Tangled Up In Firenze (But In A Good Way)

27Oct09

[I apologize for the month-long gap between posts.  Back on September 25th, while on vacation in Monterey, California, I’d written: 

“I started a great story about my wife and me going to a rock concert in Italy.  That post will appear soon.  But, as the cliché goes ‘shit happens.’”

Little did I realize just how much shit was about to happen so soon.  On the 26th, my wife (Robin) developed a fever of 102.4º, vomited all over our van and had a seizure.  So much for the vacation… I spent much of the next few weeks taking care of her and dealing with doctors, pharmacists and insurance companies.  I think you can understand why blogging became a low priority.

The dual infections that caused Robin’s fever (which, in turn, precipitated her seizure) finally have responded to the barrage of antibiotics.  So, here’s that promised story, which I dedicate to her.]

In the near future, I’ll be writing a series of posts describing my experiences back in November and December of 1965.  The highlight was attending my first rock concert – Bob Dylan at the Berkeley Community Theater.  Today, I’m going to tell a story about attending another Dylan concert – this one was on May 30th 2000 at the Palasport in Firenze (Florence), Italy. 

Robin, my wife, has multiple sclerosis.  It is a truly devastating disease and she has needed to use a wheelchair since 1997.  Despite that challenge, we took a 4-week trip to Italy during May and June of 2000.  It was a major production utilizing all my project management skills plus the knowledge and experience of Joan Diamond, a travel agent who specializes in travel arrangements for people with physical disabilities1.  It would have been great to have blogged during that trip, but
a) I’m not sure I really knew what a blog was back then and
b) I already had a lot “on my plate” – and not just pasta and porcini mushrooms.

Through Joan, we had rented a Renault panel truck adapted with a wheelchair lift. 

Italy_2000_Robin_and_Van0001

Unloading Robin from the panel truck to buy pastries in Torgiano

A French truck with a 4-speed stick shift was certainly an unusual (and sometimes cumbersome) vehicle for touring Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns, but it served our purposes. 

For roughly half the trip, my friend and fellow Banana Slug, Martha Wolf and her sister Susan traveled with us.  We met up in Venice and went to Modena and Lucca.  After spending a week at an agritourismo near Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, the 4 of us headed for Florence.  Driving in Florence is an absolute nightmare – even the Florentines avoid it.  At one point, I found myself on an increasingly narrow street and noticed a sign pointing in the opposite direction that I was headed. 

Senso_Unico

Several locals had to help me back up the panel truck for about 2 blocks – did I mention that it was a cumbersome vehicle?  I had a brief meltdown at that point, but I’ll never forget what “Senso Unico” means!  

Once we actually got to the Grand Hotel Cavour near the Duomo and let the doorman park the Renault, we had a great time in Florence – wandering the ancient streets, marveling at the art and architecture, and eating magnificent meals.  

Two days later, I was looking at a local newspaper and discovered that Bob Dylan would be performing in Florence the following night.  Martha and her sister weren’t interested but Robin was eager to go.  I talked with the concierge at the hotel about handicap accessibility at the venue.  The man did a fantastic job!  First, he called the Palasport and found out that I needed to make arrangements at the ticket office.  Then, he wrote out a note in Italian, explaining exactly what my situation was.

On the day of the concert we made a midday excursion to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David.  Afterwards, we sat down at a café and discovered that we were having lunch next to Huey Lewis (sorry, we were trying not to act like paparazzi, so no picture of him).

That afternoon, while Robin took a nap, I headed off to the central box office near the Santa Maria Novella train station.  The vast majority of folks in line were buying tickets for the Dylan concert – it was a gallimaufry of college students and middle-aged fans from all over Europe – not many native English speakers but they all spoke some English.

After about half an hour, I got up to the counter and presented the note from the concierge.  The clerk read it, nodded and said “No problem.”  He showed me a seating chart and pointed at the far left seat in the 34th row on the floor.  Not great but it would do.  I nodded back.  He then sold me 1 ticket.

Italy_2000_Dylan_Ticket_Front0001

In May 2000, Italy was still on the lira.  A 50,000 lira ticket was basically $25. 

Italy_2000_Box_Office_Receipt0001

Note that even in Florence, the box office adds a service charge – but only about $2.50.

I was confused.  Why only 1 ticket?  That question wasn’t in my TravelTalk Italian Phrase Book.  “Perché solo un biglietto?” I improvised.  The clerk attempted to explain but neither his English nor my Italian were adequate.  He spoke to a woman in line.  She turned to me and said, “Your wife sit next to you.” 

That much I’d already figured out.  “Bene.”  I smiled.  Then I repeated “Perché solo un biglietto?” while raising my index finger in an attempt to emphasize my concern about the “un.”

