The guitar is pretty but—anybody can fingerpick, and he’s out of tune. Then “Coo Coo.” For a moment, you’re not quite in the club anymore; the walls are suddenly transparent, and it’s as if you can see the bird flying by outside right through them. Then he says he’s going back to West Texas and you know he isn’t.
And then he’s a hundred years old and you are too. “Oh, I wish I was in London, or some other seaport town—I’d put my foot on a steamboat, sail the ocean ’round.” “Londonnnnnnn-ummmmmm,” he says, as if it isn’t a real place, just a notion, too far away to credit. Now it isn’t the walls that are about to fall away, it’s the ground beneath your feet. He seems to have all the time in the world; the dead are like that. They’re not in a hurry. Anything you can show them, they’ve seen it all before.
He’s just strumming, with a chord to point towards a melody he doesn’t quite bother with, not on the guitar—the voice drifts over the melody, letting you imagine it for yourself. You were about to say it again—anybody can do that strum—but your mind isn’t quite your own anymore. Your memories are not your own. Your memories are now replaced by those of a lovesick man who died before your parents were born. He’s traveling the world, to get away from his memories of Handsome Molly, knowing that the further he goes, the more indelible her face will be. You see it; right now, in this moment, it beckons you towards everything you’ve ever lost.
You leave. This isn’t folk music, not as Mark Spoelstra or Tommy Makem or Joan Baez or Pete Seeger or Martin Carthy make folk music. This is not a gesture. This is not respect. This is not for good or evil. You realize you have the rest of your life to catch up. After all, somewhere, some time, he’ll stumble.
Bob Dylan, Live 1961-2000—Thirty-nine Years of Great Concert Performances (SME, 2001).
———. Live at the Gaslight 1962 (Columbia Legacy, 2005). Includes “The Cuckoo,” “Cocaine,” “West Texas,” and “Handsome Molly.” Notes by Sean Wilentz.
———. “No More Auction Block,” on the bootleg series volumes 1-3 [rare & unreleased] 1961-1991 (Columbia, 1991).
———. Second Gaslight Tape (Wild Wolf bootleg). Includes “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos.”