Today marks exactly 25 years since Bob Dylan first embarked on what's commonly known as his Never Ending Tour. During this time, he's played at least 2,503 shows in 808 cities and towns all over the world, and a conservative, as-the-crow-flies estimate of the complete itinerary puts his travels over the last quarter century at an astonishing 1,007,416 miles.
That's the equivalent of going to and from the moon, twice, then completely around the Earth, twice more — with enough left over to fly from Duluth, Minnesota, to New York City and back again. So, the man's kind of a popular performer.
There are six cities in which Dylan's played at least 25 shows on the Never Ending Tour — New York (52) and London (50) lead the way — and he broken double digits in 50 cities altogether. He plays the United States most often, but the tour is truly global: Dylan maintains about a 3 to 2 ratio of domestic to international shows and has reached 54 other countries to date. He frequents major world cities like Toronto and Paris and Stockholm and Tokyo and Melbourne, of course, but he's played in Estonia and Andorra and Macedonia and recently China, too.
He may well be America's most-popular cultural emissary.
This map includes every show Bob Dylan has played for the last 25 years. Click on the icons and refer to the legend at lower right for a more detailed view. (Map by Sara Johnson and Eric Jaffe)
Dylan's been to so many places in these two-and-a-half decades that they start to form their own natural clusters. He's played Big Sky and Little Rock, Mountain View and Long Beach, Great Falls and Lake Placid, Palm Desert and Thunder Bay. He's played Eastlake and West Point and South Bend and Middletown and Northampton. He's played Providence and Christchurch and Las Cruces, and at least 20 different Saints or Sans or Santas, and Bethlehem (Pennsylvania).
He's played Forts Lauderdale and Myers and Pierce and Wayne and Worth. And Esch-sur-Alzette and Juan-les-Pins and Winston-Salem and Stratford-upon-Avon. And Elizabeth (Indiana) and Murray (Kentucky) and Eugene (Oregon) and Salina (Kansas) and Wayne (New Jersey) and George, Washington. And Altoona and Alpharetta, Chattanooga and Chula Vista, Kalamazoo and Kissimmee, Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee, Yspilanti and Waikiki, and Normal, Illinois.
He's played Aberdeen in Scotland and Maryland, and Hamburg in New York and Germany, and Victoria in Canada and Hong Kong. He's gone from Louisville to Nashville to Knoxville to Asheville to Huntsville in eight days. He's toured Cork and Bordeaux, College Park and State College, Jean and Jaen, Dijon and Gijon, Nampa and Tampa. He played London, Canada, the same night a Dylan cover band played London, England. He once went straight from Assago to Zurich.
Twenty-five years of Bob Dylan shows, organized by city. (Compiled by Eric Jaffe and Sara Johnson)
The very first song of the Never Ending Tour, played in Concord, California, was "Subterranean Homesick Blues." He's only played Duluth, Minnesota, twice — once more than he's played Duluth, Georgia. But he'll be going home again soon. The city is on the schedule for a new U.S. summer leg, stretching from Florida to California, that begins in just a few weeks.
• • • • •
In a sense, Bob Dylan has been on tour ever since he arrived in New York City in 1961. There were breaks — most notably, the roughly eight-year fallow period following his motorcycle accident in mid-1966 — but it wasn't until the late 1980s that Dylan seems to have started thinking his playing days "might well have been faded out," he writes in volume one of his memoir, Chronicles (2004). Then suddenly, a two-part transformation occurred that seems to have set the stage, so to speak, for the Never Ending Tour.
The first part of the change, related to Dylan's voice, was rather mystical. It occurred during some sessions with the Grateful Dead that took place during a break on his tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Struggling to connect emotionally with his old songs, he left the session and wandered into a jazz bar where he heard a singer who seemed to have "an open window to my soul." The experience called to mind some "elemental" singing technique that promised to help Dylan recapture some of the power he felt he'd lost.
He joined Petty for one final tour leg, and at a show in Locarno, Switzerland, in October of 1987, the vocal trick clicked:
Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place. Now the energy was coming from a hundred different angles, completely unpredictable ones. … It was like I'd become a new performer, an unknown one in the true sense of the word. In more than thirty years of performing, I had never seen this place before, never been here.
The other part, related to his playing, was much more mechanical. Dylan recalls that he replaced his "flat-picking" guitar style with a "highly controlled" system that blues artist Lonnie Johnson had taught him in the early 1960s. The effect might make Dylan's songs sound a bit unfamiliar and maybe even off rhythm, but it would also enable him to play with an emotional detachment. He described the style as "strict and orthodox" and the complete opposite of improvisation:
Nobody else played this way and I thought of it as a new form of music.
