Flashback to West Palm Beach, 2003

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We are awakened by an alarm clock set for 5:00, a decision made difficult by the coziness of our private lodgings. But we must be on our way and we are consoled by the knowledge that we’ll be back here for a night’s rest in two days. Good to have friends along the way, along the road.

We head south along the coast through the still dark morning, air already sticky with humidity, down Interstate 95 from Palm Bay to West Palm Beach. Palm to palm. The sun is rising on our left, coming up out of the Atlantic like a child’s balloon. We don’t discuss much, just sip our coffee and watch the passing landscape unveiled in early morning light. It’s become so much like clockwork now, going show to show. Wake up, fill coffee mug, get in car, drive. Get there, wherever “there” is, grab chairs, cards, butt pillows, get in line. Doesn’t matter anymore where we go, we just go. We barely need to think about it, much less talk about it.

Today’s show is a festival, SunFest 2003. We arrive around 7:00. Numerous side streets dead-end in the fenced off festival grounds; we wander around a bit checking various gates until we find Steve laying flat on his back with his head on a neatly folded white towel. This must be the place. Since he called and woke Kait up at 2:30 this morning, I walk over deliberately and kick him to wake him up.

He is nonetheless happy to see us; he jumps up and is immediately in hyper-Steve talking mode. We leave the white towel, spreading it out as a place-saver. Turns out it’s not Steve’s anyway, just something he found when he got there at 2:00 AM and was using as a poor excuse for a pillow. We head down the still mostly deserted street to a Starbucks for more coffee. Steve gets a small coffee, a large cup of ice, and a small empty cup that he fills with half and half, and gives us a detailed analysis of how this is the way he bucks the system and gets the most iced coffee for his money. He also tells us that he spoke with a guy working security at the festival a little while ago; evidently the dude said that if Steve would slip him a small donation he’d let him in early, like at 8:30. Gates are supposed to open for the day at 10:00.

We get back to the line and soon another group of people shows up, festival regulars who come every year. They tell us that there are chairs set up here, unlike most similar events where it’s all lawn. Walking around to look in through fences, it appears they’re right. As we’re walking the fenced-in perimeter to peer inside, we also encounter the security guard who tried to strike up a deal with Steve. Evidently it’s not an exclusive arrangement because he tells us the same thing: if we come to where he is at 8:30 and slip him a little cash he’ll let us in this back gate that he’s “guarding.” Well that’s very generous, I tell him, but how do we know we’re not gonna get in there and get promptly booted out, while he’s a little richer and we’re sent to the back of the line at the gates?! No, no, he insists, no one’s going to ask you anything once you’re inside, it’s very lax. So we negotiate a fee of $10 and tell him we’ll be back at 8:30.

A three-way huddle is called for. As I see it, we have a few options, none without risk. I’m not convinced at all that it’s a safe bet that we won’t be made to leave once we’re inside. What’s this guy care? He probably gets off work at 10:00 and can pocket the money and not be around for us to fault if we get caught. We’re first in line; maybe we should just wait it out and go in at the proper time. On the other hand, if this guy’s striking up deals with us, what’s to say he’s not doing the same with everyone who walks by, and someone’s bound to take him up on it. So that means we kind of have to do it, right? Maybe just one of us could go in early.

In a few minutes the guy behind us in line tells us that he has had a conversation with a security guard around the corner and…yeah, we know the rest. He’s prepared to go in with blankets and save the whole front row for him and his friends and from what he’s saying he wants the right side of the row, which is against a fence and therefore less trafficked by people walking past, best spot at the festival. Well, that’s the good side for watching Bob so that settles it. If he’s going in we’d better go in, and it may as well be all of us, for strength in numbers. His friends are going to wait outside and hopefully if we get removed we’ll be able to just get back into line at the front. This guy seems to think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll get kicked out though.

So, at the appointed time we rendezvous with the entrepreneurial security guard. Kait slips him a ten, I do the same. By the time Steve is opening his wallet a golf cart is rolling by with some festival workers aboard and the guard hisses, “Not now, man! Put away the money!” Steve does just that and takes advantage of the guard’s sudden confusion and alarm to slip in for free, truly for free because he doesn’t even have a ticket yet and was planning on buying one at the gate when they opened.

