Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Bob Dylan: 21st Century Performing Artist. A "World of Bob Dylan Conference" Presentation

                                                                             


Hello

It's been a long while since I posted, even though I saw two Dylan shows in AZ last fall that surely deserved a write-up. I'm hoping Bob comes through the PNW this autumn; I will try harder to put the pen to the paper if he does.

Meanwhile, here's something: I attended "The World of Bob Dylan Conference" in Tulsa, OK, this past weekend, a crazy, inspired gathering of devoted Bob Dylan scholars and fans. It was wonderful! Many folks delivered thoughtful papers on aspects of Dylan's work. I particularly enjoyed one panel called, If You Cannot Bring Good News: Continuous Engagement Amid Apprehension in Dylan's Responses to Social Injustice. A mouthful, yes, but some really great thinking on how Dylan has confronted and is still confronting social issues in his music. A couple of the presenters came at the issue from a perspective of Zen Buddhism.

But the biggest highlights for me were conversations with other Dylan fans who each had a particular angle, a life of the mind and the heart that intersects with Bob's music in some very rich way. More than once, I thought, "these are my people." Thanks to the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa for organizing this conference!

Another fantastic thing was a film program of unreleased material from the Bob Dylan Archives, which are also housed in Tulsa. These performances, only seen before at a film festival in NJ, and a couple never before shown, were phenomenal. Particularly moving were out-takes from the "Hard Rain" TV special from 1976. Many of us own boots of this show, but not these shots of "Going Going Gone," and "You're a Big Girl Now." I remember watching "Hard Rain" in my bedroom on a ten inch TV when I was sixteen, and discovering the MYSTERY of life, and pretty much dying of longing afterwards to go see Dylan perform. 52 shows later, I'm still trying to live well on the planet, and stay truly alive, and still drinking deeply from the inspiration of Bob's music.

And I delivered a paper too. It contains some material previously seen on this blog, and some new, all edited for presentation. Here it is: 
 


Bob Dylan: 21st Century Performing Artist

Hello Friends

I’m honored to be here at The World of Bob Dylan Conference. My name is Steven Thwaits and my topic is “Bob Dylan: 21st Century Performing Artist.” The title is inspired by the work of the late Paul Williams, author of three core Dylan books in the 20th Century, “Performing Artist, the Early Years,” “Performing Artist, the Middle Years,” and “Performing Artist, Mind out of Time.” If you are familiar with these volumes, you know that Paul’s critical preoccupation was Bob’s music as delivered on the stages of the world. Dylan has been quoted as saying that the stage is where he feels most at home. And if we look at his touring schedule over the last few decades, it’s self-evident that this is true. The focus of Paul Williams, and what made him one of the best writers about Dylan, was his understanding that the moment of performance is the vital thing. Williams realized that what Dylan values most is not the songs as they were once written, but the synchronicity of forces that come together during each live rendition. These include Bob’s phrasing, the meaning of the set-list, the temperment of Dylan as the bandleader, his own freewheeling piano runs, the atmosphere in the theater, his costuming, the telepathy of the band, and not least, the knowledge, attitude and even the life stories that the listeners have brought to the party. This last point is crucial: the audience is a participant in the art, and what you bring to the music matters tremendously. If you have promised to go under the singer’s dancing spell, with attention to what he’s doing right now, Dylan’s live music not only entertains, it can inform and change your life. This was true in 1965 and it’s still true in 2019, as he continues to play dozens of shows around the world.
I’ve seen Bob perform 52 times over a span of 41 years. My first show was the legendary “Picnic at Blackbushe,” which drew nearly a quarter of a million fans to a disused airfield in southern England in July of 1978, when I was eighteen years old. Remind me to show you the scar, because there’s another story there. My most recent show was last fall in Tucson, AZ. I saw Bob 14 times in the 20th Century and I’ve seen him 38 times in this one. What I’ve witnessed over all these years is that Bob Dylan’s live shows are about change, about a past that you can never really leave behind, and about looking the present moment square in the eye. It’s about how the images in the lyrics, and the sounds, which Bob has uncovered and created and collaged and revised and rephrased and made new again, can accompany you, and affect you in your own life.
Bob Dylan has a reputation as being elusive, as being reclusive and inaccessible. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t talk during shows, and his personal life is not in the press, and he gives mysterious answers in interviews. But my contention is the opposite, that Bob Dylan is an intimate artist, who reveals his heart and beliefs again and again, and who communicates with his fans, through the sacred space of live music, as a trusted friend. Who else, after all, makes himself so available, plays so many shows each year, in such a variety of locales and venues, from rural Canada to New Zealand? Who else has provided us with such a wealth of images to understand our age and our minds, our social dilemmas and romantic needs?  These things are deeply personal. From Blackbushe all the way here to Tulsa I have at least in part understood my own life through Bob’s eyes. Since you are here at the World of Bob Dylan conference, I imagine this is true for many of you as well. 
For the rest of my twenty minutes I want to give you what’s been promised in the program: a glimpse of Dylan live from the past decade. Here’s a few highlights of things I’ve seen and heard. Some of what follows is excerpted and edited from my very occasional blog, “Notes from the Idiot Child.”
I’m also going to start a PowerPoint now that will repeat, and it’s very simple, first a listing of the band members, and then the set-lists of the shows I talk about. And it was, by the way, the exact same line-up of very talented musicians for each performance.

 In July of 2013, Bob’s band played two concerts in our mutual home state of Minnesota, first in his birthplace of Duluth, and then in mine, St. Paul. In the northern show, he performed at Bayfront Park, less than two miles away from the house he lived in until he was 5. Dylan’s set is  the climax of a long day of music, the traveling Americanarama festival. By late afternoon,  those of us standing in front have made new friends, and have enjoyed Richard Thompson and Wilco, among others. Our legs are sore and our faces are red. But at twilight, when Bob steps to the mike at center stage and begins singing about a “worried man with a worried mind,” all fatigue vanishes. The players are dapper as always, in black suits tonight, and precise in their country blues stylings. Bob, in grey shirt and grey flat-topped Zorro hat, remains in front for “Love Sick.” His blue buttons and silver sequins sparkle in the light, as he pulls out the harp and blows a few sweet phrases to accentuate the sadness. In the center of the set, he plays  “Duquesne Whistle,” off  “Tempest.”  A jaunty western shuffle about death and home, banged out on the piano, it’s another in a long series of train songs. Bob’s sometimes cowboy band swings hard, and the lyrics capture perfectly the singer’s present moment, near his old haunts. “The lights of my native land are glowing, I wonder if they’ll know me next time around . . . [and] I can hear a voice softly calling, must be the mother of our lord.” Here on the shore of Lake Superior, Bob can see see the hill, with the hospital where he was born, from the stage. The next day I climb it myself, past the small duplex at 519 N. 3rd Ave, where Bob passed his earliest days. The rollicking live version of “Duquesne Whistle” is stuck in my head, and I’m looking for “that old oak tree, the one we used to climb.” But that might be down the road in Hibbing. I’m also thinking about a more famous lyrical phrase, used by two biographers to encapsulate the younger artist: “No Direction Home.” While the song that lyric comes from, that greatest of rock songs, will always carry truth, here in Duluth, as his future shortens, the elder Dylan’s origins seem very close behind. “Listen to that Duquesne Whistle blowing. Blowing like she’s bound to kill me dead.”
In St. Paul, the band played at Midway Stadium, since demolished, a short walk away from the site of the Purple Onion pizza parlour, where, as a nineteen year old, after a summer adventure in Colorado, Dylan performed some of the first gigs that began to separate him from the ordinary. I grew up in that neighborhood as well, which in the early sixties was a place of feedlots and grain storage and railroad yards, right in the heart of the city. I was only a baby when Bob wandered the frozen streets with his guitar, but I like to imagine him putting on his first Woody Guthrie airs, strumming in the Purple Onion, while I lay in my crib just down the road. Fifty-three years later, on a warm Midwestern evening, it becomes quite clear that Dylan has been thinking of his old home, when, miracle of miracles, he speaks! Here is what Bob says exactly: “Thank you everyone, thank you friends. I lived here a while back, and since that time I’ve played all over the world with all kinds of people. And everybody from uh, Mick Jagger and Madonna, and uh, everybody in there in between. I’ve been on the stage with most of those people, but the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on a stage with was a man who’s here tonight, who used to sing a song called Suzie Baby. I want to say Bobby Vee’s actually here tonight and maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So we’re going to try to do this song like I, I’ve done it with him before one or twice.” And with that, Bob leans in and croons a fine rendition of Vee’s hit. One can only imagine the memories summoned for Dylan today, visiting with an early mentor, whose band he had briefly joined in the summer after high school, and in this neighborhood, where he first felt the stirrings of his destiny. Next in the set comes an eerie moment. Just as the band begins the chords of “All Along the Watchtower,” a freight train surges past the stadium and offers two long blasts of the horn, in a perfect percussive accompaniment. On the way back to my hotel, through streets I played in as I child, the lyrics of Duquesne Whistle again roll through my brain, “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, Blowing like she’s blowing right on time.”

And now off to Hawaii, the following spring, April of 2014, at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, and Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu. Bob is on the way back to North America from Japan. Here’s some things I wrote:
The band is tight and controlled, similar to the last few years. They are allowed to break out here and there, with perfect accentuation, but there are no excesses. They perform skillfully, with poise and discretion, but there is no mistaking that there is the Band, and there is the Man. Dylan, on the piano mostly, is the sole focus, and while his playing can be idiosyncratic in moments, often it is brilliant, and his power is unquestionable. The turn of the millennium is very far away, when you would have found Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell and Dylan on a straight line in front, strumming three varieties of guitar in syncopation. Now the other players hold to their spots in the rear, in a supporting arc. This is a single organism and everything happens in service to the nucleus, in service to the genius who struts and prances from center mike to piano stool.  The boys don’t even get introduced anymore. This is not a criticism. This is Bob Dylan in the latter days of his performing career, as deliberate in his choices as in 1966 or 1975, as intent as ever on sharing a particular vision. He wants to hone in on that vision, and everything else is extraneous — the comic voice-over introduction that lasted for years, band introductions, solos from his band that are not just so, any pandering to your desire for nostalgia, or any indication that he is just playing around.  
“Tempest,” a deadly serious record, is at the heart of the set-list. “Pay in Blood” is a song that illuminates Dylan’s current poetic moment and dispels any notion that Bob is sitting in a meadow, ambivalent about the culture. “Pay in Blood” is in the “Idiot Wind”  and “It’s Alright Ma” column of Bob’s discography, a scalding accusation of moral turpitude. At these shows in Maui and Honolulu, Dylan sings with vitriol about “another politician, pumping out the piss,” but admits we are all culpable, passing by “another ragged beggar, blowing you a kiss.” He marches to mike for his lines, steps back in rhythm to his drummer, and then forward again, every lyric given breathe and nuance. "Hear me holler and hear me moan!"
There are two categories of performance at these shows. For the first, for “Pay in Blood,” and “Love Sick,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan stands at the center, with harp only, giving all to the harsh wind of his voice. He gesticulates and swaggers and leans in and blows. The band churns up a controlled maelstrom behind him. For the second, he sits on the edge of his piano stool, crooning and leading a jam. “All Along the Watchtower,” is no longer the rocker inspired by Hendrix’s cover, offered as an encore for so many years. Now it takes inspiration more from Miles Davis, or perhaps some early bygone jazz. The band plunks and beats and strums in skillful sympathy, often transcendently, at other times a bit hapless before the madness of their leader.
“Long and Wasted Years,” is another shocking performance, each line offered in a shout, with complete conviction. I was reminded several times in these two Hawaii sets of the 1970’s, when Dylan scorched the microphone with his vocals.  Every line of regret is emphasized, every line piles up, only to crash at the end:

                    We cried on a cold and frosty morn!!
                    We cried because our souls were torn!!
                    So much for tears!!
                    So much for those LONG and WASTED years!

Some might scoff, but I thought of Rolling Thunder, when every stanza was a performance piece. And the Street-Legal tour, my first, when every song was also musical theater. There is so much sadness in this song. It is a cousin to “Forgetful Heart,” which he sang from center stage for years. And a sister to “Love Sick.” Has there ever been a better writer on the failure of love?
In finale, we get “Blowing in the Wind.” In many instances I have never really got this song. I mean, “the answer is blowing in the wind?” It has always seemed so vague. But tonight he makes me get it, in the context of all the suffering, all those tears. Dylan sits at the piano and plays it like an upbeat lullaby. His tone is gentle and smooth, and he sings like he’s someone’s kindly old grandpa. It’s not sung like a folk anthem, but as comfort in hard times. He sings like he believes in an answer, even if we can’t see it. He sings like he knows the questions are terribly hard, and we get some credit just for asking. He sings it like a lullaby for children asking why we die. Bob sings with compassion: the answer is not the nihilism of greed and power or the determinism of science. It’s a mystery that we might get a sense of when our guard is down. It’s out there in the wind.
           
