It was our first night in Saigon, hot and muggy, befitting the Tropics. And we were at an historic Dylan concert. To my generation--now you know, I’m over 30—this was the land of war and upheaval, and Bob Dylan’s songs became anthems for the ‘60’s anti-Vietnam war movement.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are A-Changin’” were to became chants of that movement, even though Dylan himself has said he never wrote them for that purpose. Today I think they are as much a part of the American songbook as “Yankee Doodle” or “Stars and Stripes forever.”
Despite it’s commerce and commercialism Vietnam is still not the Free World. Dylan, we were told, was prohibited from singing those very songs at this concert, held outdoors on the grounds of a university. It was his first appearance here---and quite possibly his only one—and part of a Far East engagement. We weren’t sure if the young Vietnamese would even know who Bob Dylan was, would understand the historic nature of this night, or if they had much exposure to American music. About four thousand people showed up, but the venue was only half full.
It was a heavily international crowd, split between Asians and Westerners. I met two very sharp young American women who were in the country to teach English and they fully understood the significance of this appearance. Two young Vietnamese girls giggled their explanation that they were great fans of the singer. An older couple from New Zealand had made this a deliberate stop in a several-nation tour just to be at the concert. And then there was our group of 60-ish attorneys and tag-a-longs (that would be me) who were reliving their college days.
Most of the crowd stood in the mosh-pit, but some of us dished out more money for chairs and tables in the VIP area, where there was even some waiter service for the beer. We swayed to about 18 songs over two hours. We had been told “no cameras,” though everyone else seemed not to get the message, and my cell phone was inadequate, so I have no video the historic night. (Sorry).
Now, we interrupt thus narrative for a disclosure: I have never been much of a Dylan fan. Part of the reason is I could never understand him, and this night was no different. A second reason is that there is a tangential family relationship. My first cousin married his first cousin. It was sort of ‘local boy makes good’ to me, and that doesn’t carry much mystique. After all, how can someone whose relative married into my family be an icon? When my cousin heard that I’d been to the concert, she asked, “Did you talk to Bob.” “Of course not,” I said, “he doesn’t talk to anybody.”
And that was true. He didn’t say a word all night, except to introduce his band. He played the electric guitar, the keyboard and the harmonica, decked out in a black outfit and his signature hat. His mood seemed good-natured; he was enjoying his work. A lot of his tunes were more recent works. But I noticed that the longer he sang, the older he became. In other words, the classic Dylan raspy sing-song comments and vocal inflections came out. To my aging ears, now we were talking Dylan.
There were souvenir booths all along the area’s perimeter, and they were sold out of official tee shirts before the concert began. So I had to do a lot of sprinting around to get my hands on some souvenirs which seemed almost as important as watching the performance.
But as I finally relaxed in my lawn chair and was taking some notes, a very young Vietnamese waiter who had been bringing us beer, squatted down beside me and said sweetly,
“When I see you, I remember my Grandmother. She was a writer, too.” I gritted my teeth.
And then Dylan played his last song: “Forever Young.”
For more information about Dylan, visit: