For a time, Kansas City was on Bob Dylan’s mind more than it was on his itinerary.
In late 1966 and early 1967, after his conversion from folk music firebrand to rock and roll messiah, Dylan retreated from public life and the myriad meanings projected on him by the zealots who hung on every word dangling from every precipice of every one of his mid-sixties songs — songs that established a new modern lyricism that imbued popular music with the sort of imagery previously left to the poets.
In the months after his mysterious July 29, 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan wrote songs at his home in Woodstock, New York, and began to record material that years later would emerge as The Basement Tapes, a playful, rustic and rollicking career highlight that marked a sharp departure from the urgent and modern sound cultivated on the landmark albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde that he released in 1965 and 1966.
But not all of the songs written in that period were recorded or even finished. Some were simply lyrics captured on paper, set aside and undiscovered until recent years, when artists including Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford wrote music and recorded them for an album called Lost on the River that was released in November 2014.
Two of those songs found a sense of place in a town where Dylan had never yet performed. “I love you dear, but just how long/Can I keep singing the same old song?/I’m going back to Kansas City,” he wrote in one, as if were returning home. In the other, the narrator spends “Six months in Kansas City/Down on Liberty Street,” as if he had found freedom in exile.
Why was Kansas City on the man’s mind back then? In an interview with NPR, T-Bone Burnett, who produced Lost on the River, speculated that Dylan was telling his audience “I played these songs, and you want me to keep playing them. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going back to the blues. I’m going to Kansas City.’ I think Kansas City is such a seat of the blues, really.”
So Dylan abandoned what he called “that thin, that wild mercury sound” in favor of something earthy and elemental, a style that looked back as much as it looked forward. And the product of his mind’s-eye visit to the place on the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark had once landed was not only The Basement Tapes, but John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1970), albums that conjured the spirit of a deep and rural American music.
But Dylan didn’t bring his songs to Kansas City until more than a decade later, when he played Kemper Arena in November 1978. He came back just over a year after that for a three-night stand at the Uptown Theater on his gospel tour, and then again in 1986 with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But it wasn’t until Dylan embarked on his Never Ending Tour in 1988 (which, true to its name, has not ended in the twenty-seven years hence) that Kansas City became a regular destination.
Since then, Dylan has played Kansas City venues twelve times, plus one stop apiece in Lawrence and Topeka in Kansas, and Sedalia and Columbia in Missouri, each close enough for Kansas City-area fans to make an easy trek. The quality of performances has ranged from merely competent to utterly transcendent. But two shows maintain a lingering resonance for the attendee writing these words.
With the notable exception of Oh Mercy, the tremendous album from 1989, Dylan seemed adrift through much of the 1980’s and early 90’s, making records short on memorable songs and dated by trendy production styles. And at a moment when he seemed fully boxed in with no direction out, Dylan did what he had done in 1967. He looked deep into the past for a way forward, and released two albums of traditional folk songs (1992’s Good as I Been to You and the following year’s World Gone Wrong) without a single original composition in the bunch.
These efforts helped him finding his footing, and it was this new old Dylan who visited the Lied Center in Lawrence on April 9, 1994 for an acoustic-leaning performance that saw the man scale the heights of his genius through a set list for the ages. There was a dark mood in the air that night. Kurt Cobain’s body had been discovered the day before, the latest voice of a generation, silenced by his own hand. With barely a word spoken, Dylan deftly and assuredly tore through pillars of his catalog — “All Along the Watchtower,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — rendering each image-rich song as alive as it had ever been. And then he closed with a charge to look elsewhere for answers: “Go melt back into the night, babe/Everything inside is made of stone . . . You say you’re lookin’ for someone/Who’ll pick you up each time you fall . . . But it ain’t me, babe/No, no, no, it ain’t me babe/It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.”
Those in attendance that night saw the beginning of the modern, triumphant Bob Dylan. His next studio album, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year and topped the Village Voice critics poll, proved to be the first in a string of classic records, including Love and Theft, which was released on September 11, 2001. On that album, Dylan revisited Kansas City in song for the first time in more than three decades. The song “High Water (For Charley Patton),” a tribute to the Delta bluesman, begins with a visit to the seat of the blues:
High water risin’—risin’ night and day
All the gold and silver are bein’ stolen away
Big Joe Turner lookin’ east and west
From the dark room of his mind
He made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine
That song, one of his modern classics, remains a staple of Dylan’s shows, and he played it in October 2002, when he visited Kansas City’s Uptown Theater. In contrast to the concert in Lawrence in 1994, Dylan and his band were loud and electric, propelled by the twin-guitar attack of Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, who led searing takes on “Tombstone Blues,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and a surprisingly faithful version of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” But like the 1994 show, the evening was made poignant by the shadow of mortality. Warren Zevon, one of the few songwriters who could make any claim to being Dylan’s peer, had recently revealed that he was terminally ill with cancer (his famous hour-long farewell on David Letterman’s show came two days after the concert). And Dylan honored him that night with performances of two of Zevon’s compositions, “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Mutineer,” songs that fit seamlessly in Dylan’s river of song.
Bob Dylan is set to return to Kansas City on Sunday, May 10, to play a sold-out show at the Music Hall. He will turn 74 two weeks later, but he continues to turn to new sources for his own reinvention. In February, he released Shadows in the Night, a collection of ten songs originally made famous by Frank Sinatra more than a half-century ago. Despite the seemingly peculiar choice of material, the record is an unqualified success, with a deeply-engaged Dylan finding the feeling within other writers’ words, over the smoky noir of a steel guitar standing in for an orchestra. Dylan has taken the role of senior musical statesman, a one-man oral history dedicated to the preservation of antiquated forms. Or maybe he’s just doing what he did more than twenty years ago, finding his footing in someone else’s songs, preparing for the next chapter of his career.
Michael Atchison’s writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times, The Providence Phoenix and many other places. He is the author of two books, True Sons: A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball and the novel XL, which is available from Amazon. He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.