Freezing Time

I had long wanted to see Bob Dylan live, and took advantage of his performing in Cardiff, Wales, about two hours from where I live to tick that off my bucket list. Festooned around the arena like bunting were signs which, with both pictograms and strong words, warned that photos were not allowed. Having front row seats, and wishing to take a photo of the empty stage before the show, I asked the usher if this would be allowed. He apologetically explained that this was a zero-tolerance rule set down by Dylan himself. I had read a review of the previous night’s concert in Manchester, which told about ushers removing people from the audience who persisted in trying to take pictures. So I put my phone in my pocket and sat down to wait for Bob to come on stage.

It’s very common that people take pictures at concerts. Many people spend much of their time at concerts holding their cellphones up and filming the events. You can see this on photos taken at concerts, and on numerous YouTube videos concertgoers post. Unless the person shooting the footage is in the front row, you see countless other cellphones, their screens radiating a bluish light on their owners, creating a sort of wall of screens between the audience and the performers.

I understand Bob Dylan’s desire to have people pay attention to his music-making, rather than have it mediated by a screen. In addition, the constant flashing of lights is distracting to the those on stage. Benedict Cumberbatch, who recently performed Hamlet in London, had to ask the audience to stop filming and taking pictures during the play. Of course, the irony was that, in order to circulate this request, he had to do it in front of fans filming him at the stage door of the theater where he was performing.[1]

I attend the theater often, living near Stratford-Upon-Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company performs in its two theaters. There are announcements before each performance asking people not to take pictures, and to turn off their cellphones and digital watches. Only once have I seen someone attempt to take a photo during a performance. I was in the first balcony, and someone a half-dozen seats to my right attempted to snap the actors bowing on stage at the curtain call. An angry usher rushed down near me – I was sitting on the aisle – shined her flashlight on the young woman, and tried to get her to stop. The usher was more of an annoyance than the spectator who merely wanted one photo of the cast. However, no one is ever bothered if they take pictures of the stage before the shows begin (something I have done often).


(A photo of the empty stage before the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2015 production of Othello.)

I might have wanted one photo of Dylan and his band, but I wouldn’t have spent my time shooting video of the concert. I had spent serious money for front row VIP tickets, and wanted to focus entirely on the music. But I did see the occasional flash – and usher’s flashlight – during the concert, as people tried to get personal memories of the evening.

Why do people feel the need to have a visual record of what they are seeing with their own eyes? Is this an attempt to reify the feelings they have while attending a performance? Is it to have visual evidence, proof that they were, indeed, listening to Bob Dylan? “Pics or it didn’t happen,” one often hears. Or is it, like the many selfies people take in various locations, just a modern equivalent of dogs pissing on benches?

I saw many concerts as a teenager in New York, in venues both large and small, and, while I don’t remember particulars of any of them, many of them exist in my mind in a sort of crystallized form. I have vague memories of many of these events, with either good or disappointed feelings, but nothing more. For many concerts, I still have ticket stubs, and perusing them acts like a sort of madeleine that brings me back to the mood and feelings of specific shows.

One concert I remember well took place on November 11, 1978. My friend Jay and I traveled to Philadelphia to hear Jorma Kaukonen play a solo acoustic concert.[2] I remember the date because this was the first time the Grateful Dead performed on Saturday Night Live; quite an important event for us Deadheads. We were sitting in the fifth row of Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania. We had whippets that night; those little cartridges of nitrous oxide that give you a fleeting rush. In a recording of the concert, about three songs in, you can hear when Jay slipped up trying to inhale one of the whippets which noisily leaked from the small dispenser. This was in between songs, and Jorma said, "is that nitrous oxide I hear?" The audience cheered, of course; altered states were the norm at this kind of concert.

There’s an audience recording of this concert, made from very close to where we were sitting (close enough to hear the whippet’s whoosh). The quality is not excellent, and in no way reproduces the excellent music we heard that evening, nor the feeling of seeing such a great concert in seats so close to the stage. But if I listen to that recording, memories of the event come back to me, through a veil of time. I don’t have any photos of the show, and I don’t recall seeing many people with cameras at most of the concerts I attended. Sure, you can see the flashbulbs going off during concert films from the 1970s in large arenas, but with a limited number of shots on a roll of film, and the cost of developing it, people didn’t spend an entire concert trying to take pictures.

I remember watching the New York Jets play the Oakland Raiders in the AFL championship game in January, 1969. Sitting behind the end zone in Shea Stadium, the cold New York winter permeated my clothes and my body, freezing my feet. I drank a constant supply of hot chocolate from the ambulatory vendor who carried a tank around on his back. I don’t remember much of the game, other than the fact that the Jets won (And eventually won the Super Bowl), but I have a strong memory of sitting in the stands, huddled in my parka, freezing in the cold winter afternoon. I have no photos, no selfies, no autographs, no videos, noting but my memories.

My youth is full of these fleeting recollections, all of which are tinged by time and by the disintegration of memory. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had photographs and videos of these events. Would they seem more real? Or would my actual memories of the events be different because they were visually frozen in time?

I’ve bought keepsakes from a number of events I attended over the years. I’ve bought t-shirts at concerts, catalogs at art exhibits, and, these days, you can by downloads of concerts you’ve seen, in some cases buying quickly burned CDs on your way out of the venue.[3] But the best keepsakes are the ones in the mind; the feeling of the event, the reminder of the thrill of seeing your favorite band come out on stage as the lights go on and the audience erupts in applause, and the experience of hearing your favorite band on stage without the filter of a recording studio.

What is the value of a blurry photo of Bob Dylan and his band on stage taken from the 30th row? Sure, it reminds the person who took the picture where they were sitting, the colors of the suits the band was wearing – scarlet, for this concert – and the lighting on stage, but its very blurriness suggests that it doesn’t tell a true story. It is, perhaps, something to tweet, or share on Facebook or Instagram, but beyond that, it’s nothing more than proof that the photographer was at the concert. (And took the photo at the risk of missing the rest of the concert.)

We live in a world where everyone has a camera in their pocket and can take photos or videos of whatever goes on around them, with no worries about needing special lights or developing film. These images can be saved or shared instantly. But do we need all these photos and videos? We often see people walking around points of interest taking photos, viewing landmarks through a lens, rather than through their own eyes.

Are we all Zeligs of our own lives, wishing to prove our existence by demonstrating where we have been, and what important events we have attended? Do we need these visual reminders of what we have done, what we have seen, who we have been with to construct our personas? How will people feel in 20 or 30 years when they look back at the selfies they took with transient friends and brief acquaintances, and try to figure out where they were, and who those people were?

Perhaps it’s time to stop taking photos, to experience events through one’s eyes and ears, rather than through a lens and screen. While memories of those events won’t be as sharp, they may be more potent. In a world where people are trying to hold on to memories of everything, maybe the strongest memories are the ones we can’t capture.

  1. Watch the video: Benedict Cumberbatch urges fans not to take photos or video during Hamlet performances  ↩
  2. Jorma Kaukonen was one of the guitarists in Jefferson Airplane. Together with bassist Jack Casady, he formed Hot Tuna, a band that played old blues songs, along with songs inspired by the blues. Jorma has had a long career of playing solo acoustic concerts of his own compositions, along with the classic blues songs that he has championed. You can see a grainy, black and white video of another concert earlier that year on YouTube.  ↩
  3. Bob Dylan doesn’t sell live recordings, and issues very few live albums. Nevertheless, I do have a bootleg of the Cardiff concert, made by some intrepid member of the audience.  ↩