Night-Hawks at the Nickelodeon
1974-01-09-10, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, ON
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Doing my Rolling Thunder series, one thing I tried to track is what Dylan did during the off hours. This was unusually easy to do, as during the pre-concert daytime he was often out and about filming scenes for Renaldo and Clara.
I figured that wouldn’t really be a part of this tour. The reputation of it is the gang being shuttled from private airport to limo to stage and back again. But, three cities in, Bob has been spotted about town in all three. In Chicago, he caught a set at then Old Town folk club. In Philadelphia, he was seen skating at a local ice rink. No cameras at either of those, so there’s still not the Rolling Thunder-level documentation, but there was for outing number three in Toronto: Bob’s late-night visit to his Band’s old boss.
After the first Toronto show, Dylan and three Band members—Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson—caught the tail end of Ronnie Hawkins’ regular set at local music venue The Nickelodeon. Rolling Stone described the venue as “an eat-drink-and-dance place, with pizza tablecloths, red flowery paper lamps, and a required coat check, just like in all the fancy restaurants in town. It feels like a hustler’s hall, a singles spot where, if you don’t score, there’s always Jingles upstairs, where you can take pictures of guaranteed naked ladies.”
Dylan didn’t get onstage. Hawkins, perhaps sensing it was not gonna happen, made a joke out of it during his set, saying “Now hold on, Bob. I know you’re just itching to get up here and sing. But you can’t. This is my show!”
Dylan reportedly didn’t crack a smile at that line. In fact, both Rolling Stone and the Toronto Star make a point of saying he looked tired or, as the Star kept saying, “gloomy.” To be fair, it was after midnight, and he’d just played a two-plus hour rock show. In the photos, he never takes off his winter coat, scarf, and hat. He’s either cold or ready to make his escape at any moment.
Here’s the play-by-play on Bob’s appearance, by Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres:
Minutes later, at 12:30, an hour and a half since the end of the Dylan concert, the Nickelodeon broke into applause and cheers. Levon, and Robbie Robertson, and Rick Danko, and Bob Dylan, and friends, had passed the checkroom, all their coats, fur caps and mufflers intact. It was a nice little 39th-birthday present for Hawkins, and he leapt through the crowd to exchange warm greetings with Dylan, who wore shades and stayed mostly quiet through the night.
Hawkins jumped onto the stage with his latest congregation — a six-piece outfit that had Bill Graham nodding favorably — and told the buzzing crowd: “They came all the way from L.A. to hear me sing ‘40 Days’!”
Hawkins introduced a special number. “I remember Robbie called it one of Bob’s best songs at one time,” he said, and moved into a mellow country version of “One Too Many Mornings,” one of Dylan’s earlier true-love songs, from 1964. A couple of birthday dedications later, Hawkins was rolling through “Bo Diddley” and worked in a couple of verses of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Dylan nodded and smiled.
After Hawkins’ set, the crowd was quiet, a Nickelodeon full of Dylan-watchers, picture-snappers. I got a good close-up look at him, for the first time, and he looked tired, in no shape to be club-nobbing, but not unapproachable. Later, at two o’clock, while the club tried to kick everybody out, Graham looked to be trying to set up a private jam session, talking soothingly to the people in charge. But they didn’t go for it…
Does Fong-Torres mean the people running the venue didn’t go for the idea of a private Dylan-Band-Hawkins jam? If so, they were out of their mind to miss such an opportunity. More likely though is that Bob himself didn’t go for it. But the after-after-party continued back at the hotel nevertheless. We switch over to this account in Barney Hoskyns Band bio Across the Great Divide:
When the Hawk had finished for the night, he accompanied his old protégés back to the Inn on the Park. As they drove through Cabbagetown, all but buried under the snow, Robbie gazed out of the window at the streets on which he’d played as a child. It was hard not to take stock of the distance he’d come in fifteen years. At the hotel, The Band’s suite was filled with old friends and relatives who’d come to see the show. Dylan retired to a corner to play chess with his friend Louie Kemp, and Garth sang along to a tape of Planet Waves. Ronnie wanted to know why Dylan had been so solicitous towards him. ‘You were one of his earliest idols,’ Levon told him. But it was more than that: Dylan was impressed by anyone who wasn’t overawed by him, and the Hawk seemed to treat him as he would treat any other human being. ‘Ol Bob liked me coz I never kissed his ass,’ says Ronnie. ‘Ah told him I never did understand what he was singin’ about!’