Finally, to Las Vegas, Nevada . .
October 13, 2016. Bob has been announced this morning as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. 
At 10 minutes before 8 PM, I am sitting in my front row seat at the Chelsea theater, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, waiting for the band to take the stage. Somehow I was able to buy this ticket at regular price, this morning, from my kitchen table in Seattle. And now I’m here in Vegas. First time ever. There’s a Nobel buzz in the crowd, although it’s also likely that many of the attendees are Vegas vacationers who stumbled into the show on an auspicious evening. A man takes the seat next to me. We chat, and he tells me he’s Michael, a high school English teacher from California. At the same moment I was clicking “purchase” in Seattle, he was considering a first row ticket that had just come up on his screen in Santa Cruz. He was in class with students at the time. He confided to them that while they were studying, he was looking for a ticket, and he had found an excellent one! They said, “Do it! Do it!” So here we sit, on the edge of our seats, two absolute strangers, two brothers in Bob, taking best advantage of an extraordinary day. 
Without introduction, Bob and the band appear, and we leap from our seats in appreciation, of how our lives have been aided and enriched by him, and in acknowledgement of the honor he has received. Of course, as always, he says nothing, and begins to play. The acoustics in the auditorium are stellar. On the soft songs, like “Baby Blue,” “Simple Twist,” and “Make You Feel My Love,” his voice is rich and smooth, very like he sounds on “Time Out of Mind,” with very little rocks OR gravel. I’m not joking when I say it also puts me in mind of the “Nashville Skyline” voice, with a warm and mellow timbre that makes you dream about laying around on a big brass bed with the one you love.  On the tight blues rockers, “Early Roman Kings,” “Pay in Blood,” and "Highway 61,”  his vocal tone is devastating, clear and sharp and stinging like a wasp. Several times he holds long notes at the end of lines. But how can I describe his phrasing? It is the most mutable aspect of a Dylan performance, and it flavors every line of verse: with sorrow or longing or wrath, or less nameable feelings that the heart perceives directly. 
When I thought about the Nobel during the show, it caused me to notice how consciously musical each word of each song is. What I mean is that Dylan has created a kind of literature that integrates the spirit rousing, muse calling, soul stirring qualities of the vocal arts with language of intellectual vigor and visual beauty. It’s either a very old or a very new category of expression. In any case, it accounts for the personal connection so many feel in his songs. The best poetry can affect us on the page alone, and certainly can be musical, but because of Bob’s performance skills, his intonations and arrangements, his tunes call down the gods, whether Pan or Jesus or the Mother or even an angry Jehovah, to be with us as we walk along the path of the words. And if that don’t deserve the Nobel . . .
He looked magnificent. His hair was fluffy, no hat. He shot many of his strange half-grins at the crowd. At times he hammed with the mike stand, leaning it down and crooning. He played some sweet harp on a few numbers, and on “Simple Twist of Fate,” he even played guitar, with a very nicely formed solo through the second half of the song! He looked delighted to be doing so, although if anyone can combine delight with inscrutability, it’s Bob. Often he stood at the piano while playing, but when he sat his legs were in constant sync with the rhythms, and it was at these moments he issued some of the most entertaining amused glares at the audience, as if to say, “I’ve told you this before, but I’m not sure you were listening.”
In a rare moment of near silence (the band begins each song the very moment the last note of the previous has been played), I shouted, quite loudly, “Congratulations, Bob!” Many people then shouted, “Yeah!!” I was a little surprised that no one beat me to this remark, but as noted, there was little opportunity, and also, despite multiple ovations, there seemed to be a kind of respectful awe in the room much of the night. As if, is it really allowed to bellow rock show shit at a Nobel Laureate? I decided it was. Let me brag for a moment that I am the first member of the general public to offer Dylan congratulations on the Nobel Prize in person. In fact, I read that even the Nobel committee did not reach him until several days later.
In that moment I felt that I was shouting the very opposite of the most famous Dylan show scream. Has there ever been an musician more true to his art than Bob Dylan? Judas was the ultimate betrayer, but through all the changes of a lifetime, Bob is constant to his gift. In this way he has been true to his fans as well. He asks us to keep listening, keep thinking, keep living a life that doesn’t compromise on creativity and empathy and intelligence.
Dylan has helped me to think about my own path through life and even my fate, a concept, that like Bob, I believe in. Again, remind me to show you the scar. His songs cast a harsh glare on our society, but are deeply compassionate about our sorrows and joys as individuals. And one thing he says for sure, is that we need to serve somebody. The lyrics have changed, and now he says, “you may be in Las Vegas, having lots of fun, or hiding in the bushes, holding a smoking gun,” but the choice between evil and good is the same. This was his message at the end of every set in 2018 and 2019, from Phoenix, where I saw him in October, until his most recent show in Valencia, Spain, earlier this month. Each year, the now 78 year old musician plays for thousands around the world. And still, in 2019 as much as in 1969, his images and his sounds help us understand ourselves. What an intimate gift. In 1978, the year I first saw Dylan, he was asked, “What is the purpose of art, Bob?,” His reply: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire.”
Thanks, Bob! Thanks for listening, friends.







