The decision of the Nobel awards committee to give Bob Dylan its prize for literature has met with a mixed response. Among those applauding the decision is Don Knowler, who remembers the momentous night he finally got to see his hero perform in Townsville and the simple twist of fate which nearly cost him his job.
TANGLED up in blue, I was depressed and angry because I could not get the time off from my job at the Townsville Bulletin to go to a Bob Dylan concert. Dylan was in town and from the moment I saw the schedule for his Australian tour in the late 1990s I urged my younger colleagues on the newspaper to attend. He was after all the patron saint of journalists and I explained to the budding wordsmiths why: Besides being a songwriter of note, Dylan was also a poet who had taken his stage name from the modern Welsh bard Dylan Thomas.
Although Dylan the poet had also been a favourite of mine, Dylan the folk singer had passed me by in the Swinging Sixties. In my teens I had been a Beatles fan and I only grew to appreciate Dylan years later after hearing Dylan’s acclaimed album, Blood on the Tracks.
I was a roving correspondent in southern Africa at the time Blood on the Tracks was released and on long car trips out of my base in Johannesburg, to Swaziland, Botswana, Rhodesia and Mozambique, I would take a selection of Bob Dylan tapes with me.
And years later, when I heard Dylan sing of the Mojave desert of California, I would remember the dry African Savannah, and happy days being free of the shackles of the office, at least until I reached my destination and deadlines called.
Now I sat in the galleried Railway Hotel in the heart of tropical Townsville, complaining loudly to colleagues on the sub-editing desk during our meal break that Dylan would be singing and strumming and blowing into his mouth organ without me.
The chief sub-editor, a woman in her late 30s, was also a Dylan fan and knew from the moment it was announced Dylan would be performing in Townsville that she would not be able to take the evening off, either. It was on a Friday, the busiest day of the week because Townsville did not have a Sunday newspaper and Saturday’s comprised a bumper weekend edition.
My immediate boss may have been a Dylan devotee but she was not of the Dylan generation. She had been introduced to the poetry and music of Dylan by her husband, a photographer considerably older than herself who had spent a large part of his early working life covering events in south-east Asia, events which included the Vietnam war.
When the Dylan concert had been announced, the chief sub-editor had conducted a head count of those who were desperate to attend. Most wanted to go and a plan was hatched to produce the newspaper in record time, leaving just the front and back pages to be laid out and edited by a relatively junior, but ambitious sub-editor. The agreement was that Lucas would return to the office with the other sub-editing staff as soon as the concert ended just in case there were any late-breaking major stories. Although the junior sub-editor was confident in his abilities, he was reassured that adults would be on hand if things went horribly wrong.
Drawing up the plan to attend the Dylan concert, the chief sub-editor decided that it was better that the editor did not know of the arrangement. He usually left the office early on a Friday evening to spend the night with his family, phoning just before deadline to make sure everything was going according to plan. The chief sub-editor was confident she would be back in the office in time to take his call.
As she explained to the other members of staff, the Dylan plan had been drawn up on a need to know basis and the editor did not need to know.
On the night of the concert she attended the evening conference with the editor as usual.. Plans for the early pages were outlined and the editor made his observations as usual before discussing what was to be on the front page.
What the editor wasn’t told was that those early pages had been produced already, and dummy proofs hidden from sight just in case he should stumble on them.
The concert was to start at eight in the evening and at 7.30 six of the seven sub-editors and two of the three night reporting staff made their way to the concert arena, leaving the stand-in chief sub-editor to enjoy his big moment.
I hitched a lift to the concert with the chief sub-editor and her husband and outside the Bulletin office he was waiting for us in his Volkswagon Beetle, a car of the same era as Dylan’s initial acoustic period in the early 1960s. He was smoking the biggest joint that I had ever seen and, after I had climbed into the back seat, he thrust it into my hand.
How long had it been since I had seen a joint, and how long since I had smoked one? I couldn’t remember, but it was certainly before I met and married my wife. She had never known me to indulge in drugs, soft or otherwise. The Singing Sixties pill and drug culture had also passed me by – as Dylan did – and I was reticent at first to take a drag of the joint offered me inside the Volkswagon. Alcohol, and sometimes nicotine in the shape of a cigar, remained my drugs of choice.
“Go on, and no smoking without inhaling,” shouted the chief sub-editor from the front passenger seat. She remembered the television shots of Bob Dylan performing at American President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and Clinton’s words when asked whether he had ever smoked dope.
The chief sub-editor was giggling now, and singing “The times they are a-changing” as I took a drag.
After parking the car, the party met my wife at the booking office where she was picking up the tickets.
She immediately noticed I had a strange look about me, an expression she had not witnessed before. My eyes were wide open, almost in a stare. At the same time, I appeared distant.
“Had a busy night getting the paper out in all that rush?” she asked. I remained silent, dreamy, gazing out into space.
“Far out, Babe,” I replied eventually, slowly, in a drawl.
The extended party from the Bulletin occupied virtually a whole row of seats, the journalists and their partners arriving towards the end of the support act.
Soon the much-anticipated, electric moment when Bob Dylan was announced. He and his band had entered a darkened stage and as the lights went up to cheers, I could see that a smoke machine had created a misty, smoky effect for the opening number. The drifting smoke on the stage, hanging in the air in places, was not unlike the smoke that had drift through the Volkswagon Beetle on the way to the show and I could still feel the effects of it.
“Crazy, Babe’’ I muttered softly to my wife as Dylan got into his first song.
Old numbers, new ones, fast ones, some slow, the blues, acoustic folk, rockabilly, Dylan was rocking Townsville. And I was loving it, but someone was rocking my seat from behind. It was a gentle rocking at first, much like my frame of mind as I immersed himself, body swaying, in the music of Dylan. Then the person behind started to bang the seat, as if with their foot or hand. It was annoying but I was determined to be tolerant, I didn’t want to swing around with a scowl. This was a night for peace and goodwill, to be cool, to let it all hang out. I had told my wife so.
The annoyance continued for two more numbers before I was forced to act. The person in the seat behind me was now banging me in the back and I, the goodwill beginning to evaporate along with the effects of the joint, turned around in anger.
There in the half-light reflected off the stage sat the editor of the Townsville Bulletin. He looked along the row of seats to my left and right, to virtually his entire staff swaying and rocking to the music.
“And who’s getting my fucking newspaper out?” the editor shouted before his words were lost to ... A Simple Twist of Fate.
*All about Don Knowler: Author and journalist Don Knowler – a newspaperman for more than 50 years – combines a passion for journalism with a love of nature in his writing. He writes the “on the wing” column in the Mercury Weekend magazine and also has a website at http://www.donaldknolwer.com . At present he is working on a book about kunanyi/Mount Wellington.