Monday, July 16, 2012

On Crafting A Surprise

Advance warning for those of you who are only in this for the pretty pictures: I didn't see any reason to take my camera or my phone along on this. Sorry. It's read-only today.

Hannah, winning
Long-time readers of this blog may remember that when I first moved here I participated in Quiz Night at the Vert Anglais. The team I was on was Hannah's Bitches, and our team leader, Hannah, was an English woman who'd grown up down in these parts and spoke impeccable French. Somewhere in the talk around the table, I mentioned to her that I knew a couple of the guys who play with Bob Dylan, and she told me that I had to meet her father, who was a big Bob Dylan fan. I told her I'd love to, and that I'd let her know if Dylan was coming to town, which he had in the past. (Tony, the bassist, remembered Montpellier for one thing: great couscous. Not where he'd gotten it, unfortunately).

So now it's three years and some later, I stopped going to the Vert Anglais long ago, bad stuff started happening there, the owners vanished, Hannah got married and had a kid, and life went on. Of course, we friended each other on Facebook. And, earlier this year, in an idle moment, I noticed that this year's Dylan tour of Europe was stopping by in Nîmes, and not only that, was playing the Arènes, the Roman bullring built in 25BC. Hannah immediately got in touch. Her plan: her parents would be visiting, and we'd go to Nîmes "just to have a look around," at which point we'd spring the surprise that not only was Dylan playing, but I'd hooked up some really fine tickets.

And that's pretty much what happened -- pretty much. I got hold of Tony, we talked some, he said tickets were no problem, and we'd talk again when the band got in. Yesterday, I went down to Hannah's tram-stop and in short order a car pulled up, her husband Arnaud at the wheel, and Hannah and her parents in the back seat. It was on the way down that I realized I hadn't been out of town -- at all -- since April. I [heart] Montpellier, but damn, it's nice to leave once in a while. It turned out that Hannah's father, Graham, is such an obsessive that he already knew about the gig, so he'd figured that part out. Hannah told him I was coming along because I needed a trip out of town, which was true.

Obligatory Maison Carré photo, 2011
It was at this point that Arnaud, who'd lived in (and played football for) Nîmes some years back, came into his own. Not only did he find us a legal free parking space about two blocks from the Arènes, giving himself incredible local cred, but we went on a walking tour of the city, saw the Maison Carré, the big Augustinian temple in the center of town, the mysterious Roman ruin near the cathedral (there is no sign or anything on this building, but it obviously is what it is), and, then, we walked to something I didn't even know existed, although I've spent time in Nîmes, le jardin de la Fontaine.

This is a huge park which appears after a walk along a small stream which runs down a paved canal. The walk ends at a large multi-spigoted fountain which is spraying water into the air through some very utilitarian brass outlets: it's not, except for the water itself, an ornamental fountain. Then you turn right and you're in a huge park which ends in a hill, with stairs going up it. These eventually lead to the Tour Magne, a watchtower built on Celtic ruins which is itself a ruin, but we declined the journey. Instead, we just walked around the park, which is filled with basins of water. There is also the "Temple of Diana," which is, like the Maison Carré, all part of the cult of Caesar Antoninius, whose mother was from somewhere near Nîmes. People have been carving graffiti into it forever -- or at least since 1844, which was the oldest date a cursory examination turned up. It turns out that all this water comes from a nearby river, which has been diverted to the city for the textile trade by which Nîmes made its fortunes for centuries. Its signature produce was an indigo-dyed light cotton canvas called tissue de Nîmes, and became known to English speakers as denim. The dyers needed pure water to maintain quality, and that's the reason for all these basins in the park. From what I saw, though, they'd need to clean it up some if they were going to be dying cloth today.

The whole park is very grandiose and French, and was made far more formal in the half-century before the Revolution. Next time, I will walk up the hill, but we had to go get my tickets, so we took another route back and next thing we knew, the Arènes hove into view. I called Tony and he said he was about to do soundcheck, but would be over around 6:30, so I said I'd call again when we got inside. We walked over to the ticket office and right on time two women appeared and, exactly at 7, the windows opened. In a move that was widely approved by the various fanatics gathered around, Hannah was first at the window, yelled at me to come over and hand the lady some ID (a Texas drivers licence was good enough) and next thing I knew I had three tickets and three backstage passes. Sixth row center, on the floor. Man alive.

Once we were at our seats, I called Tony again, and in due time he appeared at one side of the stage, so we walked up and talked to him. He'd gotten an iPod Touch, and was showing off a photo he'd taken in Mexico City recently of "me and another bass player," one Paul McCartney. He even got some playing tips from him! (And this, no doubt, was responsible for the appearance of a Rickenbacker bass late in the Dylan set). Eventually, we went backstage and found Charlie Sexton, whom I'd first seen as a 13-year-old playing with the Eager Beaver Boys, a rockabilly band in Austin in the '80s, and whom I'd seen with Tony the first time I saw Dylan in Berlin. It was great catching up with these guys, and I have to say that Graham and his wife behaved themselves, although Graham, at least, was in fan heaven.