The woman matter-of-factly replied, “Because your wife bring her own chair.”

I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of a Chico Marx routine.  I thanked everyone for their help but left the box office unconvinced that Robin was going to get into the concert.

When I got back to the hotel, I told Robin what had happened.  She laughed.  “I don’t need to buy a ticket because I’m bringing my own chair.  I love it!”

I suggested that Dylan’s management might not be as amused by that logic.

We decided to get to the concert early, in case there were complications.  After a light dinner, we had the doorman get us a hatchback taxi.  The driver stashed the wheelchair in the back and drove us out towards the venue.  As we got neared the arena, what a shock – there was a terrible traffic jam!  Eventually, the cab driver dropped us at the edge of the park where the Palasport is located.

I was pushing Robin’s chair when, as we approached the entrance to the arena, I was flagged down by a woman in a day-glo chartreuse jumpsuit.  This was not just another rock fan making a fashion statement – she was a member of a local organization called Miseracordia that apparently was responsible for safety and security at public events.  She escorted us to an accessible entrance and then lead us right to our seats – actual my seat and the adjoining aisle where Robin would park her chair.  She then showed us where the accessible restroom was and said she would come back and check on us after the show started.  I was a little puzzled by this last comment, but things had gone pretty smoothly, so I didn’t let it worry me.

I wheeled Robin to the accessible restroom and then walked over to the concession stand.  They were serving espresso in short, round paper containers – like what a portion of ketchup might come in.  I ordered 3 – hey, they seemed small.  The barrista lined them up on the counter and I knocked each of them back in one gulp.  I definitely wouldn’t be falling asleep during the show!

Robin and I returned to our seating area and watched the crowd file in.  By 9:15 the arena was packed.  The lights dimmed and Bob and his band came out – they were perfectly dressed for an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry.  Bob has written hundreds of songs but that night he started his set with an old folk tune, Duncan and Brady.2    The crowd went absolutely nuts.  I hadn’t seen such rowdy enthusiasm since a Patti Smith concert at the Santa Monica Civic back in May of 1978.  And, just like at that show, within seconds everyone was standing on their chairs.  Well, not quite everyone: Robin, unable to do that, struggled to find an angle where she could see the stage.

Dylan continued with The Times They Are A’Changin’, Visions of Johanna and To Ramona.  Just about the time he sang “Ramona come closer” the Miseracordia woman reappeared with a flashlight.  She gestured for us to follow her.  She lead us across the floor and down near the right side of the stage.  There was a ramp up to a raised platform.  6 or 7 other folks in wheelchairs were sitting there, totally digging the show.  We were very close but so far off to the right that we couldn’t see some of the band members.  Robin didn’t mind; Dylan’s distinctive profile was quite clear.

There was one song I especially wanted to hear that night: Tangled Up in Blue.  It’s a great song but I had a specific reason for wanting to hear Dylan sing it in Florence.  Our hotel was a just short walk from Dante’s house – or at least one house where he supposedly had lived.  I have the feeling that saying “Dante lived here” is the Italian equivalent of saying “George Washington slept here” on the East Coast of the US.  Nevertheless, 2 days earlier we’d gone to see Dante’s house and I recalled the fifth verse of Tangled Up in Blue:

“She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
‘I thought you’d never say hello,’ she said
‘You look like the silent type.’
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you…
Tangled up in blue.”3

The lit major in me loved that verse:  the song’s narrator was seeking his long-lost soul mate in much the same way that Dante had sought a glimpse of his beloved Beatrice.  Of course, there’s no record of Dante “workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat right outside of Delacroix” or Beatrice “workin’ in a topless place.”

Anyway, I’d seen Dylan perform the song several times and heard bootlegs of other live performances and for some reason he tended to skip that verse.  But that night, in the city where Dante was born, the next song he played was Tangled Up in Blue and he sang that verse. 

Dylan did a total of 19 songs that night4, but TUIB (as Dylan fans refer to it when texting each other) was the highlight for me. 

The crowd stayed on their feet for the entire show (except in our section).  During It Ain’t Me, Babe I looked back and saw several thousand raised hands with pointing index fingers as they belted out “No, no, no!”  l laughed, remembering how I had pointed while trying to speak Italian to the ticket seller.  “No, no, no!” – the only Italian words sung all night.

After the show, we waved good-bye to the day-glo green lady and took a cab back to the hotel.  I lay awake, thinking about the concert – and wishing I hadn’t had that third espresso. 

So… what have we learned?

  • Who needs Esperanto?  Rock and roll is the universal language.
  • When the world gives them lemons, Italians make lemoncello.

It’s great to see and do all sorts of different things in foreign countries, but I also like doing some of the same things I normally do at home.  That way I get to see the subtle differences between here and there… like not having to buy a ticket when you go to a Dylan concert in a wheelchair. 

