- 06 May 10
Bob Dylan at Slane - The music, the magic, the mayhem and so much more...
The morning of the Bob Dylan concert in Slane, the reporter arose, ambled downstairs, pottered about for a bit and a being a creature of habit, absently switched on the T.V.
It was the usual Sunday morning fare - a religious service here, an Open University programme on advanced calculus there. He pinched a third button and a page from the BBC's Ceefax service filled the screen. It was a news item about - what's this? - a riot . . . Co. Meath Village . . .
The reporter did a double-take and woke up with a start. The BBC Ceefax were telling him that fans arriving for Bob Dylan's concert in Slane had rioted the previous night and that some twenty people had been injured.
Half and hour later, he walked into his local shop where the headlines on the Sunday papers confirmed the news. The accompanying stories spoke of sieges, assaults and the inevitable "drink and drug-crazed youths". The police were totally outnumbered - the official figure was 24 on duty, though, later, at the gig itself, a cop casually said that there were only 12 in the village - and the army were apparently put on standby in Dundalk.
Reports as to how and why the violence started vary, but what's obvious is that it took everyone by surprise. after all, two years previously the Rolling Stones played in Slane without any major incident before or during the show, so why should an audience - or more accurately a small section of an audience - coming to see Bob Dylan act any differently?
People may point to any number of factors which sparked off or contributed to the trouble in Slane - one report was that it started when some people were refused service in a pub, another that it was the result of an attempted arrest by the police - but the bottom-line is that the kind of violence that did erupt on Saturday night is essentially random in its nature. The enquiries, inquests and post-mortems will continue for a long time but, as the reporter set off on the first leg of the journey to Slane on Sunday morning, the only real conclusion he could draw was that, as far as the media were concerned, Bob Dylan's Irish gig had gotten off to an unscheduled start, 12 hours too soon.
On the approach road to Slane village, Gardai stopped on-coming traffic, explained about the riot in the village the previous night, and admonished one tired journalist to take care. Rumours that a thousand people had been involved in the assault on the Garda station were quashed by Radio 2 news reporter Richard Crowley. Having been there throughout the night and the morning, he estimated that no more than 200, 300 people had in fact been involved.
At 9.30, the village centre was wiping sleep from its eyes, and examining the pile of human and material debris it contained. Windows were inevitably boarded up, broken glass littered the pavements. People, still drunk and scarred from the previous evening's outburst staggered around in search of milk, water, cider.
As the morning wore on, thousands of fans arrived in Slane in waves of denim. While ticket touts and hawkers did their business, the In Tua Nua van passed almost unnoticed through the village centre.
By 11.30 a.m. the crowds were streaming into Slane from every and any angle; it seemed like a good time to head for the concert site.
Into the site you go and as always, even at this early stage there's a crackle of excitement in the air.
First impressions? The stage isn't anything as extravagant as the one the Stones used - there are no catwalks on either side, simply because Bob Dylan ain't Mick Jagger - but it's impressive nonetheless. The flags of various countries which frame the stage, with the tricolour in the middle, tell you that this isn't the Bob Dylan tour of Meath - it's the Bob Dylan European tour come to Ireland; an international occasion. Stand for a while and take it all in: the huge green amphitheatre with the castle perched high on the right, and, down below, the sparkling River Boyne running straight behind the stage before curving away to the left behind tree-shrouded hills. Not for the first time it strikes you that Slane must be among the most beautiful festival locations in the world.
At precisely 1.00 p.m. In Tua Nua filed on stage . . . with a mere 10,000 on the site they had to break down the barrier of confusion and apathy that always greets the first band on the bill. Judging by the response they received - not tumultuous but respectable nonetheless - they succeeded.
In Tua Nua have an insinuating sound that creeps up on you unawares. The toughness of guitarist Ivan O'Shea, bassist Jack Dublin and Drummer Paul Byrne is complimented perfectly by the deft Celtic touches of electric violinist Steve Wickham and uillean pipe player Vinny Kilduff. Add to this the delicate textures of Martin Clancey's keyboards and singer Lesley Dowdell's fine voice, and the result is a most unique musical concoction.
By the time they finished, the people were still arriving in droves but In Tua Nua had impressed a sufficient number of people to warrant deeper investigation. On this showing, they gave a lot, and promised a great deal more.
Well you see some pretty weird things, but what's this? Like some bizarre incarnation of the gods of Bru na Boinne, the salmon-King of the Boyne Valley, the blighted looking geezer ambled through the crowd swathed in Hawaiian style river weed. River weed!! What the hell was he on?