Friday, November 3, 2017

I Came to Bury: Bob Dylan in Salt Lake City, 2017


            Ever creative, ever challenging, Bob Dylan rocked, crooned, and whispered through 20 songs on October 17 at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah. At 76, the master showed undiminished energy in leading his superb long-time band. The set list, however, is weighted heavily toward the rueful, the reflective and the elegiac. The American Standards covers, such as “September of My Years,” and “This Once Was Mine” carry this tone, and compose a quarter of the show. Several of his own numbers, like “Trying to Get to Heaven,” “Long and Wasted Years,” and a newly reworked stately march through “Tangled Up in Blue,” also contribute to the enchanting and yet “melancholy mood.” In 2017, Dylan doesn’t pretend young or play to illusions. In “Long and Wasted Years,” the closing number, Dylan shouts regret and loss over the rising and falling of his rhythm section, over the swell and ebb of strings, over the waves and undertow of his long past. 
            But here's the thing: the overall effect of hearing Dylan's current show, these sad ballads, balanced with fierce and playful rock and roll, is to make the listener feel poignantly, wonderfully alive. 
            Even as an older man, gazing back over the years, Bob Dylan lives entirely in the art of the present. The nostalgic still like to think of him as a folk singer, but he has never been content to be one thing. He is a shape-shifter and his shows consistently disappoint anyone with a fixed idea of what the music is. He doesn’t care. Dylan’s devotion is to spirit, craft, the timeless human drama, and the changes we can’t avoid. His music does not encompass any one style, because it is more concerned with history, mortality, the dilemma that men are both evil and good, and the sorrow that we are separated from God. Such a world view leans toward the blues, but you can’t cover all that with one style.
Salt Lake City was my 50th Dylan show, stretching back 39 years to a pivotal concert at the Blackbushe Aerodrome in the summer of 1978, at a moment when the artist was losing grip on the last shreds of his innocent, magnificent beginnings. He was about to turn to Jesus. In 1986, I saw Bob at the Tacoma Dome, dressed in leather and long dangling ear-rings, leading Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers through two sets of crunchy rock and a few spirituals. At the Paramount Theater in Seattle, in 2005, I saw the very first show with the nucleus of the current band. In 2013 I stood in Midway Stadium in my hometown of St. Paul, in our home state of Minnesota, as a Midwest grain train roared by while the band launched into “All along the Watchtower.”  Despite reviews to the contrary, in all these years I have never seen Dylan look less than fully engaged with his music. A few shows have inevitably been less energetic, or troubled by circumstance, but reports of Dylan’s inconsistency are grossly exaggerated, and nearly always based on the listener failing to match the singer’s presence with his own. If you want a sing-along or reassurance that everything’s groovy, Dylan has never been and will never be your man.
He has made this clear each night for the last several years, by opening with “Things Have Changed.” The song is a paranoiac’s dream, a fever vision of the turn of the millennium, and a doubtful plea for safe harbor in a world gone mad. “Some things are too hot to touch. The human mind can only stand so much. You can’t win with a losing hand.” In “Things Have Changed,” the singer asks us to drop expectations of succor and crush them under our feet. He is not here to serve our vision and we will find no sanctuary for our nostalgia. This night in Salt Lake City, less than two weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas, he puts wonderful snarling emphasis into the refrain, “People are crazy and times are strange, I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range.” It’s hard to miss the gun imagery, and it’s damn scary. This is a man who puts himself on stage 90 nights out of the year, in buildings with minimal security. No wonder I saw one of Bob’s long-time men roaming the crowd in the foyer pre-show and again in the break between acts, sizing folks up. “Just for a second there I thought I saw something move.”
Unsurprisingly, Tom Petty is not mentioned tonight, but I still have a sense that the spirit of Dylan’s close friend is present. I write this because Bob, when not being tender and mournful, is particularly ferocious, in a way that reminds me of those mid-eighties shows. His phrasing is crisp and biting, and I believe he is again re-inspired to do justice to the legacy of musicians he has worked with and lost. Another Wilbury is down, but as long as Bob can prance the stage, he will carry on with emotion, with a bloody-mindedness that is devotional to unseen things and departed friends. He is committed, “To the End of the Line. “
Delusion is everywhere. Before Dylan sauntered out this night, I had to endure the dialogue of the row in front of me: “We’re not expecting much, a friend told us he’s really lost it” and all that sort of chirping and chattering. I wonder, would you come to another Nobel Laureate’s reading so unprepared? Would you expect to understand Lessing or Ishiguro or Neruda, having read only one book out of twenty? Please do your homework before talking out of your ass so.  But when Dylan does appear on stage, fuzzy haired and elegant in a black suit and tawny golden boots, we all share at least one moment of pure pleasure and high voltage. Somehow the presence of Dylan in the same room with you will always thrill, if you were alive in the 20th century, and have managed to stay alive through the early years of the 21st.
After “Things Have Changed,” performed while standing at the piano, Dylan takes a seat for “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” It’s a clever choice, offering the audience a song they know, with a somewhat recognizable arrangement, but one that drives home the opening point:

Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

I doubt the chirpers catch that this is not necessarily a song about a lover, but in any case Dylan has already moved on. He keeps our heads cocked with another nugget from the sixties, “Highway 61 Revisited,” a song about carnival America that just never goes out of style. In fact, it’s more pertinent than ever, with a lying huckster in the White House selling red, white and blue shoestrings, while his minions sit in the bleachers in the sun and cheer, all their feet tied together by their purchase, seemingly unaware that the “next world war” will turn them to dust along with the Mexicans and black men they fear. Anyone who thinks Bob does not make political (moral) commentary anymore is not paying attention.
            How are the band doing? Well, they are sparkling, shimmery and pretty as a sky full of shooting stars. A glimmer here from the guitarist Charlie Sexton, but then you look and it’s gone,  and a cascade of light from Donnie Herron’s pedal steel takes your attention. The rhythm section of Tony Garnier, George Receli and Stu Kimball pulses and sways perfectly, and Bob runs up and down the piano keys like he is hearing moonlight. Without a doubt, Dylan’s playing is the wild card in this set-up, and sometimes my ear wonders if he just danced across a few notes never heard in rehearsal, but then he lays down a melodic line that makes me clap with glee.
            Next up, “Why Try to Change Me Now.” Bob stands far back stage right,  cradling the mike stand like a lover,  just up from the bass player Garnier, and Sexton, and close enough to touch the drums of Receli. In this position he is embraced by the companionship and compassionate support of his band. He floats on their warm buoyant waves of sound, and he sings, clearly and deeply about his “daydreams galore,’ and “habits that even I can’t explain.” “Let people wonder, let them laugh, let them frown.” It’s gorgeous and quiet and strange, and I’m sure many nostalgists in the audience suddenly don’t know what to think or how to feel, despite the fact that this sort of song is the work of Dylan’s last three records.
             Back to the piano for “Summer Days,” completely reworked from the album version and from the live ones that were a staple of the set through the early years of the century. Now it’s a hoedown, a country stomp that takes full advantage of Donnie Herron’s mastery of the fiddle, and the overall tight relationship of the band. This felt like the sort of arrangement that was more common at the turn of the millennium, when Dylan was still playing guitar, and when the band (including the current core of Garnier and Sexton) more often turned toward the sounds of Appalachia. He has always had a fondness for the country, for Cash and the Nashville Skyline and big brass beds. With the current line-up, however, Dylan has usually emphasized elegance and precision over the hillbilly, so it’s great to hear this rave-up love song to ”the old, weird America.”
            Now we go back and forth for a few songs, between the standards and a few late period gems. The chirpers in the row ahead of me appear to be transfixed, because the man is undeniably transfixing, but my guess is that they are equally mystified. In this long center segment of the show, no bones are thrown to those who bray for a treat from the past. The furthest back we go is “Love and Theft,” from 2001. Dylan is also still having fun with “Tempest,” the last album of originals, a record that gets a quarter of the set. To my ears, however, neither ‘“Honest with Me,” nor “Pay in Blood,” have the power or focus of earlier live iterations.  Still, they are delivered with emotion and with the band’s usual clairvoyance. These driving numbers form a rock and roll cushion between the beguiling and very quiet mid-century tin-pan alley ballads, “September of My Years,” and “This Once was Mine.” The latter are sung from the same spot as the earlier standards, with Dylan standing by the bright hearth of his rhythm section, while Charlie and Donnie create cozy guitar atmospherics to the singer’s left.
            Then comes the dignified procession through “Tangled Up in Blue,” the only representative tonight, and in recent history, from Dylan’s mid-seventies. Perhaps no other tune has seen such a persistence in the set (ranking fourth all-time, with an astonishing 1633 plays) along with such continual change. “It used to go like that, now it goes like this,” Dylan famously says when introducing “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) in Manchester, 1966. “Tangled” is spot-on for such treatment, given the way the lyrics warp linear concepts of time. Dylan is still wondering what happened to some of his companions, although the nature of those musings have changed as well: “some of their names are written in flames, some of them are down in the ground.”
            Next up, my highlight of the evening, “Early Roman Kings.” This tune has also, of course, evolved. It’s still a blues stomp, but the current iteration contains breaks that feature sweet guitar lines by Charlie, weaving around some delightful stand-up bass plucking by Tony. Dylan really seems to revel in spitting out the lyrics, which, like “Tangled,” shift perspective between stanzas. The first three are straight ahead third person, describing the ravages inflicted on the country by predatory capitalism, by the speculators and wealth consolidators, by the real estate moguls and CEO’s who earn 400 times the pay of the average employee. These lyrics describe Bezos and Trump cavorting in the same piggy pile of money: “They’ve destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well.” The next three stanzas switch to the first person, but it isn’t certain that the same person is speaking in each. Vengeance and karma are in the air. ERK is an “Idiot Wind” for the 21st century, aimed not at a lover and an uncontrolled id, as the earlier song, but at an entire culture gone mad with materialism. The singer, bowing only to his Maker, is the witness and the one ordained to read the scroll. It’s not happy news, but it rocks with the soul of Muddy Waters.
            “Soon after Midnight,” also off “Tempest,” returns us to more personal ruminations. It’s a simple love song with a side order of chaos. Love comes and love goes, “down on the killing floor.” The outside world, the political world, keeps crashing in, but a fairy queen is forever. This one reminds me of the place “Spirit on the Water” held in the set for many years, a gentle piano tune that admits to the possibility of a modicum of basic human joy.
            Love is truly something to treasure, when we’re all living here on “Desolation Row.” Bob has returned to this gem regularly since the fall of 2016. It’s been in the program nearly every night. Hmmmm . . . .wonder why . . . .