So if we're to believe Dylan's published recollections, come 1988 he felt like a "new" singing performer and had discovered a "new" musical style. The only thing left was to offer these insights to a new audience. He told his touring manager to plan at least three years of shows in the same towns, because he thought it would take him that long to get the techniques down. He thought he might lose older fans but that younger ones would be intrigued and bring their friends back with them the following year. Ultimately this would form "the nucleus of my future audience":
I wished I was at least twenty years younger, wished that I had just dropped on the scene all over again.
• • • • •
Jeff Rosen, Dylan's manager, declined to comment for this article on the current strategy and operations of the Never Ending Tour, but statistics and trends suggest the two core concepts of Dylan's original plan remain in place.
Take his focus on playing the same towns. Of the 62 cities he played in 1988, for instance, Dylan went back to nearly half the very next year, and has since re-visited all but four. (For the record: Charlevoix, Michigan; Carlsbad, California; Middletown, New York; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.) This repetition has endured. There are currently 390 cities that Dylan has played only once during the Never Ending Tour. That means 84 percent of the time he's performing in front of a fan who's had the chance to see him before — and maybe this time brought some new friend.
His focus on a younger audience persists as well. Back in 1988 he established a mid-tour college town presence that's become habitual during U.S. legs. Berkeley leads the way with 12 shows, but countless others have made the map. In 2004 he did an entire 29-show college leg. He'll play big arenas sometimes but also mix in downtown clubs and minor league ballparks. He'll share the stage with acts ranging from Elvis Costello and Paul Simon to Willie Nelson and Phil Lesh to Jack White and (this summer) Wilco.
Dylan's three-year outlook has broadened since 1988 — it's now twenty-five going on eternity — but a lot of other things haven't changed.
There's a regularity to the travel pattern, sometimes down to the month. (In recent years, New Yorkers could set their calendars to Dylan's November appearances.) Since 1989 he's played shows in Europe every year, and he returns to Asia or Australia about once every five. He tends to play four or five legs a year, give or take one; there were a high of seven legs in 1998, when Dylan logged nearly 66,000 miles on tour, including a trip to South America with the Stones. Even after his latest start — May 27, 1989 — he still managed 99 shows.
The wildest Never Ending leg is open for debate. A strong case can be made for Leg 2 of 1995, when Dylan began in Maine, worked west and south to San Diego, then headed back to Boston and down the East Coast before flying to Oslo four days later for Leg 3. But it's hard to top Leg 1 of 1990 for grandeur. It began January 12 with an epic 50-song, 4-set, 18-cover, 6-ish-hour show (with 240 minutes of actual music) at Toad's Place in New Haven, then to Brazil, then to Paris, then a six-night, six-show residency at the Hammersmith in London. All that inside a month.
Winston Watson, who played drums for the band in the early 1990s, describes the frenzy of the road in a documentary called Bob Dylan Never Ending Tour Diaries (2009). With the house lights up the band would do what's called a "runner," dashing for the 12-bunk tour bus (with a star coach, of course) and leaving for the next city. "A very well-oiled machine," said Watson of the whole operation. "Everybody's where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be."
Watson said the grind wore him down physically and emotionally during his four years, but when it was finally over he must have found himself missing it a bit, because he joined a Dylan cover band called Highway 61 Revisited.
• • • • •
Dylan himself doesn't seem to care much for the Never Ending Tour moniker. Initially fans were led to believe Dylan coined the phrase during an interview with journalist Adrian Deevoy for Q, the British music magazine, in late 1989. According to Clinton Heylin's 1991 unauthorized biography, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, Dylan responded to a question from Deevoy about the back-to-back nature of his recent tour schedule by saying:
It's all the same tour. The Never-Ending Tour. … You know, you just don't have to start it up and end it. It's better just to keep it out there with the breaks … extended breaks.
As it turns out, Deevoy seems to have put the phrase into Dylan's mouth. That's according to the writer Michael Gray, author of the wonderful Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006), whose comprehensive book devotes an entire entry to Deevoy. On the actual recorded interview, writes Gray, Dylan does say, "It's all the same tour." But then Deevoy suggests, "It's the Never-Ending Tour" and Dylan replies, "Yeah. Yeah."
"[I]n order to reference the source of what everyone said was Dylan's quote, I naturally checked that source — and found to my surprise that it was not Dylan's at all, but Adrian Deevoy's," Gray says.