In the inner sanctum of the castle - the room where the v.i.p.'s could eat and drink for free - Bono of U2 was preparing for his first ever interview in which he would ask the questions.
And talk about a baptism of fire - his subject, in a project undertaken specially for Hot Press, would be none other than Bob Dylan. The precise timing of the summit meeting was still uncertain since Dylan had opted to bus it to the gig rather than come in by chopper. While he waited, Bono took suggestions to add to his own list of enquiries. Amongst other things, he thought he might ask Bob about hats. "He seems to be a man who knows a good hat", mused the singer as he fingered the wide brim of his own familiar fedora.
Opinions are firmly divided by Santana's lengthy set.
Devotees of the man's extended instrumental workouts were unanimous in their praise, but, summarising the views of the unconverted was the guy on the hill, who, when asked by an acquaintance how long he'd been at the site, replied "After Satanta, I feel I've been here about five years". Unconcerned with such expressions of disaffection, the hordes packed tightly down the front pogoed with as much abandon as their compressed situation would allow.
On the lawn in front of the castle, the rumour industry was in full swing - as it invariably is on such occasions. "Did you hear that Van Morrison is here? He's going to play with Dylan". The experienced ear deflects such information because it's heard the same kind of thing countless times before. What odds Jimi Hendrix is going to join Bob for "All Along The Watchtower?"
Sadly, one word of mouth rumour proves all too tragically true. At first the information was sketchy - there'd been a drowning, apparently during Santana's set - and only later would the grim details be confirmed: 19 year old Kevin Leonard from Kilmainham in Dublin had been swept away in the strong current of the Boyne. Members of the Drogheda Canoe Club, who had earlier provided a pleasant scenic distraction as they rowed up and down the river behind the stage, shortly afterwards found his body in ten feet of water. The parallels with Lisdoonvarna when 7 people drowned in nearby Doolin, were horribly uncanny, and the rest of the day, despite its musical riches, would be tainted with tragedy for all who knew about the young man's death a matter of yards away.
Lord Henry Mountcharles was looking visibly strained. He was tired and had the appearance of someone on the verge of becoming emotional. Instead he answered what must have been the same questions for the umpteenth time - once more with feeling.
"I was scared," he admitted "I was scared. When I heard what was going on , I went down the town to see for myself. Half and hour previously, everything had been fine. People were drinking and so on but it's essentially good humoured. Now there was bedlam. This guy came running over to me and he said 'Do you want to keep your car' - he had a Northern accent - 'Do you want to keep your fucking car? 'Cos if you do, I'd get it out of here. Now'".
He makes the observation that a lot of those involved seem to be from the North. "They're used to open confrontation with representatives of the law", he says. "What they can't get into their skulls is that the police in the South represent a totally different social and political order to the RUC".
Now and then his language slips into outright vitriol. "If you asked 99% of the people who came to the gig what they thought of the pigs who were responsible for what happened in Slane last night, they would express the abhorrence we all feel. There was just a tiny proportion of troublemakers involved".
Will there be another gig at Slane? "I don't know", he says, looking genuinely lost. "The thing is that people want to come to gigs like this. There are over 50,000 people out there who are enjoying themselves in a completely orderly peaceful manner".
The thought offered some consolation. But deep down Henry Mountcharles must have understood that the opposition had been provided with the ammunition they had been looking for. And that, as a result, future gigs in Slane would hang on a very thin thread indeed . . .
In the background, someone was ordering strawberries and cream . . .
Handclaps and backpats for Senator Michael D. A popular man, rare for a politician today. Maybe it's because he's honest. The photographers close in: click/click/click/click. As they disappear, he turns around and swings off his jacket.
"Now I can relax", he says and gives three short skips. The bop can't stop.
Reggae is the perfect music for grooving on a Sunday afternoon and UB40 are more than capable ambassadors of rhythm - which is why their set is ranked by many people as second only to Dylan's on the day.
The Birmingham band opened by dealing straight from the top, hit-wise - "One In Ten" following "Red, Red, Wine" and "Cherry, Oh Baby" - and thereafter fired up the pace in fine style, the guitar, drum and bass line coming over loud and clear while Astro skanked and rapped and Brian Travers' sax beefed up the melodies. They also brought on the first special guest of the day - namely, Mickey Dread, whose charismatic exuberance was evident as soon as he hit the boards. "More bass! More bass!" he beseeched, "so I can shake down the stage", and after that, neither the band nor the bopping masses looked back.
Whooooooosh!! Whooooooosh!! Squads and squalls! Fuckitfuckitfuckit!! Oh why does that hewer up on stage send hundreds of gallons spurting out over me? Whooooooosh, uhn, not again . . . Whooooooosh. Aagh!!