Later… 

  1. http://www.nautilustours.com/aboutus.html
  2. Here’s a sample of what he sounded like:
    http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/duncan-and-brady
  3. Copyright ©1974 Ram’s Horn Music
  4. http://www.boblinks.com/053000s.html
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11 Responses to “Tangled Up In Firenze (But In A Good Way)”

  1. 1 Gary Peterson

    I hope your wife Robin is feeling well now. Thanks for the post, good experience, and I’ve heard that Italians are rabid Dylan fans, wish I could have been there.

  2. Thank you – and again thanks
    I was smileing a lot while reading your blog, love the Miseracordia.
    The Italians are rabid Dylan fans, yes that´s true, so are the Brit´s the Norweegans, the Sweeds, the Germans – it´s happening all over Europe (Dylan is always well recived here these days, there is, after 1966:) and some of us in Reykjavik are even fans too – and we think of us as the rabidiest of them all.
    Thank you for good writing.
    Sveinbjorn, Reykjavik, Iceland.

    • Wow… I now have at least one reader in Iceland (the power of tagging a blog post “Bob Dylan”).
      In November of 1971 I was on a plane going from Luxembourg to Reykjavik (really!) but, due to bad weather, we got diverted to Glasgow. I remember sitting in the airport bar, listening to people talking and thinking that the Scottish (specifically Glaswegian) dialect was so thick that I’d probably have understood the people better in Iceland.
      Thanks for the kind words… glad you enjoyed the post. There will be some more tales of Dylan concerts in the next few months.
      In the meantime you might enjoy my story about writing a record review for Rolling Stone magazine.
      https://thedornblog.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/not-quite-almost-famous/
      Thanks again.
      m. j. dorn

  3. 4 Patty Birk

    What a great post – I felt like I was there.

    I’m glad to hear Robin is doing better. We’ll have to catch up by phone sometime soon!

    Was that Icelandic Air on the way back to NY by any chance??

    • Good to hear from you. I’ll give you a call next week.

      Robin has resumed doing her aquatic exercise program at the Cal State Northridge therapy pool — which she really enjoys.

      Re: Icelandic Air. Yes — the favored flight option of American “Let’s Go: Europe” readers in the early 70s. I was trying to get home for Thanksgiving after 4 months backpacking around Europe (with a sidetrip to Morocco).

  4. 6 Bob Fordham

    Hey Mike, another “homerun” blog. Oh that’s right, you like basketball — OK, another “slam dunk” blog. I’m going to forward it to my sister who has worked in the world of disability funding and disabiity rights for many years. She’ll appreciate the day-glo green Miseracordia lady, and the great treatment Robin got.

    By the way, send Robin my best.

  5. 7 JIm Laffan

    Dorn: I’m glad Robin is better. I’m even glad you got to see Dylan. But look here–you went to Florence looking for the wrong guy!

    On March 12, 1978, Craig McGregor interviewed Dylan in Australia, and
    the following exchange occurred:

    Craig; I’ve always thought ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ was a great song. I
    really like it.
    Dylan : Yeah, I like that one too.
    Craig : Without knowing anything about it, I half assumed that Blue
    might be Joan Baez.
    Dylan : Joni Mitchell had an album out called ‘Blue’. And it affected
    me, I couldn’t get it out of my head. And it just stayed in my head and
    when I wrote that song I wondered, what’s that mean ? And then I figured
    that it was just there, and I guess that’s what happened, y’know.
    Craig : It’s not the same ‘blue’ as in ‘it’s all over now baby blue’ ?
    Dylan : No, no. That’s a different blue. That’s a character right off
    the haywagon. That Baby Blue is from right upstairs at the barber shop,
    y’know off the street………. a different baby blue, I haven’t run
    into her in a long time, long time.
    Craig : You’re being serious ?
    Dylan : Yeah, I’ve never looked at Joan Baez as being Baby Blue.
    Craig : Do you see much of her these days ?
    Dylan : (pause) She was on two tours with me. I haven’t seen her since
    then. She went to Europe.
    Craig : You involved in her ?
    Dylan : No, No ………
    Craig : Listening to ‘tangled up in blue’, I got the feeling, it’s like
    an autobiography; a sort of funny, wry, compressed novel……
    Dylan : Yeah, that’s the first I ever wrote that I felt free enough to
    change all the ……what is it, the tenses around, is that what it is ?
    Craig : the person….
    Dylan : The he and the she and the I and the you, and the we and the
    us– I figured it was all the same anyway– I could throw them all in
    where they floated right– and it works on that level.
    Craig : Its got those nice lines at the end, about ‘ there was music in
    the cafes at night and revolution in the air’ and ‘ some are
    mathematicians, some are carpenters wives, I don’t know how it all got
    started, I don’t know what they do with their lives’.
    Dylan : I like that song. Yeah that poet from the 13th century….
    Craig : Who was that ?
    Dylan : Plutarch. Is that his name ?
    Craig : Yeah. Are there a lot of dylanologists around still in the
    states ?
    Dylan : I don’t pay much attention to that. I get over-enthusiastic
    fans. But I never did pay much mind to that.

