Bob Dylan said “Play On”


Luck led me to the office of Bob Dylan’s Manager. I found myself sitting in the Hollywood and Sunset office because during the two-week hiatus from the Confessions World Tour, Tom Petty’s body guard, a film stuntman, broke a leg performing on location in Jamaica. The North American leg of the tour, forty-four dates in fifty-five days was to start in five days and the tour’s road manager was in a pinch and I had been recommended as a replacement.

I sat face to face with the road manager on draftsman metal stools discussing my responsibilities as Petty’s security.

I had ten years experience in crowd control security, and had worked everything from small intimate nightclubs to large music festivals like Cal Jam. I was comfortable with stage and backstage security but I had never been on tour. During the discussion the road manager received a call. He listened with his head down nodding, and then he looked at me and speaking into the receiver said “I’ll ask him.”

Dylan’s security man would not be able to rejoin the tour until its second week. With his hand covering the receiver he asked if I thought I could handle the tour security until Dylan’s man rejoined the tour.

I nodded. And just like that I was the security director for the hottest tour of the summer: the Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Confession Tour.

The tour kicked off at the San Diego Sports Arena. But I won’t go into the details of those first shows. I want to tell of the event that happens in Houston, Texas at the Astroworld’s Southern Star Amphitheater, a moment that steps forward from time to time from the recesses of my mind.

After two weeks Dylan’s man returned for the Cal Berkeley show. I was anxious to meet him because he was one of the best in the business and I wanted to learn from him. He was an ex-Dallas police officer and had been a bodyguard for Elvis Priestly and had run the security for Led Zeppelin.

I had just secured Petty and the Heartbreakers in their dressing room, when I received word that Dylan was on his way. I secured the area near the entrance; the only entrance being through the front where several fans had already gathered. The van pulled to a stop and the side door slid open with force and out stepped Johnson. Dylan trailed behind him with one hand on Johnson’s shoulder. Although Johnson was not a big man, maybe five-ten and one hundred ninety pounds or so, his presence could not be overstated. As he moved through the crowd, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, giving him and Dylan plenty of room. Johnson, stoic, took long forceful strides and in seconds made his way with Dylan to the dressing room  entrance. I was impressed.

Once Dylan was in his dressing room Johnson walked through the narrow hallways from end to end, and then came over and introduced himself and told me that everything looked secured. Again, I was very comfortable with setting back stage security. My biggest concerns were the logistics of hotel, airport and transportation security.

Roadies, managers, wardrobe and venue personnel all moved about the hallway in hushed tones. Johnson and I faced each other, our backs against opposite walls, our heads constantly turning, watching everyone coming and going.
“I heard you’ve been doing a pretty good job.”

It was good to hear that but I really hadn’t given it much consideration about what others thought. I had been too busy and the responsibility for the safety of not only Dylan and the band but their family members as well on my shoulders filled every moment of my waking hours.

“Thanks. No one in the group has been a problem.”

“This is a good group of people. Not like some other bands.”

“Yeah, I feel guilty with all the money I’m getting paid.”

Johnson stared at me for a moment and then stepped towards me. He looked me in the eye and said not to feel guilty.

“There is going to come a time when you’ll earn it.”

Those words would be prophetic.

Weeks later we arrived at Astroworld’s Southern Star Amphitheater, the concert venue of Six Flags family amusement park and it presented security concerns. The backstage area of the Amphitheater abutted the amusement park separated only by a six-foot chain link fence. It was a big worry; I felt as if my back were exposed but I had to have faith in the house security. It was their back yard, so to speak, and I had to trust that they knew had to secure the area. Also the backstage area felt more like a fairground set up. It was too open, too many people backstage roaming around, too many guest, hustle and bustle, roadies, venue personnel, police, and celebrity well wishers and their security. I was uneasy, more than usual.

Out front on the lawn in front of the stage was festival seating with fixed seating further back. A three-foot fence separated the crowd from the seven-foot elevated stage, leaving approximately five feet of no man’s land between the fence and the stage where a few venue security men stood. Tan bunting hung from the stage hiding the scaffolding.

Directly behind the stage were only a few feet separating it from the six-foot chain link fence and the amusement area. On the other side of the fence were train tracks for an old steam engine powered train that traveled along the perimeter of the park. Johnson and I were told that the amusement area would be closed and secured by the time the evening concert began.

Part of my responsibilities as tour security director was to meet with the city police and discuss any threats brought against Dylan or other members. There were always a few crazies and it seemed Dylan always brought out more than few. Each threat was given a level of concern and handled accordingly. However, because Johnson was an ex-Dallas police officer and knew several of the Houston officers he decided to meet with them and the message relayed to me from Johnson was that there were no legitimate threats.

To reach the stage from the dressing area meant crossing about eighty feet of open area, exposed on both sides, the festival seating area on the west and the closed park area on the east. As the closing act, Dylan, Petty and the Heartbreakers would take the stage, at ten pm.