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

The nurse will be played tonight by Sara Huckabee Sanders, filling in for Kellyanne Conway.
            The first couple of times I heard the new rendition I was not impressed by the sing-song cadence, but this afternoon, as I refreshed my memory with a boot, I was struck by how perfect it is. Call it the nursery rhyme school of the Nobel Laureate’s oeuvre. Uncle Bob relates, over a twinkly and repetitive melody, the matter-of-fact horrors of the dark side of the American dream, now more visible on the front page than they’ve been since the song was written in ’65.  “They’re painting the passports brown.” Check. “Her profession’s her religion. Her sin is her lifelessness.” (Sarah Huckabee Sanders again?) Check. “Now at midnight all the agents, And the superhuman crew, Come out and round up everyone, That knows more than they do.” Check. Sigh. On it goes, giving Bob a chance to doodle beautifully on the keys, while letting us know that we are indeed trapped here, in a world made not by the wise, but by the corrupt and the craven.
            Now we speed toward the finish, through a re-imagined and re-vitalized take on “Thunder on the Mountain.” Here’s a song I never liked very much, live or on record. I thought it had too many words that came out in too fast a rush. But the new performance is a revelation, uncovering a honky-tonk, carnivalesque rocker. It reminds me of Dylan playing with the Band circa 1974, perhaps “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35. It’s a full boogie blowout, complete with a climactic and marvelous drum solo by George. The new tempo suits the words perfectly, and the song deserves its late-set place, as a life-affirming blast of, dare I say, fun?
            Because what comes next is “Autumn Leaves,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” two songs that do not boogie. They make you think, however, if you’re a certain age, about the might-have-beens and the should-have-dones. It would be a mistake to ascribe the feelings in most of Dylan’s tunes directly to the life of the man himself, but the singer projects deep vulnerability in these two numbers. It’s a fine example of the brilliant contradiction at the center of his music. Dylan, a notoriously private man, rarely seen and heard except on his own strict terms, puts a life on stage of deep personal communication and sensitivity. We will never know how much is him and how much is fabrication, and we have no right to know, but it is difficult not to accept the songs as gospel for a life lived. Dylan is a famous thief and a collage artist of the highest skill, and yet his best works come across as sincere, personal,  and deeply felt. You might not know who the narrator is, but you do know that he has a line on something essential and true.
I recently read a transcript of a conversation between Dylan and Sam Shepard, in which Bob says his only home is on the stage. Tonight, I once again feel grateful for the invitation to the front parlor. In the end, whether the tale is about himself or “someone he knew once,” it doesn’t really matter. Any story Uncle Bob tells is bound to be a good one.
             I feel this powerfully in the first encore, the iconic “Blowing in the Wind.” This one hasn’t changed much since he placed it in this slot several years ago. It’s not a strident protest song anymore. It’s a lullaby. It’s hopeful and yet it’s sad. It’s a another nursery rhyme, a question without an answer. It’s a coda to the Never Ending Tour. How many times? No man knows the answer. Here’s Bob, no longer the wrathful God of “Pay in Blood,” but your wise and kindly grandpa, saying yeah, it’s pretty damn messed up out there, and you just need to keep on singing.  
            Finally, Bob stands behind the piano for the most frequent final encore of recent years, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” As with “Desolation Row,” Dylan knows he has a timeless song on his lips here, one that has circled around to full relevance 50 years on. And ultimately, he seems to be saying, his role is not to soothe you, but to freak you the hell out and wake you up. Mr. Jones is out there in his millions now, electing presidents. He is still clueless. These days, Mr. Jones drinks up propaganda spewed to make him feel like there are simple answers to a world perplexing in its complexity.  With his eyes in his pockets and his nose to the ground, Mr. Jones lives the unexamined life, frightened by the outsider, the immigrant, and all those who make him feel his time is past.
            Bob Dylan gives us “Ballad of a Thin Man” to end the show, not because he wants to satisfy cravings for nostalgia and for the sweet dreams of youth. He does so to show the inextricable connection between eras. In his inimitable voice, short on range but unlimited in texture, Dylan stands behind the piano and describes the human capacity for self-delusion and moral blindness.  Bob has taken very good care of his throat in recent years. The words are clear, exacting, and delightfully nuanced, in a way that is very difficult to describe. All I can say is that, as ever with Dylan, if you are willing and if you have done your homework, he creates the illusion that he is speaking directly to you, that you are indeed in his front parlor, and he couldn’t be happier to have you.
            There’s a great deal of trouble in the country right now, and in the world. For the moment we are alright, it’s true; the grocery stores are well stocked and medical care, if you have it, is pretty close to miraculous. Pleasure and distraction can be found in abundance. But there is an unease upon the land, disturbing trends in the natural world, and a feeling in many quarters that the center can not hold. In my life, and in the lifespan of Bob Dylan, despite many conflicts and disasters, I don’t think we’ve sensed a more perilous moment since the 1960’s. In that decade a young folksinger from Minnesota was making his name in NYC, in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and an escalating war in Vietnam. In that highly charged political time, Dylan had a uniquely personal take on events. Somehow, however, he was able to tap the depths of America’s historical soul rather than just his own brief life on earth. Within a few years he discarded sloganeering in favor of a more poetic calling, and a dedication to a spiritual path. I think that’s the path he is still on.
            “Things have changed” in the arrangements, “things have changed,” in the songwriting and “things have changed” in the band, and no doubt many “things have changed” in Bob’s personal life. You get older and you experience loss, and renewal, and loss, and if you are busy being born, renewal again, no matter your age. And when you keep up with Bob Dylan, and especially when you see him perform live, in his home, on the stages of the world, you see that his dedication to finding the truth through music remains strong. You are re-inspired by his new inspiration. He is an artist of the highest caliber, challenging and provoking his audience. Through constant creation and reinvention, at 76 years old, Bob tells immensely valuable stories about life on earth in a moment when “the end of time has just begun.” They are not simple stories and they are often uncomfortable. But they are real, and they speak to the heart, and that’s what I need, now more than ever, in these difficult days.
            Now I’m going to go pick up my copy of “Trouble No More.” Peace. 
           

