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1986-02-24, Entertainment Centre, Sydney, Australia
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Dylan shows of yesteryear. If you found this article online or someone forwarded you the email, subscribe here to get a new entry delivered to your inbox every week:
#1 song on this date: "How Will I Know," Whitney Houston
#1 movie on this date: Down and Out in Beverly Hills
Times headline on this date: "Philippine Envoys Want Marcos Out"
This is Dylan's greatest show ever.
Can I defend that hot take? Of course not! It's an indefensible take! But my heart feels like it's true, even over my head's vigorous objections ("Prague '95! Toronto '80! Literally any show in ‘66 or '75 or maybe even 2000!"). And what's the point of email newsletters if not to deliver fiery hot takes you can't really defend?
So what the hell, I'll pull a Trump and double down on the fake news that I feel is true: This is Dylan's greatest show ever.
If you're a superfan of a musician, whether Dylan or whoever, you can probably pinpoint a moment that sold you. The moment that pushed you across the line from casual-or-even-pretty-committed fan to obsessive. The moment after which even other people who liked the artist began avoiding bringing them up in conversation with you. This concert is mine.
I wasn't at this show. I wouldn’t even be born for another seven months. But I haven't written about my Dylan-fandom origin story in these dispatches yet, so I guess this is as good a place as any. I'm guessing it aligns with many others.
I saw my first Dylan show on March 5, 2004, at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. I was a junior in high school and, to be honest, I can’t entirely remember why I went. I wasn't a big fan. I remember my dad had recently purchased a few vinyl records on a whim: Highway 61 Revisited, which he'd first owned along with all the others as a Vietnam War-protesting hippie in Maryland, and Love & Theft, just to see what Bob sounded like now. I listened to them a few times. I dug "Tombstone Blues" in particular. When I saw somewhere that Dylan would be performing, I talked my dad into getting us tickets.
Here's where I say I came away from that show a changed man, right? Nah. I didn't really like the show. The only song I recognized was "Like a Rolling Stone," and even that only halfway through. This was during a divisive tour when Bob had, Grateful Dead-style, two drummers, along with an abrasive hot-and-cold guitarist named Freddy Koella. But I didn't know any of that was unusual at the time. My objections were the usual divisiveness of a first-timer seeing Bob live. My friend's mom had taken us to see the latest Simon & Garfunkel reunion a few months prior. That was how '60s-icon shows were supposed to sound.
Something had happened and I didn't know what it was - but I knew enough to realize I didn't know. For reasons I can't quite explain, I set out to discover what I was missing. I went on Kazaa and downloaded the studio version of every song he'd played that night. I thought "Cat's in the Well" must be some big hit - he played it in the encore every show!
At some point I learned I didn't have to stick with the studio versions - I could get a recording of the actual concert I attended. I bought two burned CD-Rs from some shady guy online (little in the world of taping is as verboten as selling such tapes, but I didn't know that then). When he sent them, he included a printout of all the other shows he had for sale. It seemed like this whole world of music I’d had no idea existed. I chose a 1981 show in New Jersey because it was the cheapest (for good reason, as it turned out). I soon discovered CD-R trading - the internet was widespread enough to facilitate these connections, but not yet high-speed enough to put the recordings themselves online - and began to amass a collection.
That long personal preamble leads to this show from Dylan's 1986 tour backed by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I can't remember which I got first, the audio bootleg True Confessions for Carol or the truncated video bootleg Hard to Handle. But every superfan has the moment that pushed them into the deep end. This show was mine.
I almost didn't want to listen to this show again for this project, so large does it loom in my memory. It remains Dylan's Greatest Sh… Okay, I'm not going to say it again. But I needn’t have worried. It is, indeed, really good.
It's hard to think of a higher-energy performance Bob has ever given than when backed by the Heartbreakers and backing vocal quartet The Queens of Rhythm, who, though treated as a historical footnote next to the superstars, regularly steal the show (they do not here include Carolyn Dennis, the backing singer Bob would marry in June; she joined the Dylan/Petty tour in 1987). Over two and a half hours, he mixes amped-up versions of hits, '50s covers, and Empire Burlesque songs that, shorn of the '80s production but not the '80s energy, really leap out of the speakers. Bob belts the hell out of every song, even the acoustic ones. Subtlety may be lacking, but sheer conviction overcomes any lack of nuance.
Though he’s written since about burning out on these late-’80s superstar tours, he seems plenty chipper this evening. Rarely since his acoustic days has Dylan chatted this much on stage. He jokes about "my so-called protest period," makes fun of rock critics, and comments on the current crisis in the Philippines (Ferdinand Marcos would be removed from power only hours after this show). Before "It's Alright Ma" he goes full media critic: "I just read another concert review the other day. It said 'Bob’s sounding like a parody of himself. He sounds just exactly like he’s imitating himself'… I should like to know who I’m supposed to sound like!"
At this point in their careers, Petty was a significantly bigger commercial force than Bob, having incorporated '80s trends more successfully on hits like “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” But Petty only leads four songs - two of them covers. However, he exerts a significant presence throughout, frequently joining Bob at the mic like Little Stephen hollering alongside Bruce Springsteen. Few have dueted with Bob better than Tom on the country chestnut "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know." (Later that year, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits would borrow the idea.) The pairing of Bob and Tom has grown so iconic that last year an Australian tribute band put together an entire show recreating this tour. They even wear the outfits.
And speaking of outfits! The visuals make the show even better, with ten songs - six from this show and four from the next night - officially released soon after on the Hard to Handle videocassette (thankfully, now on YouTube). Bob's dangly earring and leather vest wins second place for “Most '80s Look,” after the matching space-age jumpsuits the Queens of Rhythm are rocking. My only slight distraction was wondering what’s keeping Petty’s top hat in place as he jumps around.
I could go on, but this is already the longest newsletter, so I'll stop there. Let me just say that, after relistening to this show for the first time in a while, I'm convinced. Logic be damned - this is Dylan's greatest show ever.
1986-02-24, Entertainment Centre, Sydney, Australia
Edit: Updated link [FLAC]