Hey Mr. Hologram Man, Play a Song for Me

What if the Never-Ending Tour Never Ends?

Someone cries out, “Judas!

Uncomfortable laughter from the audience. You watch change glitter in the spotlights, tossed onto the stage at Bob Dylan’s feet. “Pick up your silver!” someone else yells.

Dylan looks into your eyes. He plays a chord. “I don’t believe you,” he answers, almost absent-mindedly. And then, more strongly, as the other instruments come in, “You’re a liar!

“Like a Rolling Stone” explodes.

The ghosts on stage batter their way through the music in defiance of everything, the audience, its expectations, their outrage.

Manchester, England, the Free Trade Hall, May 16th, 1966. You weren’t there.

But maybe someday you will be; or you’ll catch Dylan in a Greenwich Village cabaret or watch him going electric at Newport, or listen to him deliver one of his maniac Gospel screeds before launching into “Gotta Serve Somebody” or see him beating a harmonica against his leg in time to “Isis” on the Rolling Thunder Tour.

Or maybe the Never-Ending Tour will just never end.

“We live in a world of fantasy where Disney has won, the fantasy of Disney. It’s all fantasy. That’s why I think that if a writer has something to say he should say it at all costs. The world is real. Fantasy has become the real world. Whether we realize it or not.” ~ Bob Dylan

Let’s Get Something Straight First

When you think are “holograms,” what gets called “holograms” in the popular media, aren’t holograms at all; they’re more like faux-lograms. Tupac at Coachella in 2012 wasn’t a hologram; neither was Michael Jackson at the 2014 Music Awards.

The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa touring hologram show? Bizarre, yes. Hologram, no. Those Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly holograms currently out on tour? Not holograms. The Disney “Haunted Mansion” ride, often cited as featuring the great-grand-daddies of all modern holograms? Nope. Not a hologram in the whole attraction.

A real walking, talking, straight out of Star Trek hologram is still somewhere in the future, although getting closer all the time. Appropriately, all the holograms on stage today owe their existence to a 150-year-old Victorian ghost — one “Pepper’s Ghost.”

Professor Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Ghost

An audience reacting to scary 2-D phantasmagoria

In 1862 inventor Henry Dircks developed the “Dircksian Phantasmagoria,” his take on a form of horror show popular in Great Britain and the Continent in the early 19th century. Unlike other phantasmagoria, which relied on hidden magic lanterns to project spooky images on smoke or semi-transparent screens, Dircks’ invention delivered a very realistic image onto a stage using a hidden room, glass panes, and lighting tricks. Unfortunately, the Dircksian Phantasmagoria was more successful in concept than in execution, since its original form required extensive remodeling of any theatre wanting to implement the illusion — the reason why I’m not writing about “Dirck’s Ghost” today.

Enter Professor Pepper. John Henry Pepper ( the “Professor” title was self-appointed) was something of a Victorian “Mr. Wizard,” touring the world with scientific demonstrations, the gaudier and more mysterious the better. Pepper saw the Dircksian Phantasmagoria proof of concept in action and realized that he could implement a version that wouldn’t require the tear-down of any venue wanting to show it. Pepper took out a joint patent with Dirck and unveiled the new, improved phantasmagoria with a Christmas Eve production of the Charles Dickens play “The Haunted Man.” Pepper’s Ghost, as it became known, was an instant hit, frightening, delighting and confounding audiences over the years. The Pepper’s Ghost effect has been in use now for over 150 years, probably most notably — after Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” — in the classic “Girl into Gorilla” carny sideshow act.

The marks are brought into a darkened tent to find a beautiful girl in a cage, staring forlornly out into the crowd. Sometimes she’s described as a genetic abnormality discovered deep in the forbidden jungles of the Amazon. Sometimes she’s the by-product of a mad scientist’s experiments. Whatever her background, the barker assures you that you’re going to see her transform into a gorilla right before your very eyes, but stand back, folks, as she tends to get a mite ornery when she’s in full gorilla mode.

And then she does transform! Girl, half-girl, half-ape, full ape. The blow-off comes when the bars of the gorilla girl’s cage turn out not to be as sturdy as they should be, causing the faint-hearted to depart quickly, providentially emptying the tent for the next party of gorilla girl watchers.

SPOILER ALERT: If you were lucky enough to see the Girl into Gorilla act live — which, like most carny sideshows, had pretty much disappeared from the world by the 1970s — what you were looking at was a Pepper’s Ghost reflection of the girl coming from a brightly-lit side room hidden from the audience. The lights in the girl’s room are slowly lowered, causing the girl to gradually disappear from your view. Simultaneously, the lights in the room you’re looking into are slowly raised and the “gorilla” — that is, a guy in a gorilla suit who was there all the time — slowly replaces the girl as her reflection fades away. It’s much more realistic seen live than any written description can do justice. I know, because I saw the Girl into Gorilla transformation at the Arizona State Fair circa 1967, and still have nightmares about an unfettered gorilla bursting from its cage to this day.