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dylan Speaks (through Song)


                            (Doris Lessing, myself, and my son, circa 1993)



Bob continues to subvert expectations. It’s just how he is; it’s why his art is so reliably good. Surely, those of us who have been paying attention should have learned, by now, to have no particular expectations at all.


Like so many other fans, I was thrilled when I heard the news of Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I even used it as an excuse to fly to Vegas to see him on the very day! I felt proud to shout my congratulations to him on stage. But now I wonder, what does the Nobel Prize mean to Bob? Anything?


We grow up knowing about the prestige of the award. Many greats have been named through the years, from Neruda to Beckett. I had a deeply emotional reaction, as if I was somehow being rewarded, because I love Dylan’s work. Thousands of others felt the same. The Nobel is a cultural symbol that has enjoyed nearly entirely positive connotations.


Before this week, I knew nothing about its namesake’s armaments business. But now, I do. “Sometimes, the silence can be like thunder.” Or dynamite?


Of course, I don’t know if Dylan gives a damn about Alfred Nobel’s business history, but the quiet has made it something to think about. Strangely enough, nearly a week before the prize was given, Dylan performed a searing version of “Masters of War” for the encore at Desert Trip. Surely a “coincidence” but it seems even more bizarre when you read the set lists and see that Bob hadn’t sang the song for nearly six years!


He has also been singing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at recent shows. I guess we need to take what we can gather.


Does he care about the prize? Should I, after all? Leonard Cohen said it perfectly (of course): “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”


But, the Nobel Prize! How can you resist? Look at that list! Yeats, Pinter, Singer, Szymborska!


Who is this committee anyway? Seven distinguished Swedes. Professors and writers.


“It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.”


Perhaps I might have held Doris Lessing’s reaction more firmly in my mind.  “Oh Christ!,” she exclaimed, accosted at her door by the reporters. As if she was already fed up with the whole business.


You know who really cares about The Nobel? All those snarky young writers insulting Bob on twitter. What a laugh.


“They chirp and they chatter

What does it matter?

They’re lying there dying in their blood”


Here’s what Lessing said at her own Nobel Lecture in 2007, entitled, tellingly, “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize.” She speaks of what she has seen happen to a young artist, suddenly applauded, suddenly in the public eye:


“And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. ‘Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go.’”


Some young writers commenting on Dylan’s Nobel seem eager to give up that “necessary place.” Fame is the prize, they have been taught.


And Dylan, two weeks ago in Vegas, on the evening of the day’s news:


“You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known.”


Mr. Jones needs approval.


Lessing, again:


“The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.”


The storyteller lives to tell the tale. She is beholden only to her muse.


In these days of flashy media, the storyteller is conditioned to respond to page hits, “likes,” blurbs of peers, positive reviews, and of course, literary awards. The dust jackets of books no longer offer much of a hint of what a novel is about. They only tell what “important people” think of the contents.


It was not always so. The storyteller who describes accurately, or changes the direction of the culture, needs only to see the eyes of the audience to understand if the tale has had an effect. He doesn’t need a “blurb” from the bard of the next valley.


Most of Lessing’s lecture (well worth a read) speaks of the poor in her childhood home of Zimbabwe who are hungry for knowledge, for literature, who might never have the education or cultural inroads to become prizewinners, but who would simply love to have access to the stories themselves, and perhaps to write their own. She posits that these basic human values have been lost in the wealthy vortex of a status and fame obsessed society.


The Nobel Prize and other awards affirm a fashionable perception that critical reception of the art matters greatly. But while a discussion of the art can be worthwhile, can inform and teach, Lessing (and now Dylan) reminds us that it’s not the important bit, not at all. Art is a direct communication to the very heart of the listener/reader/viewer. And this has always been Dylan’s genius: to touch thousands of listeners in their own home-life, their own soul-life.


So, finally, I’d like to put to rest one more basic assumption that has saturated the whole post Dylan Nobel discussion.


The falsehood: Dylan has remained silent. The truth: Since the announcement, Dylan has played 10 concerts, totaling approximately 15 hours, directly addressing approximately 100,000 people, on topics such as the rape of the economy by Wall Street (Early Roman Kings), the general state of the Union (Desolation Row), busted love (Long and Wasted Years), true love (Make You Feel My Love), the role of vengeance in contemporary geo-politics (Pay in Blood) and a variety of other themes pertinent to the human heart in the early 21st Century.


What’s that? He didn’t say a word about a Scandinavian prize? I guess he’s been a little busy being a troubadour.


My guess, however, is that when the current tour is done (the important thing), Bob will graciously accept this latest honor. He has accepted other prizes. The Medal of Freedom. Why? He clearly loves many aspects of his America. You could even call him a proud American but that would be oversimplifying. He is, without a doubt, the greatest American artist. And of course, he accepted the Oscar, a facsimile of which accompanies him on stage every night. Why? He has always loved the movies, especially old-school.