Soaked to the core, like soaked. This is no fun at all. Really, you pay your £12.50 and some bollocks up there pisses all over you.
Now, in America, where the temperature goes up to 100 degrees at gigs like this, it's a real valuable thing to do. But here? As the shadows lengthen and the cold Irish night wind rustles up ripples on the fatal Boyne, no sir. It's pneumonic. So blow it out your ass.
In the interval between UB40 and Bob Dylan, a rather harassed looking journalist hurried by. He stopped for a breather. "Jeez, I didn't think I'd actually have to work here", he explained, "but now there's the drowning on top of the riots". He screamed a bit and away he flew.
While the music provided an effervescent carnival backdrop outside, the politicians on site ate and drank enthusiastically in the castle. Alexis Fitzgerald sent a glass smashing to the floor.
"Bloody idiot", he joshed. "You can't take him anywhere". Mary Harney, who would later be embraced by the bounteous affections of Eamon McCann, sat happily among a group of political rivals. Mary Flaherty, a former Junior Minister stood waiting for a glass of white wine. In a world of her own, she gave an unconscious wiggle - a sexy wiggle. Her glass of wine arrived.
Dick Burke stayed longest. Did he have an interest in Bob Dylan? "Oh I'm only the chauffeur today", he admitted. "My children are out there enjoying themselves". How were things shaping up in relation to the Commissionership? He did an up and down motion with his hands and smiled suavely: mostly the hand went down.
Would Garrett Fitzgerald shaft him? "Oh I wouldn't put it in such personal terms. They have their own pressures to answer to". At the suggestion that he was being supremely diplomatic not to put it in personal terms, he laughed "I want them to make their decision. Until then I am a Commissioner and I keep my counsel,. But once they make that decision then" - his gesture was dramatic - I am a free man. Then I will act".
A free man - and a determined one? "Yes!" Have you any plans? "I certainly have". Now what might they be, Garret? Charlie?
"Tomorrow I'm going to wake up and wonder if this was all real" said Alison, Bono's wife. Standing in a ring of caravans backstage, where crew and band members sat at polite, sun-shaded tables drinking beer, you could hardly imagine you were in the presence of Bob Dylan. That was what it was all about, after all, being in the presence of Bob Dylan. He's a person, a name, an image that conjures up the supernatural, something more than human. He's stepped onto a plateau where everything he does is secondary to everything he is, and everything he is has been lost in the glare of everything we want him to be. Bob Dylan - there's a name to conjure with.
Bono and Ali had just been sitting talking with him. In one of those caravans - how could Dylan remain concealed in a caravan? You'd expect him to shine through the thin walls like they were transparent! Bono had given Dylan a copy of Flan O'Brien's The Third Policeman and Dylan had given Bono and hour he would never forget. In this business, meeting heroes can become passe, blase - Tom Waits bought me a drink, Paul Weller shared a sandwich with me - but Bono's eyes were shining.
"If someone had told you six years ago, in school, that you'd get a chance to meet and exchange views with Bob Dylan, you wouldn't have been able to believe them", I said. He just grinned. We were chatting on the lawn in a small group when I noticed someone had sidled up beside him, someone old, slightly flabby, his black coat hanging open, his bare chest and face covered in hideous, thick orange make-up, his baggy eyes marked by thick black mascara. "Why don't we just get a photo taken here", he said in a low, drawling, stoned-sounding voice as he put an arm around Bono and a diminutive girl from MTV. Bob Dylan!
The earth didn't move, time didn't stand still. It never does. He looked paunchy, wrinkled like an old orange peach, not altogether with it. I didn't know whether my heart should be leaping or sinking. I guess you forget that even the more human are only human really. "He looks so old", I said to Alison and two young Jewish-American guys I assumed were from MTV.
"Sometimes I think heroes should always be kept at a distance, you know? Real people aren't heroic enough!" The two MTV guys just looked at me blankly. As Dylan moved off and and a gathering entourage followed, Alison started laughing. "You were dropping enough clangers there" she said'. "Those were Dylan's sons you were talking to!"
Dylan was somewhere in the distance, strapping on a guitar, beginning to look mean, beginning to look alert, beginning to look heroic.
Taking a long tracking shot from the top of the crowded hill to the back of the stage; how the scene shifts! There's fifty thousand people in accelerating stages of exultation as you get closer to the man himself. At the front, they're crammed together in a shouting, sticky, sweating t-shirt mass. Across the thin fence five feet in front of the stage roadies in blue Dylan Tour shirts drag the faint and fainted. The activity is frantic but under control, muscles bulge, chests expand as they lightly pass each unconscious form to the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. The prettier and more scantily dressed girls are allowed to remain in front with the burly crew but everyone else is ferried hurriedly under the stage on stretchers, revived with water by the hard working and over dressed Brigade and escorted out into the crowd by backstage security.
