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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Grapes of Wrath: Bob Dylan at Chateau St. Michelle


It seemed to me last night, as I stared at the old man in his funny hat and funny suit, singing such deadly serious songs, that I have lived my entire life at a Bob Dylan concert. There is a perpetual moment, a moment which sums me up,  in which I am sitting in row 2, as last evening, or standing in a crush eight feet back, looking at this man singing.  It seems, in those seconds or minutes, that everything else — my job, my children, my wife — has been merely a time before or a time after.  The real me is forever listening and looking at this strange man tell his musical stories.

This is ridiculous, of course. I know that. I know that, here on the couch, working on my laptop, as the dog crunches her chow, as my brilliant daughter does her homework, as my wife and lover finishes the dishes.  I am no spectator. I have my work and my garden and my life. Bob Dylan concerts are the moments out of time.


I saw both shows that opened this current tour, at the winery I mentioned above, in a nearby suburb to my home in Seattle. I have recently lost count, but it may have been numbers 50 and 51 for me. For Dylan, it was the first two shows he’s played since he turned the majestic age of 75 last month. When I saw him in 1978, he was 37. So, like Mavis Staples said last night, we go way back, Bobby and I. Way back. If you are reading this I bet you do too.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the way he treats us. Those heavy-lidded unseeing eyes, that frown.

Last night, after I entered the sunny wooded outdoor venue, I walked up a path on the right border, through the  GA section. I stood among the wine-bibbers.  They reclined in camp chairs, dipping chicken drumsticks into ranch sauce while they waited for tonight’s musical act — who is it again? — to provide a soundtrack for their picnic.

What a long ways we’ve come from Blackbushe, I thought.

At the edge of the field, I looked out over a fence to some concrete ponds terraced down the hillside, and there is Donnie Herron, multi-instrumentalist and main musical foil to Bob Dylan, feeding the ducks. He really seemed to have a thing for those ducks. He would hold out the bread, and sometimes one would waddle up and grab it quick, but just as often they were disinterested and he had to throw the crumbs toward them. Sometimes they would spectacularly splash into the pool for the tidbit, but mostly they were aloof. Still, Mr. Herron was persistent, as if nothing really mattered more in the world at that moment but getting those ducks to eat some catered bread.

Probably nothing did. The man, unlike me, truly lives his life at a Bob Dylan concert. In between the electric mandolin and the pedal steel guitar, in between the banjo and the violin, what is there? After the jams on “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” and on “Duquesne Whistle,” in which he plays Robbie to Bob, Bloomfield to Bob, Charlie McCoy to Bob, George to Bob, after the smile flashes between them when it rollicked and rolled just so, well, what else really is there? What else could there be? Feeding the ducks I suppose. On to the next show. I can relate brother, except I, of course, have no musical skills for one, and I never get the smile.

Instead, I get the frown, from the stage manager guy, who knows very well I am looking at band members, and who regards me as a potential threat in this age of potential threats. I want to say, hey, it’s just me, Seattle Bob Dylan fan trying to get a little insight into this crazy phenomena called “Bob Dylan,” but I know he’s got a mental muscle memory of me from other times, other places — Waikiki?, he ponders — and I am at least a nuisance, hopefully no more.

So I wander off to my seat. Enjoy those ducks, Donnie. Sorry for the attempted eye contact.

What of the shows, you ask? How does Bob vibe at 75?

It’s a melancholy mood for the most part.

You can’t really point to but one song in the whole set that conjures anything else, anything but a sorrow inside the soul and a dismay outside the soul at this sorry world. No wonder I feel hung over. That one song is “Spirit on the Water,” and that must be why he keeps it in the set. Frankly, it’s a crazy art piece from any perspective. People stand and applaud when he’s done rolling around those piano keys, singing what passes for a love song in 21st Century Dylan-land. People stand and applaud because for a moment, even though the energy of the set has diminished at this point, just when it might have risen, people stand and applaud, not only for the crafty jazz of the song, which has sounded much jazzier in the past than it does tonight, sorry to say, when it sounds disheveled and too well lived in, but people applaud wildly, because for a moment, despite the death of momentum, they feel less suicidal.

Maybe we can have a whoppin’ good time!

And then he plays “Scarlet Town.” The people in the back who got excited at the end of the first set when he blew a bouncy harp and sang with energy about the death of love in “Tangled Up in Blue” — one of exactly three songs in the set from before 1990 — have now started muttering to themselves. This is not the death of love we love! We were not young during this death! This is not the death of love we desire!  We don’t know the words!