But mostly, I have gleaned, second to music, he loves books. He is no doubt an admirer of many of the previous winners, and I think he will respect them by accepting the award. I think he is probably honored to be in that company. He probably won’t hobnob with the Swedes, however, anymore than he did with the president.


He has accepted other prizes too, but always on his own terms.


I would even venture to guess, that between shows, between conducting his own nightly poetry readings, his séances that defy time and critics, Bob might be perusing the lectures of past Nobel Laureates, wondering how exactly he might address the issue, when he is ready. A speech of his own, like MusicCares? A song with the band? Or a simple handshake? Or less?


In the meantime, all this “silence?” Sure has provoked a lot of thought.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

I Congratulated Bob Personally: Dylan at Desert Trip and in Las Vegas




Everyone who loves Dylan’s music has a story that tells how his or her life was influenced by the bard from the North Country. In the days following Bob’s Nobel Prize honor, these are the tales that mean the most to me. Analysis of his words as great “literature,” while relevant and often insightful, do not reveal why this announcement has had such a profoundly intimate affect on so many thousands of his fans. For example, as soon as I read the news, I cried. I’ve heard of many other such reactions.



My next thought was community: I wanted to share the news. Texting commenced. Friends who like Bob, who know how much Bob has meant to me, reached out immediately. My point here is simple: Dylan’s music is an experience shared over many years, with the people we love. My wife was thrilled to discuss the news with me. She likes Bob a lot, not in the same way as me, but she has her own meaningful relationship with his art. She has her own story. Thousands of people have their own story. That is why so many of us cried, and in large part, why Dylan is so deserving of this high accolade.



My Dylan tale is complex, so entwined with my life, that in order to tell it, I included it as part of a memoir. I won’t try to summarize here, but if you’re curious, refer to other pages of this blog. Suffice to say, it began in my basement in our home state of Minnesota, took wing at a large outdoor festival in 1978 England, and had me flying to Las Vegas two days ago. My book, by the way, is called The Golden Bird.



Here I’ll stick to just the latest episode of my inner Dylan odyssey, taking place over the past week.



I attended the first weekend of the Desert Trip festival, and saw Bob open the show on Friday the 7th of October. My friends and I had purchased tickets back in the spring, excited to hear all the acts. Neil Young has been another long-time favorite. I was a bit concerned how Dylan would come off, however. I had last seen him here in Seattle in June, in two shows at a local winery. You can read my review below, in my last post, but the upshot is that while the shows were wonderful, they featured and emphasized many very quiet songs from Dylan’s last two records, the American Songbook covers. In addition, Dylan on stage was more reserved and unreadable than I had ever seen, singing from deep within. The songs came alive but there was virtually no sign that the man himself even noticed that an audience sat before him. I have long since (more than fifty shows) understood that there will be no spoken words, but on these two evenings he seemed to take personal reserve to a new level. We often get a few more smiles, some pointed fingers, a “thank you, friends,” but these nights, if memory serves, nothing. In any case, I was worried how this show was going to play in front of 75,000 nostalgic fans who are less familiar with the recent material.



I needn’t have been concerned about the set list. Dylan, while not exactly conceding  to popular tastes (there would be no “Rolling Stone,” and several songs were lesser known recent gems), played a sixties hits heavy set, intense, rollicking, well delivered, dark enough to suit the political moment, yet leavened by a couple love songs. The crowd reaction, nonetheless, was lukewarm. Some folks near me said they couldn’t understand the words of the newer songs. Well, I thought, those tunes are among the best, so please, rock those records a few dozen times until the lyrics to “Pay in Blood”  and “Early Roman Kings” are burned into your brain alongside “Highway 61.” Then you’ll hear all the words. As usual, my response to the casual fan is: Don’t blame Bob if you didn’t do your homework. You get a lot more out of Picasso too if you’ve studied up a bit.



Because the sound was great at Desert Trip. The music was crystalline and the words were clear. Often, people think Dylan sounds bad (harsh, unintelligible, too loud, “I don’t recognize these songs”) because they still have some image in their heads from yesterday, last year, last decade, thirty years ago, “when I was in my twenties.” That is not how it works with Bob Dylan. If you want to understand the dialogue at his ongoing art party, you’ve got to keep up. It’s always been true, from “Judas” to the gospel years to the fire and brimstone of “Tempest.” I’m sorry if I sound holier than thou. I do understand why people stop paying attention. I myself have resistance to “Shadows in the Night,” and “Fallen Angels.” They are too much my father’s music, and my dad and I, well, we didn’t really get along. But in concert in Seattle in June, I paid close attention, and I have to admit, those tunes were gorgeous.



Another complaint at Desert Trip was that the screens went out during Bob’s set, and even when they were working, Dylan was only shown in silhouette and from behind. Meanwhile, movies scenes of Americana from the fifties were projected alongside, and later, exclusively. Yes, it was a big festival and people at the back could not see anything. Hell, I couldn’t see anything from halfway back in the grandstand. We could “only hear.” I hope you see the irony implicit in my quotation marks, but in case not, this sentence also exists. Back in the fifties, when Dylan was a boy, he mostly “only heard” music, except for the rare live show — famously, Buddy Holly a day or two before his death. In 1978, I saw Dylan at a rock festival with four times as many people than at Desert Trip. My friends and I were a good half mile from the stage, and we could “only hear.” It sounded amazing. It quite literally (ha!) changed my life.



So, here’s my only Dylan quote in this essay: “Gotta get up near the teacher, if you can, if you wanna learn anything.” — “Floater (Too Much to Ask).”



What that teaches me is: Do your homework, and it will help you understand. Not just Dylan, of course! Read books. Study the world. Look at people’s lives. See how children learn. Find a teacher. Have experiences. Get up close. You want to see the teacher previously called Zimmerman up close, but the Desert Trip pit tickets were too expensive too allow that privilege?



Bob Dylan (Nobel Laureate), at age 75, still plays over 100 concerts every single year, in small towns and big cities. I have seen him in ball fields, theaters, and once, in Missoula, in what seemed to be a cow pasture. Some of these events were general admission, and at some the seats were reserved. Often, good tickets were available on the day of the show. For many years it has been possible, and it is still possible (we lucky people), spring through fall, to see Bob Dylan perform in small venues. In the next couple of months, if you can get away, or if you live in the American south, you can easily see him sing his Nobel prize winning songs, from right up close. In fact, you can do it two or three days in a row if you like! Big screens are over-rated. Dylan’s wrinkly, mostly impassive countenance can be right in front of your own eyes if you get yourself to Chattanooga on November 13. You could follow him across south for the week and spend less than a single ticket for Desert Trip.



