Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
-Bob Dylan, “Mr Tambourine Man”
My wife bought a tambourine the other day. It is a prop to help her with a Sunday School lesson: she’s working through Moses and the Exodus, and she wanted to include Moses’s sister Miriam singing and playing her tambourine after the Israelites cross the Red Sea in their providential escape from Pharaoh’s army. This, she will freely admit, is largely to
please our daughter, who as a musical wee blighter has latched on to Miriam as a hero of the same order as Boudicca.
Tambourines are loud, obnoxious, and infectious. As a doctoral researcher in the last few months of my PhD writing, I could wish for Bob Dylan’s tambourine man to play a song for me, and I could lose myself as Bob describes. But, as the man said elsewhere, “we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.”
My best tambourine story comes from my last summer before leaving Nanaimo, BC and starting university. Pearl Jam was on a continental tour for their album Yield, and me and my two mates desperately wanted to see the band. Pearl Jam was the biggest inspiration for us picking up guitars, writing our own songs, and of course donning flannel and
eschewing traditional markers of success just like everyone else. I was heading 3,000 miles away, and our band, Gone, would eponymously disappear once I did. (Though our music, it would seem, lives on: you can still hear a smattering of our genius on the archival page–itself now an artefact–on Myspace.)
They were due to play Portland, lay over a day, and then finish the first leg of the tour with a two-night stand in Seattle. A Vancouver rock radio station started a petition asking the band to spend their night off in Canada, and they relented. (About five songs into the set, Eddie Vedder greeted the crowd; the huge, long, and enthusiastic applause prompted him to observe that we sounded pretty proud of ourselves.) The way was set: we got our tickets, arranged a place to crash, and crossed the Strait of Georgia.
The day was full of mayhem–my mates got nipple rings, as you can see above; proper coming-of-age/buddy-bonding narrative demands that I also got one, but I’ve always been an independent chap, so I just sat in the room with them and recalled that scene from Airheads when Chris Farley’s cop “improvises” at a rock club.
The night was epic, amazing. My first stadium rock show, my first time seeing Pearl Jam, and my last adventure with these friends before leaving home. They played an incredible set; they pulled out a heart-stopping encore, with Vedder going into the crowd during the solo to “Alive,” to the awe of hardcore touring fans who thought a sedate Canadian crowd didn’t deserve such a move; and then they came back for one more.
Vedder said they had talked to some people before the show and asked what they wanted, which set them up for “Yellow Ledbetter.” It’s a gorgeous b-side, a show-off ditty for lead guitarist Mike McCready, a campfire singalong for the crowd, and traditionally the last song of the night. You know when you hear it that the show is done, and when I heard it, I was elated and exhausted. It could have ended there and all would be well. But then there’s Vedder with a tambourine in his hand, banging on it and leaping like an idiot over this tight, palm-muted guitar line. I truly had no idea. It was “Baba O’Riley” from The Who. I had never heard the song before, and this was an incredible introduction. Vedder pounded it for a while before frisbee-tossing it to someone on the floor.
(The video here is not Vancouver but Inglewood, California–same tour, just a few days earlier. Watch the tambourine action, as not one but two are pressed into service and rocketed to new homes in the crowd. Vedder’s guitar did not lose it in Vancouver…)
I’ve seen them twice since, I’ve even seen Vedder brandishing a tambourine again, but I haven’t experienced a night as amazing as that. It would have been incredible without the tambourine, but to see one of my heroes dance beneath the diamond lights with one hand waving free, the other rattling the tambor, it was iconic.
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade.
Into my own parade
Cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.
-Bob Dylan, “Mr Tambourine Man”