Dylan blasts on oblivious, watched from the wings by the chosen celebrities and figgers with the precious passes, while the less fortunate stand in front of the huge speakers, getting a close look but doing severe damage to their eardrums. (One middle aged man in a black suit attempts to solve this problem by sticking cigarette butts in his suffering ears.)
As the camera tracks beyond the activity, behind the stage, beyond the ambulance-brigade, the scene appears to shift absurdly to a gentle, Sunday picnic, as family and crew, the blase extremes of the touring entourage, sit in the sun in front of their caravans, drinking free booze and eating their Sunday dinners. A screaming, half-naked skin-head is dragged past by six security guards and no-one looks twice.
The food is delicious!
No pomp, no announcements, no apocalypse, no attempt to wind'em up, just not there one moment and there the next. Looking good, theatrical, make-up, long frock-coat, big black boots, like some demented backwoods preacher or patent medicine salesman. W.S. Walcott incarnate. That's Bob Dylan up there, and nobody else.
God said to Abraham, kill me a son, Abe said maan, you must be putting me on. "Highway 61" cruises out mobile and tough, as surreally comic and fresh as it was - Jesus Christ, all of 18 years ago, and back-to-back with 1984's "Jokerman . . ."
This is it - he's into his back pages and his front pages, and they're all coming up trumps. (Ahha! Not perhaps a wild west preacher, nor a traveling salesman, but a gambler. The Jack of Hearts himself).
"All Along The Watchtower", "Just Like A Woman", "Licence To Kill", "I And I", "Maggies Farm" . . . (That one must have gone down a storm in Britain) . . . the music does all the talking, there's no bombast, no pomp. It's an absolute refusal to engage in rabble-rousing and manipulation. No hand-clappng and hymn-singing and how-you-all-feeling, and windups. There were a whose bunch of songs where the likes of Rod or Queen or whoever would have had the crowd singing along, fulfilling the expectations and conventions of songs like "Just Like A Woman", "Hard Rain", "It's All Right Ma" or, especially "The Times They Are A-Changing", buy Dylan changed all the phrasing so that massed kop-style participation was just about impossible . . .
He went even further with "Tangled Up In Blue", in which he completely changed the storyline, the chords, the whole perspective and breathed new life into "Shelter From The Storm", "Ballad Of A Thin Man", "Outlaw Blues" and "Twist of Fate".
On the other hand, he played the great aqueous aging beauty "To Ramona" dead straight. That's the way it goes - Dylan is too mercurial and elusive to pave the pathways with gold. This is the way he sings 'em, and if it's different to the last time, well, he's different too. Nothing for granted.
It's a courageous and dignified stance in this mega-homogenous time, and Dylan, at 43, looks like someone who can stand his past and present face-to-face without flinching. Certainly "Every Grain Of Sand" sounded fine leading into "Like A Rolling Stone", which closed the performance proper.
But it's probably for the 10 song encore that this gig will be remembered, firstly as Dylan and his acoustic stitched some things into the record, with the great picaresque gypsy anthem "Mr. Tambourine Man", the seminal anti-war song "With God On Our Side", "North Country Fair" and a radically altered "Twist Of Fate", (boasting the first really great solo from Mick Taylor) and secondly as he brought on his special guests . . .
The roar of fulfilment and joy as he introduced Van Morrison was like a huge tidal wave of release, all those years with all those albums, two critical figureheads of a generation, up there together. Van singing Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" which he recorded 15 or 16 years ago, and Dylan playing along on Van's "Tupelo Honey". A great moment, for all sorts of reasons, most of them emotional.
But it was good to see two people who'd been singing before half the audience was born, up there proving that you can put on weight, get lines around your eyes, lose some hair, lose some speed but still continue to say something as long as you have something to say. That age is only an age, and not death, and, as Van Morrison quoting Samuel Becket, said "I can't go on . . . but I'll go on".
The Jack of Hearts pulled one more ace from his sleeve - Bono and Leslie Dowdall of In Tua Nua to scat along on "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat" - Steve Wickham on fiddle was another guest - before a great "Tombstone Blues", "The Times They Are A-Changing" and "Blowing In The Wind".
Well, the more they change, the more they remain the same. This was an affirmation, a welcome return for one of folk-rock's true giants, and the only possible antidote to the rest of the weekend's darker passages . . .