If anyone tells you Bob Dylan is not available to his fans, well, you could say, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” You won’t meet him, you won’t be his friend, and you won’t discuss politics. You will hear great art.



Which brings me to part two of my personal Bob Dylan story, for the week he won the Nobel Prize. I was safely home from Desert Trip this past Monday, and on Thursday morning there I sat at my kitchen table, reading the news and weeping into my oatmeal. By good fortune, I am living a life of few obligations at the present, newly retired and my children mostly grown. I remembered the gig in Las Vegas. A quick search at Ticketmaster showed availability, even some pretty good looking seats. But still: airplane, hotel, money, hassle, etc . . But Dylan! The Nobel Prize! Good seats! I refreshed my browser. OMG, as they say. Not just good seats. First row! Only one thing to do: consult the wife. Again, by supreme good fortune, I am married to a woman who knows me and is the most supportive, loving person in the universe. First row ticket, boom! Flight, boom! Off to Vegas.



At 10 minutes before 8 PM the day before yesterday, I am sitting in my front row seat at the Chelsea theater, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, waiting for the band to take the stage. There’s a Nobel buzz in the crowd, although I also have the idea that many of the attendees are Vegas vacationers who stumbled into the show on an auspicious evening. I think at least half of any Dylan audience is usually nostalgia seekers anyway, so no surprise there. This night however, because of Dylan’s intensity, the heightened excitement because of the prize, and also the excellent sound in the auditorium, very few will go away less than thrilled, even if they didn’t quite get all the words. (Okay, one guy behind me demanded severely, right after the show, “Why didn’t he play “Rolling Stone?!” Um, um, because he didn’t? Because he has 400 other classics to choose from? Duh?)



Anyway, as I’m sitting there, a man takes the seat next to me. We chat, and he tells me he’s Michael, a high school English teacher from Santa Cruz. It seems, at the same moment I was clicking “purchase” in Seattle, he was considering a first row ticket that had just come up on his screen in Santa Cruz. Thing is, he was in class at the time. Apparently, he then confided to the students that while they were studying, he was looking for tickets (new Nobel Laureate!), and much like my wife, they said, “Do it! Do it!” Michael, it seems, had been a fan of Dylan for ages, and also a big fan of the Nobel literature award. When these two of his passions collided, along with an opportunity to see the bard of Hibbing that very night, how could he refuse? It seemed ordained.



It seemed to be written in the stars. We sat together, two absolute strangers, two brothers in Bob, on the edge of seats, leaping up at every opportunity the ushers would allow. We could not contain ourselves. We wanted to applaud this artist who has been with us, from the opening of our minds through the changing moments of our lives. Of course, as expected, he spoke only through song. It was a very similar set list to Desert Trip, and although that had sounded very good, this was another level. The acoustics in the auditorium were stellar. On the soft songs, like “Baby Blue,” “Simple Twist,” “Make You Feel My Love,” his voice was rich and smooth, very like his records of the early century, with very little gravel. I’m not joking when I say it even put me in mind of the “Nashville Skyline” voice. On the tight blues rockers, “Early Roman Kings,” “Pay in Blood,” "Highway 61,” the tone was just devastating, clear and sharp and stinging like a wasp. Several times he held long notes at the end of lines. But how can I ever describe his phrasing? It is the most mutable aspect of a Dylan performance, and it flavors every line of verse: with sorrow or longing or wrath, or less nameable feelings that the heart perceives directly. 



The social commentary in these tunes, whether from 1965 or 2012, is just so spot on, at this moment in time. Who can sit in a theater in a casino in Las Vegas and not feel the images of “Desolation Row?” You have just seen some of these things in the corridor outside! I read today online, someone mocking that a Nobel Laureate would be playing Vegas on the day he won the prize. This person claimed irony, that a Vegas showman would be honored and the prize thus debased. That’s very funny, because there is indeed irony that Dylan should play Vegas this night, but it is because no one else in literature has described the excesses and human carnival seen in that city in quite the way Dylan has. His cultural observations are one more reason Bob Dylan’s significance towers above the other great acts that played with him the previous weekend at Desert Trip. Although, its true, unlike Mick, he never shouts to the crowd, “Who knows how to party?”



When I thought about the Nobel during the show, it caused me to notice how consciously musical each word of each song is. What I mean, is that Dylan has created a new kind of literature, one that integrates the spirit rousing, muse calling, soul stirring qualities of great music with words of intellectual vigor and visual beauty. It’s either a very old or a very new category of art. In any case, it accounts for the personal connection that is possible for so many in his music. Great poetry can affect us on the page alone, and certainly can be musical, but because of Bob’s performance skills, his intonations and arrangements, his tunes call down the gods, whether Pan or Jesus or the Mother or even an angry Jehovah, to be with us as we walk along the path of the words. And if that don’t deserve the Nobel . . .



He looked magnificent. His hair was fluffy, no hat. Unlike at Woodinville in June, he shot many of his strange half-grins at the crowd. At times he hammed with the mike stand, leaning it down and crooning. He played some sweet harp on a few numbers, and on “Simple Twist of Fate,” he even played guitar, with a very nicely formed solo through the second half of the song! He looked delighted to be doing so, although if anyone can combine delight with inscrutability, it’s Bob. Often he stood at the piano while playing, but when he sat his legs were in constant sync with the rhythms, and it was at these moments he issued some of the most entertaining amused glares at the audience, as if to say, “I’ve told you this before, but I’m not sure you were listening.”



In a rare moment of near silence (the band begins each song the very moment the last note of the previous has been played), I shouted, quite loudly, “Congratulations, Bob!” Many people then shouted, “Yah!!” I was a little surprised that no one beat me to this remark, but as noted, there was little opportunity, and also, despite multiple ovations, there also seemed to be a kind of respectful awe in the room much of the night. As if, is it really allowed to bellow rock show shit at a Nobel Laureate? I decided it was. Let me brag for a moment that I am the first member of the general public to offer Dylan congratulations in person. In fact, I read that even the Nobel committee has not reached him yet. How does it feel? It feels good, that’s how it feels. And I do not feel so all alone. I know I spoke what many would like to say.



In that moment I felt that I was shouting the very opposite of the most famous Dylan show scream. Has there ever been an musician more true to his art than Bob Dylan? Judas was the ultimate betrayer but through all the changes of a lifetime, Bob is constant to his gift. It’s in this way that he has been true to his fans as well. He asks us to keep listening, keep thinking, keep living a life that doesn’t compromise on creativity and empathy and intelligence.



Dylan has made me a better person. He has helped me to think about my own life, my own actions, my own path. In 1978, Dylan was asked, “What is the purpose of art, Bob?,” His reply: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire.”



Thanks, Bob.