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
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.