And what of the two Toronto concerts themselves? A number of new songs make their first appearances. In the acoustic set, “Don’t Think Twice” and “Gates of Eden,” both of which would be performed at most of the remaining shows. They also played “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” a song Robertson told Rolling Stone they’d never rehearsed or even discussed. This was in fact the first time Bob ever played the song in a regular concert, though he’d busted it out for special occasions before (Newport ’65 most famously, and Concert for Bangladesh). They wing it pretty well, though you can hear that they’ve never rehearsed it by the fairly tentative playing all around. It wouldn’t get played again on this tour.
But two setlist shakeups were even more significant. One was a wild one-off. The other would change the course of the entire tour.
The wild one-off came on the second night, for the only time Dylan has ever performed “As I Went Out One Morning” live. And not in the acoustic set either; it gets a full-bodied electric arrangement. This one they’d clearly rehearsed. It sounds great, even on a murky audience tape, highlighted by a biting guitar solo by Robbie. So of course Bob never played it again.
The second shakeup is perhaps less exciting on paper, but more significant for the flow of future shows. After testing and discarding three other show-openers—“Hero Blues,” “Hollis Brown,” “Rainy Day Women”—Bob finally finds one that sticks. Strangely, it has long been the show-closer: “Most Likely You Go Your Way.” For the rest of Tour ’74 he would open and close every show with the same exact song, something he’s never done before or since.
On paper, this seems a strange choice. It’s like the first rule of Playing a Concert 101: Don’t play the same song twice. In his book Testimony, Robertson himself notes, “I’d never heard of that before.” But Bob suggested it, so “we gave it a shot.” “It completes a circle in some way,” Dylan himself told Fong-Torres.
One other major thing happened at one of the Toronto concerts. See that photo? Does anything about it look familiar?
Imagine zooming way in on his head. Then flip it horizontally. Add some color. And finally degrade the quality so it looks blurry and dot-matrixy.
If you did all that, the photo might look something—heck, it might look exactly—like this:
Yes, the Blood on the Tracks cover photo was shot at one of these Toronto shows. Paul Till, a first-year photography student at Humber College, took the shot. He did a lot of work to it, hand-coloring it and more (photography enthusiasts can read the details here) and sent a print to Dylan’s office. The label sent him back a check for $300 for the use of the photo, and, a year later, there it was in record stores across the world. It was the first concert he’d ever shot.
Dylan apparently liked Till’s stuff. A photo he shot at Toronto’s Rolling Thunder and similarly manipulated ended up on the cover of this official songbook:
This entry’s gotten longer than intended, but there is one final notable thing about these two Toronto shows: There are a ton of videos! That marks these shows a relatively rarity on this little-videoed tour. Clips of eight different songs, the most of any concert.
That’s the good news. The bad news is: They’re rough. Real rough. Extremely dark, almost unwatchably so at times. Moreover, the video footage itself I’m guessing was originally silent. It’s synced up to sound here, but not very well. A lot of times Bob is singing into the microphone but the audio you hear is instrumental, or vice versa. Unfortunately, Dylan wasn’t making a Renaldo and Clara-style movie this tour (despite Bill Graham telling reporters a live film was in the works), so we gotta take what we can get. And here’s what we can get. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is the best of the bunch by far. “Watchtower” and “It’s Alright Ma” are watchable too, especially the second halves.
Can we get Peter Jackson’s Get Back team to work on restoring these?
Next up: A rare interview in Montreal (paid subscribers only)…