(Just then a bolt of lightening struck the castle out of shape. And while everybody knelt to pray, the drifter did escape . . .) . . .
Two mini-buses had pulled up into a newly cordoned off area behind the stage. A motorcycle policeman sat, engine idling, at their head. As the ringing tones of "Blowing In The Wind" faded in the breeze a small crowd of band and families with Dylan at the centre hurried down the steps and boarded the coaches. The engines roared to life and within moments they were gone.
Bono and Alison walked towards the castle, people stopping to congratulate him on his ad-lip verses. "How'd you think it sounded?" he asked, uncertain of what he'd done as the hullabaloo died down. "It went well", I said. "You had the spirit if not the word of the song!" Bono laughed: "He asked me if I knew 'Blowing In The Wind' and I just said 'yes!'" He'd sung onstage with Bob Dylan!
"Dylan's sons are big U2 fans!" said Bono with an almost triumphant smile. "He was being quite cool about it, 'I've heard your records, we've got them at home', but they were telling me afterwards that we were one of their favourite bands!"
I thought of the two boys, one probably in his early twenties, looking like a thick set version of his father, the other younger and finer featured. What a strange world they must have grown up in. If this was just a day in the life . . .
The fields were emptying quickly: spread with litter and small smokey fires it looked, in the fading light, like some forgotten scene from Apocalypse Now - beautiful, strange, otherworldly. As we left the castle behind a drunken journalist kept asking: "Was that really Bob Dylan down there? How do I know it wasn't just someone in disguise? How do I know it was him?"
The Day After . . .
The day began with Donie Cassidy's pathetic attempt to jump on the bandwagon. No one really cared or cares what Donie was or is suggesting - the big question is will the Morrisseys draw 50,000 people to Castlepollard next year? More immediately however, his sticky intervention is symptomatic: if it wasn't a bandwagon, Donie wouldn't be jumping on it. This is how a lot of people are feeling in the sticks - rock concerts should be banned.
The backlash in Slane is understandably intense. The national newspapers, whose only commitment is to 'the story' both magnify and compound the hostility. With three reporters apiece on the ground, surely someone could be found who would represent a counter-balance? Not on your life. In the eye of the storm, promoter Jim Aiken is inevitably reticent. A lot of money, in terms of compensation, damages or increased insurance premiums may ride on not saying the wrong thing. As long as they don't, their position, and that of the unfortunately embattled Lord Henry Mountcharles, seems impregnable.
"Aiken Promotions ran the concert in Slane Castle on July 8th", the official statement went. "Aiken Promotions were not responsible for the camping sites in or near the town. Aiken Promotions were not responsible for the bar extension in the town on Saturday night. Aiken Promotions did not decide the manning levels for the Gardai. Therefore we cannot be held responsible for what happened in the town on the night before the event. There were 50,000 people at the concert and there were no incidents of violence there. Our security held tight before, during and after the concert. This does not mean that we're washing our hands of the problems that arose, but there is a limit to what we can do. I don't think anyone could dispute the fact that the gig itself was very well run."
An experience festival-goer can only concour. But whether the gigs will go ahead as planned in Slane again depends largely on the goodwill of the local people. "Jim was very upset when he heard what happened" a close associate told Hot Press. "He was very upset that he wasn't in Slane to see what happened first hand - he'd gone to Dublin to pick up the artists at the airport. He's very concerned about the villagers and what they feel. It's also true that a lot of people want to attend these concerts and Slane Castle is an excellent site . . ."
That is also irrefutable. And an experienced festival-goer's feeling is that a bit more co-operation, a bit less cashing in and a lot less jumping on the sensationalist bandwagon would go a long way when there is a next time. As there must be. When 50,000 people can come to see Bob Dylan, as 70,000 did to see the Rolling Stones - that is a body of public opinion that can't be ignored or told to lie down and shut up. As long as the appropriate lessons can be learned, the violence in Slane can and should be forgotten. And Donie Cassidy should stick to writing classics like "Who Shot J.R. Ewing" . . .
He doesn't linger in ireland. Next morning I'm in Dublin Airport about to board for London. I look around and see Bob and Jesse passing, getting priority treatment boarding for Shannon and then New York. Still wearing his stage shirt, without his make-up, he looks stronger and firmer. It's Jesse who has the geezer's black leather jacket.
Three of Dylan's band, Greg Sutton, Mick Taylor and Colin Alan take the London flight. In the bus at Heathrow, Alan speaks of plans for later touring, and tells an American: "Bob's a sweetheart."
Additional reporting: Liam Mackey, Dermot Stokes, Neil McCormick and Tony Clayton-Lea.
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