Hidden room, glass panes, lighting tricks; that’s “Pepper’s Ghost” in a nutshell. Whether for the waltzing ghosts at the end of the “Haunted Mansion” ride or Tupac at Coachella, it’s what’s being used to create the “hologram” you’re seeing. Modern day holograms now use more sophisticated technologies — computer modeling, digital animation, body doubles, optical light splitters, near invisible scrims — but at the end of the day all of them rely on the foundation of Henry Dircks’ invention and Professor Pepper’s implementation from 1862.

Having said all that, let’s just continue to call them “holograms” to avoid confusion.

Bringing Back the Dead: “Strange Fruit” Meets TL;DR

A.T.C., that is after Tupac at Coachella in 2012, modern-day holograms have had something of a rocky history. While the Tupac hologram’s Coachella appearance was a success — especially if you measure “success” by amount of press —a tour never happened and the company holding the patents to the hologram eventually went into bankruptcy. Today, the Tupac hologram is in virtual storage at a somewhat skeezy-looking Hollywood venue which also owns the Michael Jackson hologram from the 2014 Music Awards, or at least its underlying technology, as well as a performing Billie Holiday hologram.

That latter hologram illustrates another problem with bringing back the dead; do we want to watch a performer as s/he was, or do we want to see that performer’s act updated for modern tastes? A Washington Post writer describes watching the Holiday hologram perform the singer’s classic “Strange Fruit” accompanied by virtual hologram dancers a la Jennifer Lopez or Lady Ga Ga.

For those unfamiliar with “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 song is about lynchings; a most unlikely subject for choreography. The real Billie Holiday of course never performed backed by anyone other than musicians. When the bemused Post reporter points this out he’s told, “an audience now might not be cool with just a single person standing behind a microphone.”

A digitally resurrected Whitney Houston had its virtual plug pulled by the Houston estate before ever hitting the stage. Announced holograms of Dean Martin and Amy Winehouse never happened. An ABBA hologram tour — in production even though all the ABBA members are still alive—keeps on being postponed.

The Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly holograms have gone out on tour, garnering mixed reviews. The Hollygram doesn’t seem to look much like the real Holly, at least not to a public mostly familiar with black-and-white images of Buddy. However, the hologram’s music, as you would expect, is right-on. The Orbison hologram seems more realistic, but, as one reviewer notes, Orbison was never known for an exciting stage presence and, like the real Roy Orbison in performance, his hologram barely moves.

The producers of the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa hologram tour address the “is it real or is it Memorex?” issue by leaning into the essential weirdness of hologram performance. From the moment the Zappa recreation appears from a swirl of lights, to its transformation throughout the show into a roll of dental floss; a claymation figure; a poodle; a giant robot; and a hot dog, there’s no attempt made to convince the audience that what they’re seeing is a real performer at work. And that may be where the future of music hologram performances lies.

The Case for and Against Virtual Bob

Let’s now consider the case of one Bob Dylan, song-and-dance man.

Even though he’s been constantly at it for decades, it’s not clear whether Dylan even likes touring. When asked in interviews, he usually responds angrily about what else would you expect him to be doing? He’s also regularly said, often in the same interviews, that his music captured in studio represents only a brief moment of frozen time in the evolution of that song. The only way you can even partially know his intent for the music is to hear him perform live on stage. In Chronicles, after his muse has abandoned him and singing his old songs are like ashes in his mouth, he briefly entertains leaving music altogether and buying into a casket factory. But the moment that his creative spark is relit, Dylan’s first instinct is to book shows.

So, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Whether he likes to tour or not, touring is what Bob Dylan does. But our boy is closer to 80 now than he is to 75, and even though he’s winding up 75+ performances over 2019 and has already announced tour plans for 2020, the relentless gigging of the Never-Ending Tour has to grind him down at some point.

Would he consider a virtual tour, a la the planned ABBA hologram tour, where it’s today’s Bob Dylan in action, but beaming in live via hologram from Malibu or New York to venues across the world? It has the benefit of eliminating wearing travel and of being “real,” albeit remote. He could still switch up music and lyrics on the spot as the muse takes him like he does today in performance live. The Never-Ending Tour would continue indefinitely.

On the other hand, even though Dylan seldom acknowledges the existence of any audience, maybe he does need the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd for inspiration. Maybe constant travel inspires him.

Maybe it’s a bad idea.

Okay, here’s another idea. Let’s take a page from the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa show and give audiences a Bob Dylan that they can’t get today live and in person.

Let’s create a concert narrative where we get to see the young Greenwich Village Dylan performing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The icon-breaking Dylan at Newport; the punk Dylan of the 1966 tour shouting out, “You’re a liar.”

The apocalyptic Gospel Dylan. The Rolling Thunder Dylan. Hell, even the Big Band Las Vegas Dylan. Dylans from every phase of his career, all appearing in one really big show.

Me, I’d love to see it. Given his history of freaking out the public’s expectations about what he should be, and his love for carny hokum, Bob Dylan might love the idea too. As he’s always wanted, he’d really not be there.

We have the music. We have the recordings. We have the technology. Anything is possible in a brave new world of holograms.

Written by

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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