Now we’re in, and begin making our way to the stage somewhere between a walk and a run because we don’t want to draw undue attention to ourselves by tearing for it at full speed. But the other guy who paid off the guard is progressing ahead of us at a good trot, so we speed up. Past the fried food tents with their as yet unheated vats of oil, past the vacant Captain Morgan’s Rum tent whose acquaintance we will make later, toward the rows of chairs and the stage. The chairs are fenced off and the other guy has gone around the long way; we jump the fence and beat him to the front row, grabbing the four seats farthest to the right, three for us and one for Chandler who will come later. Whew.

As soon as we’re sitting, however, we look around nervously and feel like it’s only a matter of time before someone official spies us and asks what the hell we’re doing there. It’s just us, parked in the front row, still more than an hour before gates open. Bound to look suspicious. The only other people around, at this early hour, are a few festival workers beginning to trickle in, milling around on the perimeter. This is the last day of this three day music festival, and it’s clear that they saved cleanup from last night’s event for this morning. The garbage cans are overflowing and the rows of chairs are all askew, with seats in some areas knocked completely over. Must have been a rowdy crowd.

So we decide, less out of the goodness of our hearts than out of a fear of being questioned and subsequently escorted out if we’re just sitting around, to put ourselves to work. Maybe it’ll make us look like we’re supposed to be here. We begin by righting the chairs and putting them back into rows. All is going well when, about fifteen minutes into this activity, we hear someone yelling and look up from our task to see a guy standing next to a pick up truck on the outside of one of the fences that separates the festival grounds from an adjacent street, and he’s yelling something to us. Shit, I think, they’re onto us. As we stop our work and look over at him with expressions of feigned innocence (just doing our jobs, sir), he repeats what he was yelling and this time I catch it. “Hey!” he shouts. “We got a drop off here!”

Wait, he’s not busting us at all, he’s got a delivery for us. Well, for someone. We’re on our way, sir. We walk over to where he is to see what he’s got. We quickly get the lowdown: he’s from a local radio station that ran some kind of a contest, the prize being two plush leather armchairs. He’s got them in his truck because the winner gets to watch the show from the front row in these chairs which are then delivered to their home! This guy is asking us where the chairs should go and needs help unloading them.

Meanwhile someone who actually works here has come over to open the delivery gate that the truck’s pulled up to. My heart catches again at this, our first encounter with a festival official. But all he does is open the gate that the truck is pulled up to, with barely a look to us. Guess we must look like we have it under control. The radio station pickup truck driving guy pulls in and drives across the field up to the front of the stage, by the rows of chairs we’ve been working on. We walk back over there, and notice that Bob’s crew has arrived and is beginning to set things up on stage. This should be interesting.

We need to decide where the chairs go, because the guy is awaiting our instruction. Let’s see. Mr. Dylan is supposed to be set up right here to the left of center so, yes let’s just move a few of these chairs over this way and, yeah, this looks like a good spot right here. Kait and I hoist a chair from the truck bed and into position in the front row, just as Chris, Al, Jules, and others are walking out onto the stage to start their day’s work. They stop in their tracks and watch us, shaking their heads in disbelief, probably thinking, “What, now they brought their own chairs!?” Hey, you know, it’s an all day festival, gotta be comfortable while we wait for Bob.
The easy-chair task completed, we get back to straightening the folding chairs. It’s a little after 9:00 and over 80 degrees and between the humid heat and the exertion I’ve already sweated through my tank top. When the chairs are almost all set upright and into nice neat rows, we are joined by a couple of official volunteers, with red shirts and name badges.

A gray haired man inquires, “So, who are you with?”

We respond, “Oh…uh…we’re just volunteers.”

“Well, me too,” he continues, like that goes without saying. “But who are you volunteering with?”

An interesting question, and one that neither Kait nor myself is equipped to answer. After a second Kait replies, “Well we’re, um, independent volunteers.”

