It was 2003 and the Waifs were scheduled to open for Bob Dylan for 30 of his tour dates across the United States.
After settling into the early shows, my sister (and fellow Waifs singer) Donna Simpson and I were called in for a soundcheck by Larry Campbell, Dylan’s guitarist, to rehearse a few backing vocals on Knockin ‘on Heaven’s Door. Sometimes Dylan invites guests on stage to join him in singing it, Larry said.
Knockin ‘on Heaven’s Door was the first song Donna and I learned and we were thrilled to join Dylan on stage to sing it. “Don’t hold your breath,” Larry told us, “It may not happen. “
Halfway through, Dylan generously gave our entire group some gorgeous bespoke western shirts – the subtle suggestion being that we could fine tune our number.
Each evening we waited, shirts ironed, for the call to join Dylan and his band on stage. The call never came. Twenty-nine concerts, we had seen all the shows and we were blown away by the music and the fact that we were touring the United States with one of the most influential songwriters in the world. We were at the top, on the easy train with backstage catering and a tour bus, friendly with all the cast and crew.
The dream of singing in Dylan’s set had long since melted into the mundane routine of post-concert stories and shenanigans. We walked off the stage, had beers, got out of Scrabble, released and chilled out before the overnight long drive to the next gig.
The final night of the tour was in Raleigh, NC. It was a great outdoor show, hot and sweaty, and the Waifs were well received by the crowd of 6,000.
We left the stage pumped. We did! Thirty dates across North America as the opening for Bob Dylan. The green room was below the stage, down a wooden staircase. Donna and I got into our underwear, opened a bottle of vodka, and started with the guys in the band to celebrate the end of the tour. We were a few shots away and were feeling a little drunk when Dylan’s manager barged in through the door and announced, “The stage is off – Bob is waiting for you both.” “
“Dylan just invited you both on stage to sing.”
In a frenzy, we tore up suitcases in search of our new shirts, hopping, putting on pants and shoes. Everyone was shouting, “Hurry up! Hurry up!”
Donna was in front of me on the stairs. At the top, I rushed to the dark stage and hit a concrete pole. As I was backing up, someone grabbed me and pushed me forward.
Dylan was on my right. He nodded and muttered, “Nice shirts.
He started strumming these three chords – the first chord progression Donna and I had ever learned.
I was raving – was this really happening or did I just knock myself out on a pole? Can heaven wait or am I standing at her door right next to the guy who wrote her theme song?
The harmonies have started. “Ooooooh, ooooh, ooooooh.”
I took the fifth. Dylan took the lead. “Mom, take this badge off …”
We smiled. We were in the song – the first song I meticulously extracted on daddy’s guitar in an old trailer at the fishing camp. Donna had stolen Dylan’s songbook from the school library so we could ease the boredom between carrying the fish. She dreamed of meeting him. It was the song we had heard our parents sing at parties when we were supposed to be sleeping; which we had harmonized with every training concert that we had played since our teenage years.
Each of those 6,000 people in the audience had a similar history with this song, and at that point we were in it, helping bring the sound and melody to life, sending it to ignite their own memories and connections. . Standing next to the older ones, head pounding, hearts on fire, singing, air brisk. Knock on the door of paradise.