Dylan, one hand over his chest and the other to his brow, like a witness to a particularly gruesome crime, sings: “Set it up Joe, play “Walkin’ the Floor,” play it for my flat-chested junkie whore.” I can’t help wondering what the 15 year old boy sitting to my left must be thinking. He and his slightly older sister, elegantly dressed, look to be the very offspring of Seattle’s own Early Roman Kings. Still, they seem spellbound by the “living legend” twenty paces in front of them, attentive and appreciative, despite a commensurate interest in the candy corn. They don’t seem put out —as I am, who should know better — by the lack of facial expressions on the face of the master.

Indeed, at the end of the song, as Tony Garnier’s bow on the stand-up bass bids goodnight and good luck to George Recile’s feathery touches on the snare and the ominous droning of the guitarists, and to a final, updated, age-old warning from Mr. “It’s doom alone that counts” himself, something about the death of beauty, these fresh young ones leap to their feet in ovation. Go figure. Are they listening to this stuff in their Lake Washington manor hall?

Which brings me to “the standards.” Much to my chagrin, especially in the unlikely event you read my last post, and equally as much to my pleasure, if you know how much I love Bob Dylan, “the standards” are pretty much the reason this Bob Dylan live show in the year 2016 exists. Not a big surprise really, if we have been paying attention. There is not much you can generalize about the Mystery that is Bob Dylan, but I dare say this: Bob Dylan is always about what Bob Dylan is about right now. The reason to see these shows, if you should choose to accept this mission, is to see Bob Dylan sing “I’m a Fool to Want You,” and “Autumn Leaves.”

I feckin’ hate to admit it, cuz I don’t much like it, but they are feckin’ sublime. Here’s the deal: I think Dylan decided he doesn’t NEED to write any more tender and moving songs that he loves to sing, like “Forgetful Heart,” because there exist already all these other wistful sad songs in the world. He’ll make do with them. He don’t care if the boys would rather play Highway 61 because it’s more fun. To hell with fun.

Straight ahead: the Tempest material is mostly good, still fresh and powerful. “Duquesne Whistle,”  “Pay in Blood,” and “Early Roman Kings” are just tremendous controlled jams. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” from an earlier record, has the same feel, and is refreshing for its semblance of optimism amid the chaos and destruction. “Long and Wasted Years” seems a bit rote with the descending chord pattern, but I suppose it’s the point he wants to make. I guess I just have a problem with the songs with very predictable structures. This band is too good for such repetition. I personally do not need to march along to “She Belongs to Me” again. If he is going to put a sixties song in the set … fill in the blank.

Straight ahead: The standards are wonderful, because of the feeling Dylan conveys. His voice has no range, but it sure has reach, just like it always had. Right into your heart and a big squeeze. I’m not sure I will ever love those tunes on the record, but performed live they are worth your money. “Autumn Leaves,” the closer, will make you shiver on the warmest day.

The encore duo of “Blowing in the Wind” and “Love Sick” is perfect. For the first, he is your kindly grandpa singing a lullaby.  The light touch of his piano and the merry cadences of the band swing you back and forth gently, and you nearly forget that the essential message of this song is that the answer is not to be found. Voice of the sixties indeed. Then he stands before you again (for the last time, you always fear, these days) and tells you, that despite the end of love that pervades each and every song, love is still what he wants, what every human wants, and his last words tell it all: “I’d give anything to be with you.”

Pass that bottle over here. No, not the burgundy. The harder stuff.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bob Dylan at 75

