‘Tricks When You’re Trying To Be So Quiet’ – Bob Dylan Esoterica, 9/11, and the Birthday Problem

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Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a joyous occurrence. While the world celebrates, we share this piece of Dylan esoterica, about the unintentional and arcane ‘prediction’ of a fateful day…

Humans are prediction machines. We look for patterns in the world, and we can’t help but try to guess what comes next. We do this because thousands of years of selection rewarded those of us who anticipated best. We instinctively seek out arrangements… in clouds, in images, in words, in the behaviour of others, in events in our lives… whether they prove to be vital to our survival or not. Sometimes the patterns are completely meaningless, but we notice them nonetheless.

In the early summer of 2001, Margot and I were living in Vancouver and preparing for the arrival of our first child. Our nest preparation included polling friends on subjects such as diaper change tables and optimum baby nutrition. For me, parental preparation was accompanied by an inexplicable compulsion to organize, and add to, my collection of Bob Dylan recordings. Why? Displacement activity, perhaps – when an animal disguises fear by picking away in the sand in a meaningless fashion, busying itself with trivia when facing a terrifying predator. Or, maybe a more complex mechanism: an attempt to preserve a soon to be lost “long lonesome road”? Oblivious to the exact cause, I found myself making wish-lists of sought after concerts, searching websites, emailing fellow collectors, burning discs, sometimes late into the night; tippy-toeing about our apartment, as my wife slept and her belly steadily swelled.

Two months earlier I had been contacted by ‘arlo’, over the web. My e-mail address, attached to a whimsical posting at an online Dylan site, identified me as being from Vancouver. Would I like to get together with a small group of local fans to celebrate Bob’s 60th? Sure I would, I replied. ‘Arlo’ turned out to be Arthur Louie, born in Winnipeg, now living in Vancouver. Connoisseurs of ‘handles’ will appreciate arlo’s; a contraction of his name, as well as the first name of the son of Dylan’s own hero, Woody Guthrie. Neat. At our first meeting, an enjoyable gathering of a handful of friends and a few guitars, I discovered that in early 2001 Arthur had started a website called the ‘Dylan Pool’, based on the fantasy pools enjoyed by sports fans. Dylan had been touring frequently since 1988, playing 3 to 6 tour ‘legs’ a year, about 100 shows per annum, an endeavour that aficionados had hopefully dubbed ‘The Neverending Tour’. Prior to each tour leg, the one thousand members of the ‘Dylan Pool’ would each chose a ‘team’ of songs from Dylan’s immense 500 song catalogue, hoping to best foresee which of these he would choose to play in the upcoming shows. Dylan famously keeps himself and his audience guessing as to what he’ll play each night, and he is one of the very few performers you can see two or three nights in a row with confidence that a large percentage of the material is not repeated each show. The contest was to predict the set lists as closely as possible.

Part of the culture from which the Pool had emerged was that of sharing ‘bootlegs’ – surreptitiously produced, and strictly speaking illegal, recordings of Dylan’s live performances. Unlike the Grateful Dead, who had encouraged recording at their concerts, Dylan had fought for decades to deter tapers at his shows, but he also later sent a message, in verse, that was interpreted by many to be an endorsement of the archivists: “Some of these bootleggers/ they make pretty good stuff”. Most scholars agree that the existence of these recordings is a very good thing indeed. With Dylan frequently changing the interpretation and delivery of his material, the detailed record is an invaluable trace. What better homage than to have everything you have ever sang or said on stage recorded for posterity? The bootleggers are arguably Boswells to Dylan’s Johnson.

As you may guess, the Pool ‘skeleton’ that was the sport of song prediction served to support the arguably more important ‘flesh’ of online discussion and camaraderie. While waiting for tour legs to commence, or set-lists to be phoned in (sometimes live from the mosh pit at the very feet of the Man), ‘poolers’ would share their anticipation, and expand their knowledge of Dylan minutiae: When did Bob first play ‘- – -’ ? What does he mean when he says “- – – ”? Will he ever play ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ live? Is ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ really about Sara? Is that his real hair? Does anybody have a recording of the second 1988 Radio City show?

