The Waifs: We’d stripped to our undies and started on the vodka when Bob Dylan called us onstage | Australian music
It was 2003 and the Waifs were booked to open for Bob Dylan for 30 of his tour dates across the United States.
After settling into the initial shows, my sister (and fellow Waifs singer) Donna Simpson and I were summoned to soundcheck by Larry Campbell, Dylan’s guitarist, to rehearse some backing vocals on Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Sometimes Dylan invites guests onstage to join him in singing it, Larry said.
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door was the first song Donna and I ever learned and we were over the moon at the prospect of joining Dylan onstage to sing it. “Don’t hold your breath,” Larry told us, “It may not happen.”
Mid-tour, Dylan generously gifted our whole band beautiful tailored western shirts – the subtle suggestion being that we could sharpen up our act.
Each night we waited, shirts pressed, for the call to join Dylan and his band onstage. The call never came. Twenty-nine gigs in, we’d seen all the shows and had our minds blown by music and the fact we were touring the US with one of the world’s most influential songwriters. We were at the top, riding 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 faded into the humdrum routine of after-gig stories and shenanigans. We would come offstage, drink beers, bust out the Scrabble, get loose and decompress before the overnight long haul to the next gig.
The last night of the tour rolled around in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a big outdoor show, hot and sweaty, and the Waifs were well-received by the 6,000-strong crowd.
We came offstage pumped. We had done it! Thirty dates through North America opening for Bob Dylan. The green room was below the stage, down a set of wooden stairs. Donna and I stripped off to our undies, cracked open a bottle of vodka and started up with the guys in the band to celebrate the tour’s wrap. We were a few shots in and feeling a little inebriated when Dylan’s stage manager burst through the door, announcing: “Stage lights down – Bob’s waiting for you two.”
“Dylan has just invited you both onstage to sing.”
In a frenzy we tore through suitcases looking for our new shirts, hopping around, pulling on pants and shoes. Everyone was screaming: “Hurry up! Hurry up!”
Donna was ahead of me on the stairs. At the top I rushed towards the darkened stage and ran smack into a concrete pole. As I reeled backwards, someone caught me and pushed me forward.
Dylan was to my right. He nodded and mumbled: “Nice shirts.”
He started strumming those three chords – the first chord progression Donna and I had ever learned.
I was delirious – was this actually happening or did I just knock myself out on a pole? Can heaven wait or am I standing at its door right next to the guy who wrote its theme song?
The harmonies kicked in. “Ooooooh, ooooh, ooooooh.”
I took the fifth. Dylan took the lead. “Mama take this badge off me … ”
We smiled. We were in the song – the first song I painstakingly plucked out on Dad’s guitar in an old trailer on the fishing camp. Donna had stolen the Dylan songbook from the school library so we could ease the boredom between hauling fish. She used to dream of meeting him. This was the song we’d heard our parents sing at parties while we were meant to be sleeping; that we’d harmonised on together at every formative gig we’d ever played since we were teenagers.
Every one of those 6,000 people in the audience had a similar story with that song, and in that moment, we were in it, helping to bring the sound and melody to life, sending it out to ignite their own memories and connections. Standing beside the greatest, heads pounding, hearts on fire, singing out, looking sharp. Knocking on heaven’s door.