            At this point I thought I had experienced everything a die-hard Dylan fan can experience. I’ve seen nearly fifty concerts in a span of thirty-eight years, listened to all the outtakes and bootlegs and historical artifacts, and been blown away by a couple dozen official album releases that have presaged or shadowed changes in my life. I have lived my days with Dylan’s music in my head. Ironically, however, it’s only now, as Bob turns 75, that I feel baptized and consecrated as a true fan. It is only now that I feel something every other follower has felt at some point or another in Dylan’s storied career, through all the changes and periods.
Which is: I am not excited about the album he has just released. For the first time EVER, I did not make a special trip to get the new Dylan on the day it became available. Four days later I still haven’t heard the whole thing. I’m just not that into it.
Understand, please, that I have tickets for three Bob shows in the next six months, concerts that I anticipate with joy, as I have anticipated all the shows in the past. I fully expect to be wowed by his presence, by the finesse of the band, by the subtleties and depth he brings to a selection of mostly newer songs, including a fair number from the “standards” albums. I am stoked. Dylan’s concerts over the last couple years have been amazing theater, and I expect nothing less for these shows. I am especially fascinated to see if he brings something different to Desert Trip in October — more classics in honor of the folks he will share the stage with — or if he sticks with the same kind of small scale show with 80% newer material that he lately does so well.
Despite this anticipation, the thing I now have in common with legions of Bobcats, that I never have felt before, is that I don’t really care for his latest period, at least as it exists on recording.
            Like those at Newport and in Manchester who booed the electricity, like those who disdained the country twang of Nashville Skyline or the claustrophobic and mad exaltations of Street-Legal, like the hip who could not get down to Christian gospel, like the ones who felt no affinity for the folk covers of the early nineties, I just can’t get into “the American Songbook.” Finally, finally, I have a Dylan period that leaves me kind of cold and saying “What the Fuck?” like all those others have said before me! Okay, truth be told I’ve been here before, a little bit anyway, when we were ALL here, back in the mid-eighties, with the nadir of “Knocked Out Loaded,” “Down in the Groove,” and let’s face it, “Under the Red Sky.” But even then, I was still excited by the possibilities on each record, glimmers of ecstasy, even if they were mostly unrealized or lazily ignored by their own creator.
            But with these last two records, I feel something more, some of that active antipathy that Bob has conjured at times in so many who have loved his music. These songs kind of bug me.
In this way I have achieved true fandom. The songs I’ve heard on “Fallen Angels” and “Shadows in the Night” are pleasant, and Bob’s phrasing is interesting, but all in all, I can’t get over that these are my father’s songs. And I don’t just mean songs from my father’s time, because my Dad was a young man when blues and folk musicians who also influenced Bob, from Woody to Blind Willie, were young men. No, I mean my father’s music, tunes he actually listened to, sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes and a few others from those noble forties and those misty fifties. Frankly, it reminds me of a constricted childhood. It’s a bit dull to my ears, a bit sleepy. Dylan is the greatest of singers, but there is very little here I care about, and so his styling is lost on me.
Trust Bob to embrace pretty much every last thing that can piss off somebody who thinks they know what his music “means” or “stands for.” Ha! I was perfectly at home, I mean absolutely on the couch with “Time Out of Mind” through “Tempest.” Bob’s last twenty years has meant as much to me, until now, on record and in performance, as any of the output the mid to late seventies — my teenage years — and more by far than the legendary sixties material. Although I have always admired the white-hot artistry and the social context of the “Cutting Edge” period, I never had the personal relationships for those songs that I believe is so all-important in Bob’s music. There are plenty of exceptions of course; any young romantic can know himself in “Visions of Johanna” and every pacifist will sing along with “Masters of War,” but  overall I have connected more deeply with the songs in the nineteen-seventies, and in Bob’s elder days.
Until now.
I mean, it’s fine. These records are fine. Bob does what he likes. I know that there are bunches of articles out there explaining how these songs are the latest examples of how Bob unites all the great American traditions, and in fact, I’m sure they are correct. Unfortunately, “Fallen Angels” holds no more interest for me personally than “Slow Train” and “Saved” held for a generation of atheists.
The thing is, however, if any agnostics or disbelievers saw Bob at the Warfield Theater in 1979, I bet they were still pretty impressed with the show. If not, history has simply proved them wrong. Because whether you are religious or not, whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha or Materialistic Nothingness, those shows clearly rocked. They blistered and transcended. Anyone with ears would hear that, live. A nonbeliever or a devotee of another faith still probably wouldn’t listen to the LP’s though. It just wouldn’t connect personally, and in my way of thinking, an individual’s connection with the songs, —how they have intersected with your own life in a cosmic way — is what Dylan fandom is all about.
So when Dylan plays a half dozen songs or more from his latest two records at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville in a couple weeks, I intend to listen closely. I’m pretty sure I will be impressed, because when you see Bob live, if you are open to it, if you are lucky enough to sit up close, nine times out of ten you will catch something that a recording might not offer.
In the meantime, I am sort of disappointed but also sort of relieved to know how it feels: Bob isn’t speaking to me this time around. I have my own relationship with the music, but it’s not this period. At least I don’t think so. But I will listen carefully anyway in early June, when Bob is LIVE in the suburbs of Seattle.
Bob Dylan is 75 today. Thanks for all the songs. Happy Birthday, Bob!