After escorting the band to the stage without incident, I took a quick look around the stage to make sure only those authorized were there; no friends of the roadies etc . . . this was never a problem. Dylan ran a tight ship. He was all business when it was show time. I positioned myself at the top of the stage stairs. From this position I had a clear view of the stage, and the audience.
Once I was sure everyone on stage was part of the team. I turned my attention to the audience and began sweeping it with my eyes, looking for anything out of the ordinary, any anomaly: one person not clapping, someone not cheering, hands in pockets, cameras held funny, was it a camera?, someone testing the chain-link fence. What sticks out, who is trying to fit in. I swept the band again. What were they looking at? I looked at the roadies and engineers behind the band. Were they okay? Was it still the same personnel? Again I swept the audience. Is anyone coming up the stairs behind me?

It was like this for as long as the band was on the stage; a never-ending high alert and awareness. At 11:30 Johnson came running up the stairs and spoke into my ear.

“We have bomb threat. The police say it’s legitimate. It’s set to go off at midnight. Go ask Bob what he wants to do. I’m going to go talk to the sergeant and gets things coordinated.”

He turned and hurried down the stairs. I felt the ice drop into my veins. Dylan was stage front center. It would have been nice if he would have been off to one side of the stage or the other or had moved to the back of the stage as he sometimes did to give instructions to an engineer or roadie. Sometimes he would walk over to Petty or Benmont Tench, the keyboardist, and mention something. But at the moment he was front and center. I wore all black to be inconspicuous around the stage. But there was no hiding what I needed to do. I didn’t even try making myself small. I just walked across the stage towards him. Dylan titled his head slightly, still playing his guitar and I relayed Johnson’s message. I spoke into his left ear while looking at the band, at Petty in particular. Petty returned my gaze.

“We have a bomb threat and it’s set to go off at midnight; Johnson wants to know what you want to do.”

“Play on,” Dylan said without hesitation.

I turned and walked off stage, then quickened my pace down the stairs. I met Johnson in the open area and passed on Dylan’s reply to “play on”. We jumped into action. The police were to search the dressing rooms while Johnson and I looked under the stage. We had twenty minutes.

The stage was high enough to walk upright but the tubing, the scaffolding supporting the stage, crisscrossed everywhere. I stepped through openings, shinning my small flashlight on every support bar, every patch of grass, and plywood flooring. I could hear Dylan start into “Blowin’ in the Wind”. And I started to think. How did I get myself into this situation? I’m searching for a bomb that is set to go off in twenty minutes. How in the Hell did I get myself into this. My nerves buzzed and only my intense focus kept my muscles from twitching and several times I inhaled deeply through my nostrils and then exhaled slowly out my pursed lips.

Johnson and I searched every inch beneath the stage and found nothing, not even a gum wrapper. We came out from beneath the stage. I felt relieved. It was good to be out in the open. We met the police and they had come up empty. We had five minutes. And then, as we stood in a closed circle, better to hear each other over the music, the 610 limited, the steam locomotive that circumvented the park roared to life and began ever so slowly lurching towards us.

The park was closed: dark. Who or what was on that train? The train was about eighty yards down the track and would reach us in a few minutes, approximately at midnight. Dylan was singing “So Long, Good Luck and Goodbye”. Johnson told me to stay with the band and he and the police turned and ran toward the train. They jumped over the small fence, boarded the train and began searching for the bomb, also trying to stop it before it passed behind the stage.

From atop the stairs stage left I could see Johnson and the officers working from the front of the train towards the rear. The engine pulled open covered cars and Johnson and the officers were jumping from one to the other, searching under seats and climbing on top of the car roofs. Still the train eased closer. I looked at my watch as the train neared: two minutes to midnight. Dylan would soon begin the last song on the set-list: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Then a thought came, one that I still carry and will all my life, did I really want to be on the stage at midnight?

I mean I was not getting paid enough to get blown to pieces. Besides what good could I do standing here? I could walk off the stage and move nearer to the dressing rooms. Could I do that? And if I did could I live with it? I thought about life itself and found it good, life was good. I liked life. I didn’t want to give it up. All reasoning told me I should not be on the stage at midnight.
I’m not sure why I stayed. To this day I ponder that. It surely wasn’t to be a hero. If the bomb went off I would not have been in any position to save anyone. More than likely someone would be trying to save me. I think I was more afraid of living my life thinking I didn’t do the right thing.

The train came to a stop with the engine directly behind the stage and Johnson and the officers frantically searching the engine compartment. I looked at my watch: twenty seconds. “Mama come take this badge off of me. I don’t need it anymore”, Dylan sang.

I closed my eyes and ever so slightly re-coiled my head like a turtle and held my breath.

I don’t know where I went consciously but when I returned Dylan was singing “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. . .” The world had rush back to me. Johnson came up the stairs perspiring, shaking his head.

“You think you’re getting paid too much now?

“Hell no,” I answered

Later when I got the band back to the hotel and safely into their rooms, I flopped on my bed with a bottle of Jack Daniel. My skin tingled and I drank straight from the bottle and I drank as if it was water and I drank until the tingling stopped.

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