We bustle away before he can ask any more questions, mumbling something about another job we need to get right on. Steve has somehow got his hands on a roll of garbage bags and is beginning to remove full bags from the garbage cans and line them with these new ones. Kait joins him in the task while I grab a trash bag and begin picking up cups, napkins, and other refuse from the day before that litters the grounds. A golf cart speeds by and two festival officials smile and give me a little wave like, keep up the good work. I smile and nod. I’m beginning to wonder how they would have gotten everything done that needed to be done in time, if not for us.

Then we’re done with garbage detail with still about 15 minutes before gate time. We walk around trying to look important and like we belong. I stop by the first aide tent for water and some little packets of sun screen, it’s already a real scorcher. I walk by the soundboard being set up; Chris is there and comments, “You have to work for your spot today, huh?” and I’m thinking, we work for our spot every day and compared to what we usually go through with the line and all its attendant stress, hell, this is a piece of cake. I’d much rather get in early for the price of a little hard labor. A guy recruits me to help him load a bunch of flattened cardboard boxes onto a golf cart for recycling. Then, finally, people start coming in the gate, it must be 10:00 and we did it, we’re home free! We reconvene at our seats, the best in the house, and congratulate each other on a job well done.

What a funny start to this day! Recounting the last couple hours, we realize that Steve didn’t pay the guy to get in…he’s hasn’t had to pay anything at all because he never even bought a ticket. We, on the other hand, each paid $12 a ticket and kicked down $10 for early admission. We convince Steve it’s only fair that he make up the difference in expenditure to us in margaritas; we settle for rum drinks because apparently Captain Morgan is a sponsor of this festival and those are what’s served. We’re in line for the very first ones, as soon as the tent is open for business.

Somewhere during the course of this day is born a new identity for Steve. Steve is prone to nicknames, being a guy who likes to assume alter-egos and talk in weird voices. But this one sticks. It’s hot as hell and as I’ve already mentioned he is charged with the mission of supplying a steady stream of rum drinks. From one of these drink runs he also returns with a large cup of ice – just what we need! We dive into it greedily, rubbing it on our temples, the back of our necks, legs, shoulders, down our shirts and shorts. Steve of course assists whenever we let him and when the cup is empty he dutifully fetches more. It’s a happy arrangement, enabling us to maintain in this heat and affording Steve major turn-on opportunities. After we’ve been out there four, five, six hours in the blazing heat we even let him pour whole cups of ice water on our heads. He leaves and returns with ice unceasingly, all day long. He becomes…Icy. Icy The Clown. Icy, The People’s Clown.

Midway through the day our old friend Chandler shows up, with more hair than when we last saw him. He now has a steady job selling mattresses, so this show and tomorrow night will be it for him. In between drinking and clowning around with him and Icy, we’re subjected to a mostly poor string of acts leading up to Bob. There’s Alex Bach, who’s wearing purple spandex pants and when Chandler shouts out for Like A Rolling Stone toward the end of her set says, “No, we’re not the Rolling Stones.”

Then there’s Shaggy. He’s OK for a couple of minutes but what’s decidedly more entertaining is the crowd he draws to the front. There’s a whole section to our right that’s evidently reserved seating of some kind, but it’s mostly empty for the earlier acts; they invite Shaggy fans to come fill it in while he’s on stage. And fill it in they do. Twelve, thirteen year old barely dressed girls shaking their still budding breasts at Shaggy and screaming hysterically. Younger girls with no breasts yet to shake standing with dads who look around uneasily at these nubile titty shakers, their daughters in a few years. There’s one woman, possibly of legal age, that Shaggy takes a particular shine to. She’s wearing low cut shorts with a little pot belly hanging over and a tiny bikini top and thrusting herself at the Shag-man. She’s obviously got it goin’ on in a way that Shaggy likes, because after his set one of the roadies comes down to the front and leans over to her and says something in her ear; she nods OK and we watch her walk around to the side of the stage where the roadie meets her and brings her back. To be… shagged? Well, that’s rock and roll.

