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Bob Dylan played dodgeball in the Northeast and other stories from his half-century playing Philly

When Bob Dylan opens the Met on Monday, it will mark his 50-something-ish performance here.

Bob Dylan from the "No Direction Home" film by Martin Scorsese.
Photo credit: Don Hunstein
Bob Dylan from the "No Direction Home" film by Martin Scorsese. Photo credit: Don HunsteinRead more

The first time Bob Dylan played an official gig in Philadelphia was at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square in May 1963.

Folk music DJ Gene Shay and his wife, Gloria, booked the show with the 21-year-old folk singer, whose second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was to come out later that month. About 45 people showed up, not nearly enough to fill the 200-seat auditorium. Tickets were $3.

The next time Bob Dylan plays in the city will be Monday, when the Nobel Prize winner opens the Met Philadelphia, the 110-year-old North Philly opera house that has undergone a $56 million renovation. The 3,400-seat venue is sold out, with resale tickets starting in the $200 range.

In between those dates, Dylan has been through Philadelphia dozens of times, initially during his incandescent 1960s run as a generation-defining voice and catalyst of cultural transformation, and more recently on the Never Ending Tour that began in 1988.

The Met show has been billed as Dylan’s 50th in Philadelphia, but in arriving at that momentous round number, promoters have omitted a few dates, including the Ethical Society show, for which the nascent folkie was paid $150.

The show that is often erroneously listed as Dylan’s first in Philly was his October 1963 date at Town Hall, the auditorium at Broad and Cherry Streets demolished in 1982. Even the trusted Philadelphia Daily News incorrectly hyped it as “the first local appearance” by the singer “who cleffed the hit ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” which had been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The tabloid also reported a New Jersey Turnpike incident that made Dylan late for the nearly sold-out show: “Riding here in manager Al Grossman’s Rolls, they suffered a flat tire and had to repair it using the booklet that comes with the car.”

But besides those dates, was there an even earlier Dylan appearance?

Maybe. “Even before the Ethical Society, Dylan came in and did a walk-on set for Manny Rubin, who owned the Second Fret coffeehouse at 19th and Sansom,” says Jonathan Takiff, the longtime Daily News music critic who was then a teenage Dylan enthusiast. “It was unbilled. And Manny didn’t like it. He passed on Bob Dylan!”

Takiff didn’t witness the performance, but he says the story was frequently told. An anonymous posting on a Second Fret message board in 2015 might support it: “First date with wife. Saw Bob Dylan as lead act for Jim Kweskin Jug Band. First song was “Masters of War,” second was “Girl from the North Country.” Hard to plan second date!!!”

Whether that show happened or not, Dylan definitely did play the Ethical Society. Shay and his wife went to 30th Street Station to pick up the singer, and found him waiting with Suze Rotolo, with whom he’s seen on the Freewheelin’ album cover.

“They were lovebirds,” says Shay, whose long-running Folk Show then aired on WHAT-FM. Shay remembers Dylan doing “You’re No Good,” the first track from his 1962 self-titled debut, and the harrowing “Ballad of Hollis Brown.”

Dylan and Rotolo spent a few extra days in town, staying at the Cheltenham home of Tossi Aaron, the guitar player and folklorist who died this year, Shay says. “Tossi brought them up to her house and they played dodgeball in Burholme Park. I do remember that.”

Say what? Dylan playing dodgeball in Northeast Philadelphia? Unfortunately, no photos are known to exist.

By the time Dylan came back to play Town Hall later in 1963 and again in October 1964 (and maybe, according to some reports, also in September 1964 with Joan Baez), he was a big deal.

Takiff saw those shows. “Oh, my God,” he recalls. “I wanted to be Bob Dylan. Mostly because of Gene, playing him on the radio.”

Dylan wore a blue work shirt. “Everybody went down to the Army Navy store to buy them,” Takiff says. But when he came back a year later, Dylan had changed. “The songs were more inward, ruminating, surreal. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” I was on the floor with that one. Stab me in the heart! Kill me now!”

Dylan played one more folk show with Baez at Convention Hall (now the location of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine) in March 1965 before plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival that summer. He toured England — where he got called “Judas!” for going electric — with the musicians who would become the Band, and whom Dylan hired after they spent the summer of ‘65 at Tony Mart’s in Somers Point, N.J.

On his U.S. tour, Dylan did two shows at the Academy of Music in February 1966. First, he played acoustic. After intermission, the curtain went up and revealed the singer with the Band. “It was the loudest thing I had heard in my life,” says Takiff. “It was stupendous. Transformative. Just so amazing. I was high on life itself. It turned me into a rock-and-roll animal in like an hour. I went from being a folk purist to a rock-and-roll beast.”

Dylan “was just different than anything and anyone,” remembers concert promoter Larry Magid. “It felt futuristic for the times. You were seeing what was going to happen, or what could possibly happen. It just fractured me. It was revolutionary. He represented the new America.”

That tour capped a period of intense productivity, and Dylan took a long break after the motorcycle accident that led to a period of convalescence and further collaboration with the Band.

He didn’t play Philadelphia again until the Spectrum in 1974, the first Dylan shows booked by Magid’s Electric Factory Concerts. Though they took place on two dates, there were actually three shows, including a Sunday matinee, which brings our total to at least 52.

Philly music historian Tom Sheehy missed the academy shows “because it was a school night and my father would not let me go.” Eight years later, he said, “As a former Roman Catholic altar boy, I recall the Spectrum shows as Holy Nights, or nights of a thousand lights,” remembering concertgoers holding up matches. “Anyone who witnessed those performances would to this day mention them as among the greatest live events in Philadelphia music history.”

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which rolled across the U.S. in 1975, never came to Philadelphia. He didn’t make it back until 1978, when tickets were $8.50, and T-shirts were $6. Daily News writer Carol Wallace wondered: “Bob Dylan prophet or Bob Dylan profiteer?”

Philly songwriter and Dylanologist Peter Stone Brown says that 1978 show at the Spectrum was the worst he ever saw. “His singing was just out there.” But a 1981 Spectrum show was a bounce back. “The best by far.”

Dylan appeared at Live Aid in 1985, doing an unslick acoustic set. Two years later, he was back at JFK Stadium, teaming with another ‘60s act. “The nadir was Dylan and the Dead,” Takiff says. “He was drunk as a skunk, I think. It was disgraceful, and just so sad. I was ready to go into mourning.”

Since then, on the Never Ending Tour, an always excellent group anchored by bassist Tony Garnier has supported Dylan, and he’s recorded several superb albums, like 2001’s Love & Theft and 2009’s Tempest in his late, underrated period.

There have been many noteworthy Philadelphia stops. In 1995, he played three shows at the Electric Factory with support from Patti Smith. In 2014, he returned to the academy for three shows, and bizarrely played a fourth for a single superfan for a Swedish TV show.

In November 2017, Dylan did two top-notch shows at the Tower, each drawn from his recent albums of Frank Sinatra-associated standards, with the scratchy-voiced Bard either at the piano or standing like a lounge lizard, never once picking up a guitar.

For the tour that’s bringing him to the Met, Dylan has ditched the Sinatra repertoire and is concentrating on songs from his own catalog. The buzz from previous shows has been positive, though his habit of altering melodies from their original much-loved versions is likely to still get under the skin of those who wish he would simply sing the songs the way he did in the first place.

But that, of course, is not the way Bob Dylan does things. The uncompromising singer typically opens his shows with “Things Have Changed,” singing, “I used to care, but things have changed.” And he’s not likely to start caring what people think now, not after more than a half-century on the road and more than 50 shows in Philadelphia.