Bob Dylan Remembers the Time He Thought Fans Wanted to Burn an Arena to the Ground and Kill Him

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Photo: Michael Kovac/WireImage

Bob Dylan may not have much to say about his recent Nobel Prize honor, but he’s a regular chatty Kathy if you ask him about his art. The American music legend was invited by London’s Halcyon Gallery to put on an exhibition of his landscape paintings, and he’s written an essay for Vanity Fair all about his process and artistic philosophy called, “In His Own Words: Why Bob Dylan Paints.” In it, Dylan expounds on his use of “up to the moment realism” and “the camera-obscura method,” but he opens with an anecdote about the time he thought an arena full of fans were trying to burn him and the Band alive. In 1974, during his first public performance with the Band in eight years, Dylan thought the crowd of nearly 20,000 holding up lit matches to indicate their appreciation for his music actually meant they were going to set the building on fire and take the performers down with them.

The Band and I hadn’t played publicly together since 1966 where our shows caused a lot of disruption and turmoil — a lot of anger. Now we were in Chicago starting up again. There was no way to predict what was going to happen. At the end of the concert we had played over 25 or 30 songs and we were standing on the stage looking out. The audience was in semi-darkness. All of a sudden, somebody lit a match. And then somebody else lit another match. In short time, there were areas of the arena that were engulfed in matches. Within seconds after that, it looked like the whole arena was in flames and that all the people in the arena had struck matches and were going to burn the place down. The Band and I looked for the nearest stage exit as none of us wanted to go down in flames. It seemed like nothing had changed. If we thought the response was extreme on the earlier tours we played, this was positively apocalyptic. Every one of us on the stage thought that we’d really done it this time — that the fans were going to burn the arena down. Obviously we were wrong. We misinterpreted and misunderstood the reaction of the crowd. What we believed to be disapproval was actually a grand appreciative gesture. Appearances can be deceiving.

If only people had had iPhones to hold up 40 years ago, Dylan wouldn't have felt the creeping dread that a mob was trying to incinerate him.