Back outside, we sat through an opening set by Adam "Son of Leonard" Cohen, who is a nice enough guy, I guess, but not ready for prime time. He joked that he had a famous parent -- Céline Dion -- and closed with one of his father's songs, which was a major oops. He was accompanied by a guy who played guitar and keyboards and bass drum, sometimes simulteaneously, and a cellist who was very attractive, but then, I have a decades-long problem with falling for female string players, which is why I've never mocked women who tell me they only go for guitar players.

The Dylan set -- well, I'm sure you can read about it elsewhere, especially since Graham is about to upload a piece to either Expecting Rain or Isis -- was the best I've seen since going to shows thanks to Tony. The band burned, and worked together superbly, and Bob was clearly having fun, spending most of the show at a grand piano on which stood his Oscar for "Things Have Changed," draped with three strands of Mardi Gras beads -- let the interpretation begin! -- and singing in great voice. I was quite impressed with his stage togs, too: white pants, a big round Spanish-style had, and an amazing black jacket with no collar, a V-neck, five silver buttons and three more at each cuff. Bob Dylan, fashionista! I just wasted a bunch of time looking for a picture of him with this gear on, but he and the band had just come from Spain, so maybe he got it there.

I don't go to gigs much any more, but this was a great deal of fun. Graham said this was the best Dylan show he'd ever seen, but he was high on having gotten half the band to autograph his ticket. Still, it was pretty wonderful, and I'm happy to have been able to pull off this nice deception with Hannah.

And, of course, to have gotten out of town for a night!


  1. Sounds like a great night!
    I've only spent two nights outside of Montpellier (in Lyon, for Pentecost weekend) since the end of December, so I really know what you mean.
    Of course, I barely leave the house and rarely even go as "far" as the Comédie, so maybe I should just shut up...

  2. I love Nimes. Susan and I spent the day there and it was spectacular. Glad you saw a good gig. I don't go out anymore either.


  3. Hi Ed!

    Having just written a long comment and managed to somehow delete I'll start again...

    Hannah is my sister, which would make Graham and Loraine my wonderful parents!

    Nice to read your account above, and to hear it from Hannah earlier as well. I just wanted to say THANKYOU for arranging this, as I know it will have been the highlight of their trip (if not their entire year), as if seeing Hannah and their grandson wasn't enough (Hannah I'm sure will agree!)

    Of course, I have to admit to being a LITTLE jealous, having seen 6 or 7 BD gigs over the last ten year, and knowing what the venue is like (saw Stevie Wonder there with Han a couple of years ago!)

    All the best,


  4. Glad it was a great show. I've been to many Dylan shows since the 60s, but six years ago, in San Francisco, it was so bad I walked out--and I love Dylan's work.

  5. Oh, thank you, thank you Ed.....just Saturday, I found myself telephoning Herve (who's in Berlin for the week)because I could not FOR THE LIFE OF ME recall where a particular park was. He couldn't help me (and this brain-burp was really bugging me), since all I could offer were hints such as "You's really big....the one with all the fountains? English style garden?....". I should emphasize that we've been to about fifty towns in France over the yeaars, and he's been in about a thousand since being born there.

    And yes.....I was recalling the Jardin de la Fontaine. It's one of the most interesting parks I've ever visited (which we did for about five hours, seven years ago, on a day when the car had broken-down).

    I do (for once) remember reading somewhere that Louis XIV's chief minister, Colbert, wanted to take down the Maison Carre and move it, brick by every brick to Versailles.

    Wouldn't THAT have been a travesty?....the Maison Carree propped up as a fancy garden ornament for courtiers to look at from their windows?

    As for Bob Dylan?...

    Oddly enough (to me, at least, but then I grew up in America during the sixties and, so, am perhaps overly blase), my Physics-professor, Socialist leader, French father-in-law is o-b-s-e-s-s-e-d with Bob Dylan (and Joan Baez, for that matter).

    He plays Dylan (or Baez) constantly, which I found a bit odd the first time I stayed with them, particularly when Herve made it clear that this wasn't at all being done for my benefit.

    When he first visited my house here in America, he was all too obviously appalled/irritated to discover that I have nothing by Baez, and the only Dylan recording I have is "Nashville Skyline" (over which I'm markedly sentimental, but only because it reminds me of second-grade and learning two of the songs in what passed for "music class").

    A couple of years ago (and I kid you not), my father-in-law gave me the greatest hits of Joan Baez and three albums by Dylan. He thinks I'm presposterously under-educated and is intent on attending to the matter.

    If nothing else, I have something to play when he visits (which he'll be doing, along with my mother-in-law for three weeks,in just about a month)

    thanks again for the informative and entertaining posting,

    david Terry

  6. P.S. (a couple of days later)...Hey Ed?....would you please tell your friend Hannah that at least one guy in North Carolina meant to mention that she has a seriously gorgeous head of hair?


    David Terry


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