An etymologist once said that an understanding of the roots of the word ‘apricot’ make the fruit taste “that much sweeter”. Dylanologists argue that knowledge of the trivia improves one’s enjoyment of the songs. As ‘poolers’ prepared for a new tour leg, participants would volunteer to donate prizes for various achievements in the coming contest. Awards for first and second places, obviously, but also for achieving more playful and inventive targets, or answering arcane challenges. It was in this milieu that I found myself organizing my collection, reading the trivia, all while listening to awe-inspiring live versions of songs such as ‘Watchtower’ (fans refer to the songs in shorthand). I became curious as to whether Dylan had ever played any songs live prior to releasing them on albums, and this led to me arranging my recordings chronologically, and that led to me making a ridiculously esoteric observation, which I then could not resist presenting to the pool in the form of a prize challenge, which read as follows:
“If Dylan’s new album, ‘Love and Theft’ is indeed released as described in the recent press releases, it will achieve a feat that, against odds, no other Dylan album has ever achieved. What feat?”

The winning respondent would get their choice of a handful of discs from my growing collection of ‘boots’. Moderator Arthur, ever the Canadian egalitarian, suggested that I allow a 24 hour window for correct responses, as it’d be unfair for a pooler in India to answer over morning tea while an adversary in Argentina was still asleep. We awaited replies.

They came, in many forms, testimony to the breadth of Dylan fandom. Ideas concerning almost every know aspect of the coming album, but none anywhere close to the answer I had in mind.

Thirty-six hours after the start of the contest, just when I began doubting the sanity of the exercise (was I being too esoteric, even for this gang?), along came this response from James Wilson of the U.K. : “If ‘Love and Theft’ is, as advertised, released on September 11, 2001, it will be released on the same day of the year as was ‘Under the Red Sky’, which was released on September 11, 1990.  This will mark the first time that two Bob Dylan albums will share a release date.” About twenty hours thereafter Stewart Garrish, of Boston, answered in a similar fashion. These two got it.

The observation involves the same principle as the intriguing probability phenomenon known as the ‘Birthday Problem’. One needs to gather only 23 people in a room for the chances to be more than 50% that two of them will have a birthday that falls on the same day of the year. This is fewer than most of us would guess. As more people are added, the chances rise. By the time you get to 42 people, the chance that two will share the same birthday is already over 90%. To translate this to the puzzle at hand, consider album release dates as ‘birthdays’ (which they are, of course). The chances that none of Dylan’s 42 albums had the same release date is low, less than ten percent. And thus it was ‘against odds’, that no other Dylan album had ever achieved the feat that ‘Love and Theft’ would now achieve.

Both Jimmy and Stewart received prizes for their astute observations, and I posted a summary of the various fan responses and a discussion to the Dylan Pool on July 27, 2001.

Two days later, our son Adam was born; a fine, healthy baby, with a cowlick.

Six weeks thereafter, Bob Dylan’s 42nd album, ‘Love and Theft’ was released, as promised. In the months following it received deserved critical acclaim, but on the day, September 11, 2001, nobody noticed. We were all transfixed by the horrific events in New York City that very same morning. The release of the first Bob Dylan album ever released on the same day as another Bob Dylan album had also coincided with the 9/11 attacks; another kind of birthday entirely, that of an unwelcome new era.

Now, I am not prone to magical thinking. When my mother accidentally spilled salt, she would throw some over her shoulder. If I spill salt, the extent of my superstitious thinking is that I am reminded of my mother. I know, as much as I know anything, that Dylan’s numerically ‘special’ album coming out on 9/11 was nothing more than random coincidence; the kind of statistical trick that the world plays on us frequently. It doesn’t mean anything; yet I feel the desire to report the facts of it, nonetheless.

How does one respond to this? Dylan himself questions “minds that multiply the smallest matter”, yet he also points to the limitless meaning contained “in every grain of sand”. He also finds magic in numbers*. Our minds play with patterns in the world, and there may be resonance in some of the things that emerge. The apricot is sweeter, the song more emotive, and the universe that much more electric.

Anton Scamvougeras, October 2016
dysconnected1 (at) gmail.com


Comments made by Dylan in a Q&A with Bill Flanagan, posted 22 Mar 2017 at bobdylan.com, confirms that Bob finds magic in numbers, and thus we would imagine he’d be very much interested in the numeric co-incidence described in the above piece:

“BF: Each disc is 32 minutes long – you could have put it all on 2 CDs. Is there something about the 10 song, 32 minute length that appeals to you?

BD: Sure, it’s the number of completion. It’s a lucky number, and it’s symbolic of light. As far as the 32 minutes, that’s about the limit to the number of minutes on a long playing record where the sound is most powerful, 15 minutes to a side.”

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