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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Bob Dylan's practice sessions at the Barrymore Theatre
If you see him, say hello
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Credit:David Michael Miller

The crushed maroon carpet in the lobby of the Barrymore Theatre was strewn with the remnants of Bob Dylan. The rock icon hid in plain view for three days and nights inside the Atwood Avenue venue, rehearsing his summer show from 10 a.m. to about 8 p.m. on June 28, 29 and 30.

"FedEx trucks were coming and going the whole time," said house manager Lucy (who goes by just her first name), while poking through crates of torn-down packing materials. "Here's one," she said, and drew a sleeve of cardboard from the box. A fire engine red sticker proclaimed DELICATE INSTRUMENTS- FRAGILE! The shipping label below directed the contents to 2090 Atwood Ave. from "Bob Dylan."

I took it home.

Celebrity is a thorny thing. Think back to late June. Our televisions exploded with images of the only other American music star as mysterious and prolific as Dylan. MJ is gone, and now Dylan stands alone. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Dylan got the news, in all likelihood at the Barrymore Theatre, that the King of Pop was dead.

But there were no flies on the wall. Dylan's company made sure of that. Lucy found out about Dylan's planned work visit shortly after theater owner Steve Sperling accepted an agreement in April. The agreement included a secrecy clause so intense it could have been drafted at Gitmo.

If you knew you were going to spend three days in the company of Bob Dylan, could you keep it a secret? For three months?

"I told my bike," said Lucy. She said keeping the secret all those weeks was hell. "I did my best to completely forget about it. That actually worked pretty well."

Dylan arrived on the 28th, tucked inside a cyclone of crew people and gear. Security staff, drivers, guitar techs, front house personnel, band members, engineers. Once set up, the soundboard ran the length of the upper lobby. "At first the Dylan people told us no Barrymore staff in the building at all," Lucy said. "None.

"Steve said that some of us had to come here to work ourselves during those days. They agreed. But they said no one was allowed inside the theater while the band was working."

Dylan's set at Summerfest on July 1 and then the Rothbury Festival (both magnificent shows, according to the Dylan faithful), were the next stops. He's touring this summer with Willie Nelson. Willie, who has pleased audiences with the same show since 1990, was no doubt playing bridge while Dylan rehearsed at the Barrymore. Or practicing his back swing. Or...your hilarious marijuana joke goes here.

Bob, on the other hand, who's made an honest living performing shows that confound even his most devoted fans, was working nine-hour days leading up to the Milwaukee gig. Word. If anyone could just show up and noodle at Summerfest, it's Dylan, who could zap a positive freak on his crowd by reciting a grocery list.

According to Lucy, for a while one night, the theater's bank of four front doors were wide open to Atwood Avenue. This allowed a full Bob Dylan rehearsal to spill out toward the patio diners at Monty's Blue Plate Diner. Imagine finishing your meatloaf sandwich and vanilla malt that night. "Hey! The Dylan thing sounds good over there!"

They say old theaters have ghosts. Now the Barrymore does. A living one. Someone once asked Dylan what the definition of a poem was. He said it was a bunch of words that could stand up and walk off on their own.

Lucy agreed that three days in the company of Bob Dylan was like putting your finger in an electrical socket, a jolt that lifted her feet right off the ground. But when she came down to earth, after the three-month lead-up, after the anticipation of it, after the dealings with the company, after secret peeks stolen through cracks and crannies to the stage where Dylan lorded over his keyboard, hat on, head down; after all that, she was melancholy.

"I'm saddened by the experience," she said, which sounds melodramatic until you realize that everyone hopes a superstar will be just a little bit like him or herself. To her, Dylan was an icon who preferred the company of his own shadow. He took over a theater. Then he shooed away the workers who turned on the lights. I get the feeling the folks at the Barrymore would do it again. Who wouldn't? But fame creates phantoms, and I'm left to conclude there's a fine line between Neverland and Nether land.

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