Onto Bob. The sweaty hilarity and unpredictability that have characterized this day so far seem to overflow into the night and Bob’s performance. I don’t know if he’s also been visiting the Captain Morgan tent or if he’s feeling loose and goofy for another reason, but it’s one of those shows where he’s… well, loose and goofy. His hair looks more than usual like it’s been recently slept on, his clothes all seem a little disheveled and untucked, his singing is extremely boisterous if somewhat hoarse, he’s spitting onto the stage enthusiastically and mumbling random commentary between songs. Given some of these indicators it occurs to me that maybe Bob has a cold, or allergies, and maybe he’s medicated. As for us, well, we’re rosy from a day in the sun and glowing from the rum drinks and recently ingested kangaroos. Hot, bouncy, stripped to bikini tops, raring to go.

After a Maggie’s Farm with a couple of enthusiastically flubbed verses (“puts his ciga-lablalaba man and god and war!”) and some excellently protracted phrasing (“ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm “noooooooooooo mooooah”), Bob rasps, “We gonna sorta play a song in A minor now,” his voice even cracking a bit, and they launch into Senor. He sings it kind of like he’s being strangled, with hoarse desperation. Maybe it’s just that cold, the way that the words sound like they’re being wrung out of him, but I find it really suits the mood of the song.

Senor ends and Bob’s plunking on the keys in a random way between songs. He starts talking…to himself? Responding to someone in the audience, or in the band? He kind of chuckles, “OK…huhuh…alright…” Fools around a bit more on the piano and then leads an enthusiastic launch into Stuck Inside of Mobile. This feels like a great choice for tonight. The rollicky beat that’s pure fun, the lyrics peopled with bizarre characters doing bizarre things that Bob’s really in the mood to ham up. I said aaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwww, come on now! A few times Bob seems to wheeze between words, maybe coughing, maybe laughing.

In keeping with the feel of the night, Lay Lady Lay is more comical than romantic in tone, with many bits of phrasing that elevate it to one of the night’s high points. Bob’s acting all eccentric and making me laugh heartily. He also seems to laugh in the middle of a couple of lines: “Whatever colors… ahuhuh…YOU have in yo miiiiiiind!” and “You can have your cake..ahah..and eat it too” as if there’s some private joke there. The song is full of unusual delivery and accented with odd pauses. “Lay across my big brass… uh… bed,” that’s right, bed, like he has to think about it for a second. “You know I long to… REACH for ya, in the niiiiiiight!” It’s all wrapped up in Larry’s gorgeously moody floaty pedal steel playing.

Things Have Changed is good as always. Bob does more of the laughing-or-is-it-coughing that he’s been doing this whole show. This time it sounds almost like panting.
“You can hurt somebody…ahuh..ahuh… and not eeeeeven know it.” He picks up the guitar for Drifter’s and we flail about madly, sweat flying everywhere. A typically great It Ain’t Me Babe really takes off in the last verse with some nice guitar work and Bob hitting bass notes on the “babes.” He ends up staying on guitar for six songs, many more than any other recent show.
Freddie’s doing some commendable guitar solos tonight, shining on Senor, Stuck Inside Of Mobile, Things Have Changed. But at the beginning of Love Sick, he totally fucks up, coming in playing the completely wrong part of the song. It’s absolutely loud and obvious and Tony rushes over with a horrified look on his face and corrects him, gets him on track. And oh man, what a performance it turns into. Bob’s thrown at first by
Freddie’s fuck up, but just as quickly is fully into it and the song takes on a brooding, ominous life. Bob feels the mounting force of the song and enhances it with some impromptu lyrical additions:

“Did I… hear someone tell a lie?
Did I… hear someone’s distant cry?... I don’t know… maybe I did!”

It’s funny because right before they launched into this song, we’d been crying out for Easy Lovin’, something we’d decided it was imperative that we do after listening to the Dallas CD. I don’t know (maybe he did!) if Bob heard us yelling for the song, but George definitely did and shrugged his shoulders and with a sheepish smile as if to say, “Nothing I can do about it!”

