A siesta, a bit of panhandling (sort of), and some mumbling
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO The VOICE
Couchsurfing is not for everyone, nor is the website that connects would-be couchsurfers with each other. Hosts on the site, which is like a free version of AirBnB, are split about equally between those of genuine generosity, and those (men) hoping to get laid. The divide is even more heavy on the latter half when you are in Italy.
But when I was in Europe, two summers ago, I had mostly positive experiences with the service. I stayed with great hosts in Barcelona, in Lübeck, Germany, and in Dieppe, France, though none of these stays were as memorable as one night in Zaragoza, Spain.
Before I left, my father suggested that I look up my favourite musicians’ touring schedules to see if they had any dates that coincided with my planned stops. I soon saw that Bob Dylan would be touring in Europe, and that we would overlap in Zaragoza. The ticket prices seemed pretty high, so I decided to wait until closer to the date to see if I could find anything cheaper.
My host in Zaragoza, Pablo, was kind enough to pick me up at the train station in the morning and drive me to his home on the outskirts of the city. I joined his family that day at a friend’s farm in the country, picking apricots, eating brunch, and understanding next to nothing of what anyone said.
When we returned to the city, it was time for the siesta. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was Pablo telling me that another Couchsurfer would soon arrive, a French woman.
I awoke lazily, feeling well-rested (all of western civilization’s ailments could be cured if only we slept like the Spanish), and was soon introduced to Laurette. She was small, barely more than five feet tall, in her mid-50s with dark hair, tanned skin, and largely unaccented English. It soon became clear that not only was she going to the Dylan show that evening, but that she was going to see every show on the European tour.
Even more incredibly, that night was to be her 350th Bob Dylan concert. As I sat there, thinking that her story could not get any better, she said that she had not paid for a ticket in years. Combining those two bits of information—that she had seen him 350 times and doesn’t buy tickets—I assumed that she had earned some sort of loyalty card in the Dylan fan club, giving her free access to all of his shows.
But Laurette instead explained that a sign she carried around was the key to her entry. It read, simply, “I need a free ticket please.”
Laurette said that she stood near the entrance to the venue with this sign, and every time that she had tried it, someone with an extra ticket—perhaps their wife was ill, or a friend was stuck in traffic, or the tickets were corporate giveaways—had seen her sign and given her an extra entry.
“Sometimes I get many more than one,” she told me. “You could come with me and we can try to get you in, too.”
When we finally found the arena, Laurette and I sat down on a concrete ledge near the gate. At first, I was profoundly uncomfortable. Though she said that she did not beg for tickets, what we were doing felt a lot like begging to me. I was not holding the sign myself, but she and I sat close enough that it was clear to all that I was a part of the deal, and I felt a vague sense of shame as the first passerby stopped and made eye contact.
The sign was in English and it often took a moment or two before anyone fully grasped what was going on. Sometimes friends would turn to each other and hiss “gratis—free—they want a ticket for free.” Most would smirk, laugh, and continue on. A few called out to us. One man stopped, pulled out an extra ticket he had, and asked how much we would pay. “Nothing” Laurette said. “I don’t pay for a ticket, I’m sorry.”
The man sneered. “A ticket is not free,” he said, putting it back in his pocket and walking away.
“That’s a very cruel thing to do” Laurette said, “That man would rather have the seat go empty than give it to someone who wants it.”
As we waited, and as time passed, I was less and less affected by those mocking us, and soon was ignoring them altogether. 8:15 came, and through the still-open doors Laurette and I could hear the faint sound of the opening band playing. All the while, all that time, she and I talked. Mostly, she talked, and I listened.
She told me of the first time she heard a Bob Dylan record, way back in the early ‘70s, and how she fell in love with the music right away. She followed his world tours, in ’79, ’80, ’81, and ’82, and said she had even met him a few times.
“He used to seem humble and grateful,” she said. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing now. He’s going senile—he plays the same songs every night, and never says anything. But I still love him.”
Then as I was hearing about some rare interview Dylan had just given to some seniors’ magazine, a young man walked up and wordlessly handed Laurette a ticket. As soon as he was gone, she turned to me. “Here, take it,” she said. “You have never seen him before, and this might be your only chance. But hurry up. It’s almost 9:30, and Bobby is never late.”
Before I could second-guess the decision, I took the ticket and went inside. Once I had found the seat, I began to doubt whether I had done the right thing—what if I were the one who ruined her streak?
Just as this doubt was beginning to bubble up, I turned around and saw Laurette speaking with an usher. When I waved her over, she held up her ticket triumphantly and said that a couple had given it to her right after I had gone through the gates. There was an empty seat beside me, and she took it. As she sat down, a gong sounded off-stage, and Bob Dylan walked on.
At intermission, the seats on the floor were empty enough and the security sufficiently oblivious that both of us went down and took spots close the stage. At the end, with only a few songs remaining, the entire floor rushed the stage, and Laurette and I were there, standing beside each other, right against the barrier, ten feet from Bob Dylan.
Dylan is not known these days for his impassioned performances, and that night was no different. I was likely one of the few people there for whom English was a first language, and even I couldn’t understand what he was singing most of the time. In recordings, Dylan’s voice has a distinctive caw that seems to float above conventions of good or bad, but that night his voice was just bad. The opening song, “Things Have Changed,” is one of my favourites, and it took a few verses before I could even identify what it was.
Dylan no longer plays the guitar during his shows, which Laurette attributed to arthritis.
He spent the show banging out chords and singing at the piano, intermittently shuffling over to another microphone where he could stand to sing.
His set list was the same as it had been for the entire European tour, and before each song had even begun, Laurette would whisper its name aloud. Dylan spoke to the audience only once, prior to the intermission, saying (in Spanish) that they would return after a short break.
He did not introduce the band. He did not say “Thank you,” or “Good night,” or “Hasta la vista.” When he had finished the last song, he stood standing for an extra moment while the band left the stage, staring impassively at the crowd. I thought that he nodded, just a little bit, but I could have imagined it.
Despite all this, I have never had so much fun. Throughout the entire show, Laurette vibrated with an indescribable energy, and sung every word to every song. As we left the arena and began to walk home, her excitement only intensified.
“Bobby Bobby Bobby Dylan!” she called out into the night. When a gust of wind blew down the street, she sang out again, “The answer my friends, is blowing in the wind,” laughing, unable to stop her voice from being thrown out of tune by her enthusiasm.
We returned to Pablo’s house just after midnight. I thanked her for what I knew was going to be an evening I would never forget, and then I feel asleep immediately. When I awoke the next morning, just after nine, Laurette had already left. Bob Dylan was playing in Madrid that night, and she had to be on the road early to make sure she made it in time for show 351.