    Plutarch was a Greek historian (46-c120 A.D.) so this was obviously a
    slip on Dylan $@Us (J part. The transcription of the interview is correct
    according to $@RT (Jhe fiddler now upspoke volume one of the complete Dylan
    interviews edited by Dr. Flith (!).

    Dylan presumably meant to say Petrarch, an Italian poet who was born in
    1304, just four years out of the 13th century. The following account
    (“Reader’s Companion to World Literature” by Hornstein, Percy, Brown
    Mentor/Penguin Group ISBN: 0-451-62816-0) of Petrach’s verse (dedicated
    to Laura, the love of his life) could quite easily be describing Blood
    On The Tracks.

    “… his primary poetic theme is hopeless love, a spiritualized passion
    for the unattainable. Through most of his life, Petrarch kept writing
    and rearranging the verses for Laura in Life and Laura in Death, a total
    of 366 poems. They are in varied forms. The sonnets, which form the
    majority, have been described as the most polished verses in western
    European literature. There can be no doubt that their form is perfect,
    but their lasting appeal comes from the combination of form and content.
    Petrarch is permanently in the center of the stage, exploring
    indefatigably all the delicate phenomena of his emotions. His sentiments
    come from the discord between the senses and the soul, the flesh and the
    spirit, the sensuality of his love and a mystic acceptance of its
    spirituality. His inner struggle between the sensuous and the ascetic
    is reflected in subtleties and antitheses of expression. He does not
    fight or rebel against the conflict, but records it with tender
    melancholy, in plaintive tones — clear, sweet, with the elegance of
    technical perfection. The musical qualities are developed with the
    greatest sensitivity.

    Petrarch lived from 1304 to 1374. To my mind, the fact that he was born
    just out of the 13th century is the kind of slip that one can readily
    accept. Tangled Up in Blue was written with inspiration, but not
    necessarily with a biographical dictionary. (Reading over the above
    statement, I should underline that the slip was Dylan’s for having said
    that Petrach was born in the 13th century, not Petrach’s for having been
    born too late — blame in on a…)

    Or the variation Dylan used to sing in concert just before his Jesus phase:

    She was dressed in a dress had stars and stripes
    “Thought you’d never say hello,” she said
    “You know, you look like you could be the silent type.”
    Then she opened up the Bible
    And she started quotin’ it to me
    Jeremiah, chapters 36,
    Verses 21 & 33


    or

    http://www.casttv.com/video/hseufb/bob-dylan-tangled-up-in-blue-1978-bible-lyrics-version-video
    where you get different Jermiah verses.

  6. JIm:
    Interesting… Petrarch had his Laura, Dante had his Beatrice — two unattainable women. Still, Dante was a 13th Century Italian poet and Petrarch was a 14th Century one (who spent a lot of time in Provence). It seems to me that “14th Century” would scan just as well as “13th Century” in the song. So, is this a case of sloppy fact checking by Bob — or was he deliberately throwing Craig McGregor off the trail, as pay back for the dumb question about Joan Baez being Baby Blue?

  7. 9 ted

    Tangled up in blue is what I always seem to get after “shit happens.” But instead of getting tangled up, you thought of happier times. It’s a more positive outlook, and a very sweet story.

    Having just returned from Europe, we also encountered people who went miles out of their way to offer any kind of help. That alone is enough to untangle your blue anytime.

  8. 10 jallebrand

    Good that such a nice well-written bit of socializing (pace teabaggers) is back – beats to hell all the twit-shit and facebook blather. Sorry to hear about Robin’s illness. Hi Robin.
    Tangled Up in Blue has become one of my favorites (the slight guitar string screeching on sliding D chords is wonderful) – have always liked it, but perhaps it’s a song best appreciated from a more experienced middle life – to quote Dante’s first line in the Inferno, Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. I also love Firenze. Thus this story sent me on a few sentimental ‘cammini’. I vote that Dylan was really thinking, or meant to be thinking of Dante and not Petrarch – the song is much more about a journey through circles of experience and fascination & disappointment with people and their faulty sinning nature than the stylized sonnets of a lover. Petrarch would not have had, and Dante very well could have had an emotion like this: “I must admit I felt a little uneasy/When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,/Tangled up in blue.”


  1. 1 Tangled Up In Firenze (But In A Good Way)

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