Then Bob’s singing, with a lot of soul and urgency, “I see lover’s in the meadow. I said I see…” and suddenly I’m hearing…Icy?! Yeah! I said, Icy! Bob’s calling out to him! Christening his new alter-ego. I nudge him and we crack up.
Next up an extremely appropriate You Ain’t Going Nowhere. Oooeee, are we ever gonna fly, Bob assures us, down into the easy chair. And there’s the easy chair, in fact two of them set up squarely in front of Bob with the lucky contest winners kicking back in them. I find it hard to believe that this song’s in the set by mere coincidence. Either way it makes me laugh.

On Honest With Me, Bob comes in, maybe a little too soon, then stops singing and lets the intro go on extremely longer than usual before coming in again. He’s just kicked back behind the piano tapping his toe and surveying the scene while the band goes around the familiar riff in repeated revolutions. Everyone’s kind of looking around laughing. What’s up with Bob tonight? Hee hee.

Bye and Bye swings superbly. Bob sings a line, then bangs out a few notes in a far out offbeat atonal fashion, turning it into avant-garde piano jazz. Throws in a couple harmonica solos too, rare on this song. Unfortunately this is when a fat drunk woman decides to make her move to the front. She pushes in and proceeds to stand a step behind and right between Kait and me and scream repeatedly. I ask her to stop. She doesn’t. I’m cupping my hands behind my ears, trying to block her out and concentrate on Bob. But she’s so loud, and now she’s leaning all over me too. Well she’s picked the wrong person to fuck with, the wrong fan’s reverie to interrupt, and I call one of the security guys at the rail over and tell him to move her, that she’s out of her seat and is being disruptive. He agrees and begins telling her that she has to leave. She argues, turns to the stage where Bob and Freddy are having an intense instrumental exchange, and shrieks louder than she has yet. I’ve had enough and I yell, “Shut up!” at the top of my lungs. At this point I suddenly realize that Bob, at the same time as he is giving this weird and masterful performance, is watching the whole thing between me and the woman go down, and when I yell at her and security obliges and she is escorted from the front, he fucking busts out laughing at me! In the middle of singing, like first he’s trying to contain it but then he can’t: “Bye and bye, ahuh… I’m breathing a lover’s sigh… uh-hyahyahya!” and he’s shaking his head at the spectacle unfolding in front of him. It’s a strange and surreal realization that, Oh Shit, Bob’s laughing at me. It’s the sweetest sound, deep and warm, from the belly, but my delight at hearing it is accompanied by feelings of embarrassment and minor alarm, like I’ve been caught in the act. The act of getting carried away, fighting with fellow concert-goers. God, I worry for a second, maybe I’m the one being distracting here. But Bob seems to take it stride and he certainly finds it all very amusing. He even shares the joke with George, catching his attention and indicating us with a nod of his head and a chuckle as if to say, check them out, they really take my shit seriously! So I shrug and return the laugh. Least we got rid of that loud bitch.

Before band intros Bob does some more eccentric muttering combined with piano plunking: “Why thank you, uh…(plunk plunk) …see if this keyboard thing works (plunk)… … I hope so … anyway…” The show finishes out with the usual songs played very high-spiritedly. Bob continues to crack himself up during Like A Rolling Stone, shaking his head with a wacky smile and barely contained laughter that he lets go once or twice. You used to laugh about everybody that was… haha…hanging oooowwt! We’ve had a particularly enthusiastic audience today in Jeff, who’s been watching a lot of the show and us from the side of the stage. Granted he’s been trying to be inconspicuous, lurking behind monitors and the like. During Watchtower, however, I look over and he is, no shit, dancing, clapping, just really jamming along in a way I haven’t seen before. As if there’s something in the air tonight and he can no longer hold back.

When the show ends Tommy throws a blue plastic cup that Bob’s been drinking Gatorade out of off the stage. It lands in the pit between the rail and the stage, and it takes me about five minutes to convince a security guy to hand the fucking thing to me. Finally he does and we’re making our way to the outside world when I realize I’ve left my purse hooked around the fence where I was standing. Woops, keep it together, Caroline. We go back to get it, only it’s gotten all tangled up and I am at the moment lacking in hand-eye coordination. This guy is trying to help me, Kait is trying to get him to leave it alone so that she can get it untied, and I’m standing uselessly by in a happy daze, waiting for someone to get the damn thing free.