Over the years Dylan has criticized the nickname. In the liner notes to his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, Dylan writes that fans shouldn't get "bewildered by the Never Ending Tour chatter," claims it ended in 1991 with the departure of lead guitarist G. E. Smith, and says that each leg of his tour has its "own character and design." The notes have a sardonic tone, but in a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan showed some genuine rancor for the label:
"Critics should know that there's no such thing as forever. … You never heard about Oral Roberts and Billy Graham being on some Never Ending Preacher Tour. Does anybody ever call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? Is Rupert Murdoch a Never Ending Media Tycoon? What about Donald Trump? Does anybody say he has a Never Ending Quest to build buildings? … Anybody ever say that Duke Ellington was on a Never Ending Bandstand Tour? But critics apply a different standard to me for some reason. … "
However Dylan truly feels about the Never Ending Tour name, it certainly exists in the minds of his fans. Bill Pagel's set list website is updated within minutes of the curtain as attendees call or email him. Olof Björner's keeps a concert history page celebrated for its detail. There's a "never ending pool" to predict what songs will be performed on a given leg, spinning off a contest that began in 2001. (Yes, my team did win once, thanks for asking.) And of course there are the joys of the shows and bootlegs themselves — hearing new songs played live for the first time, developing a taste for old tunes arranged like never before.
It's enough to keep fans busy forever, if there is such a thing.
• • • • •
The 1,007,416-mile question, of course, is what drives Dylan to tour at such a relentless pace. "People do say: he's a 72-year-old guy, he's got plenty of money, he doesn't have to do this," says Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, author of Bob Dylan in America (2010) and historian-in-residence at Dylan's official website. "He's obviously not doing it because he has to do it, he's doing it because he wants to do it."
Wilentz believes some of the mystery of what motivates Dylan slips away if we consider him a performing artist instead of a recording artist. That idea harmonizes with a few clues Dylan himself has left during recent interviews. Together they suggest we should be looking at the Never Ending Tour not as some static display of Dylan's creative process but rather its essence.
"He does the recordings, to be sure, and they're important, but the songs have a life much bigger than what's on the record," says Wilentz. "That's why he goes around performing them. That's what he does. That's what his art is about. It's about lots of other things, too, but that's, I think, at the core of it."
For one thing, Dylan clearly derives inspiration from being on the road. He soaks up every new corner of the universe: whether it's the low-income shore community in New Jersey where police found him wandering around a few years back, or Neil Young's home in Winnipeg where he once made an excursion just to walk the same steps Young had walked. Is it merely a coincidence that the Never Ending Tour has coincided with Dylan's most fertile songwriting period since the 1960s?
"Traveling allows Dylan's aloofness to ferment into clarity," Douglas Brinkley wrote in Rolling Stone in 2009.
Then there's the development of his musical sound. With the exception of bassist Tony Garnier, who's been around since The Hague show in 1989, band members unceremoniously come and go. Every band permutation — there have been twenty-two at last count — is like a fresh effort to enhance the vocal and technical epiphanies Dylan experienced back in the late 1980s. They try to perfect Dylan's songs every night, or perhaps let them evolve in some Darwinian sense that may itself be perfection.
"I don't think you'll hear what I do ever again," Dylan told Brinkley in 2009. "It took a while to find this thing."
And last there's the very artistry of performance. Maybe the reason Dylan gives new arrangements to old favorites or rewrites the lyrics to classics etched in cultural stone is because they're still growing in his eyes. "People still have this idea that the record is the real thing and shows are just kind of the unreal thing," says Wilentz. "But, in fact, the shows may be the real thing." In a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone, Dylan agreed that performance brought a song to life:
Songs don't come alive in a recording studio. You try your best, but there's always something missing. What's missing is a live audience.
May his search for that missing something never end.
Enormous thanks goes to Atlantic Cities fellow Sara Johnson for producing the maps and to Dylan-pool teammate Chris Chase for numerous suggestions.
A note on data: The main source of geographic data for the interactive map was bobdylan.com. A handful of "private shows" tracked by the site were removed. Some venue details have been clarified with the help of Olof Björner's concert history page, which has show information Dylan's site doesn't. In cases where ambiguities or differences could not be reconciled, details were presented as they appeared at Dylan's official site.
A note on mileage methodology: Total mileage for the Never Ending Tour was calculated via Google Maps using an as-the-crow-flies distance tool. The estimate is imprecise in three notable ways. First, it measures distance from city to city rather than venue to venue. Second, it measures distance to the start of a new leg from the end of the previous leg (thereby omitting whatever changes in location occurred in between). Third, Dylan typically travels by bus instead of by air. For this last reason in particular the mileage should be considered a conservative estimate. The actual distance covered by the tour is likely much greater.
UPDATE: The interactive and state-by-state maps have been updated to address a data coding error.