Hal and Alan at the gates of Graceland (Photo: Alan Light)
It was 2001 and my best friend was bummed out. He had just broken up with his girlfriend — and she was one we all liked, the one he had brought to my wedding the previous year, where he served as my best man.
Hal and I had met in college. It was a friendship with a good arc: Though we were both within the same tight-knit social circle, we weren’t that close in the first year or two, but we connected more and more as graduation grew closer. It felt as though our attachment would grow into the future, and after he’d lived on the West Coast for a while, he came to New York and we shared a weird, magical apartment in the East Village with pink-and-black floor tiles.
Bob Dylan 1961 (Photo: Getty Images)
So watching him suffer through this break-up, I knew I had to do something. One thing we shared was a passion, bordering on obsession, with the music of Bob Dylan. Having turned this kind of mania into a career as a music journalist, I was able to attend numerous Dylan shows once he started his “Never Ending Tour” in 1988 — performances that could be transcendent or awful — with Hal often coming along.
I had an inspiration and checked the tour schedule. Jackpot! Dylan was playing three shows over an upcoming weekend, in Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis. What could be a more perfect antidote to heartbreak than a music-intensive sprint through the American South, the birthplace of so many drinking-and-crying songs?
I laid out the plan to Hal, who quickly agreed. When I told my wife, Suzanne, about this idea, though, her response was immediate — she wouldn’t miss out on this. (Fortunately, not only did she and Hal get along but they had actually worked together a few years earlier, which was the catalyst for our first date.) So we booked the flights, hotels, and rental car for the three of us. I set up the tickets for all three stops and, soon enough, the Odd Trio was on its way.
Atlanta, Georgia (Photo: Terence S. Jones/Flickr)
Hal and I landed in Atlanta. We were on our own for this show; Suzanne would be joining us the next day. Each of these three shows was actually not a concert of its own but part of an outdoor city music festival, so we would have to just find our way to the locations and wend our way through the crowd. The Music Midtown Festival was set up in a nondescript park near the city’s civic center, and we got there in good time. In fact, the most memorable part of that night, as I look back on it, was a magnificent performance by Patti Smith in the slot before Dylan’s; I had seen the punk priestess be great before, but the show blew Hal’s mind.
Though being a Dylan fan means accepting that you never know what you’re going to get, he was in a good groove during this period, with a band, featuring two stellar guitar players, honed into sharp form. He was mixing some bluegrass and gospel songs into his set (especially appropriate given the setting), and he opened the Atlanta show with the 1920s murder ballad “Duncan and Brady.”
Union Station Hotel (Photo: Kwong Yee Cheng/Flickr)
We hightailed it to Nashville the next morning, where Suzanne met up with us at the Union Station Hotel, a converted train station. Music City was far less cosmopolitan a decade ago than it is now; we didn’t have much time, so we wandered from one end of Broadway, where the hotel is located, to its dead end at the park on the banks of the Cumberland River, where the River Stages festival was set up.
Though we were farther from the stage this time, we enjoyed another crowd-pleasing set list, heavy on the hits but also including Dylan’s recent Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” and a blistering version of “Crash on the Levee” — extra-powerful as riverboats paddled behind the stage and centuries of American music and travel and commerce all seemed to come into focus.
We returned to an unexpected source of entertainment at the hotel. Union Station is a popular site for weddings, and a Saturday night reception had clearly just ended. The hotel floors are open to the lobby, and as we sat on a couch near the bar and tried to remain unobtrusive, we watched something like a classic French farce unfolding, with doors opening and slamming shut, and drunken wedding attendees and family members running or staggering from one room to another, all in varying degrees of undress or formal wear.
Al Green (Photo: Getty Images)
There was a special destination for Sunday morning. We had to get to Memphis in time for services at Al Green’s church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle. There’s no way to know if Green is going to appear on any given Sunday, and he had sung in Nashville the previous evening, but we had to try our best and cross our fingers. And soon after we got there, the greatest living soul singer made his entrance, singing and preaching gloriously. I’ve visited the church several times, and it is truly a wonder — the music and the spirit are unearthly, and guests (usually surprisingly few for such a remarkable occurrence) are made very welcome.
Graceland (Photo: Michael Reed/Flickr)
The church isn’t far from Graceland, but we didn’t have time to do more than take some pictures at the gates of the king’s estate. We raced back to the famous Peabody hotel — where, it has been said, the Mississippi Delta begins — and found our spot for the daily parade of the ducks that spend their days frolicking in the lobby fountain. We scarfed down some ribs for dinner and headed to the Beale Street Music Festival for the final stop on our tour.
Vintage quacks: a duck in the fountain of the Peabody Hotel (Photo: Alan Light)
Dylan was in particularly fine form on this night, adding a raucous version of “Cold Irons Bound,” a special favorite of Suzanne’s, from his most recent album, “Time Out of Mind.” The festival had a looser, street-party vibe, and seeing this giant at the capital of the blues was profound. He returned for a second encore at this show, closing with a solo version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to see us on our way.
The blues, they say, is a sad song that makes you feel better. And our visit to the land of the blues had helped Hal move past his heartbreak — maybe not all at once, but it helped to set a new course.
The next year, Suzanne gave birth to our son, Adam, which made such impulsive trips much more complicated for the time being. But, no matter: Soon enough, Hal found Rachel, the woman he would marry. Adam, about 7 years old at the time but already a budding musician, broke out his guitar at their rehearsal dinner.
Alan and Suzanne during breakfast in Memphis (Photo: Alan Light)
It would be a better story if he sang a Bob Dylan song rather than something by the Beatles, but that’s OK. Apparently he had already figured out that at the crossroads moments in your life, there’s something that only music can deliver.
Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines. A frequent contributor to the New York Times and Rolling Stone, he is also the author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.”