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!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Fans and Followers" and "Dylanologists"

As I write this, it is late in the evening on Bob Dylan’s 73rd birthday. I hope he has had a fine day, celebrated by those he loves. Meanwhile, we who don’t know the man, but are intimate with the music, also wish him glad tidings, and many more productive and expressive years. Certainly he seems as active as ever, with a tour of Europe coming up, followed by Australia in the late summer, and rumored dates in the States in the fall. Not to mention a new album to be released sometime soon. It’s difficult to imagine how he can handle such a life at that age, but he’s clearly made of tougher stuff than most, and I guess it’s the life he knows.
I am grateful that he keeps on keepin’ on.
Unluckily, here in Seattle there seems to be no musical celebration of Bob going on tonight, so I am left to sit on my couch and contemplate, without the fellowship of “my people,” as David Kinney calls them in his new book titled The Dylanologists. These are individuals he describes in many ways, but for tonight, I think it will be sufficient to say, that these are individuals who didn’t need to be told through social media, that today is that day. 
If you follow.
For really, as Dylan himself addressed us from his website  a couple years back — when there was the little kerfuffle about whether the songs he was playing in China had been censored or preapproved by that government; when he felt a need to say that was a load of shit — he called us “my fans and followers.” It was surprising, I thought at the time, both that he spoke to us so directly, and that he called us “followers.” But let’s face it, he was right. I am both fan and follower. I follow his old music, I follow his new music, and sometimes I quite literally follow him from city to city on tour. I am fanatical about his art because it touches me deeply and has intersected with my life in incredible, mystical (I say without the least hesitation) ways.
But just because I follow, I don’t think that makes him a leader, and I am also pretty sure I am not a “Dylanologist.” Well, I can’t be I suppose; I didn’t make the book. Just as well. I don’t specialize in the study of Dylan or the science of Dylan.  I just live my life (school librarian, father, gardener, etc . . .) and he keeps showing up. When he shows up, with a new record or in my city or a city not too far away I go visit. It’s the least I can do.
I’d be willing to bet that most of “my people” are of a similar shade, some a little darker, some a bit lighter, some with more sparkle, others with finer hats. So I am really not sure about this whole “Dylanologist” thing. Who wants to be “ologized?”
I’m also not sure if this is a book review. I will say I enjoyed the book tremendously. I devoured it. As “a fan and follower” of Mr. Dylan, I am fascinated by these stories of other lives that have intersected so profoundly with his art. I am amazed by the different levels of meaning people have found, such as Scott Warmuth’s discoveries, and the various folks who found solace for hard times in some phase or another of Bob’s output. Kinney does a great job reporting on these folks.
But the book also made me feel kind of queasy and upset. For one, if these truly are “my people,” why are they pushing me so hard as we scurry to get to the rail? We are not truly close, “my people” and I. Unless we are squished there up front listening to Bob. It’s strange that way. I don’t actually know them, any more than I know Bob Dylan.  
When you first encounter personal meaning in Dylan’s music, when you first hear the bits that seem to apply so directly to your situation and your days, there is none of the self-awareness implicit in this tome. There is none of the meta-cognition of affect, there is only the affect. It’s disturbing to be analyzed so, and it’s ironic as hell that those who are supposedly “ologyzing” Dylan are being “ologyzed” in this book. And Mr. Kinney, who claims to be one of "us," seems to be watching me and taking notes. Hmmm . . .
To say it plainly. When I was a boy and Bob blew my head open — when I watched “Hard Rain” on my little black and white TV at sixteen, when I went to the Blackbushe festival at eighteen and discovered sex and real love, and even when I played “Time Out of Mind” a thousand times as a newly middle-aged man — I was not analyzing or collecting anything at all. I was living. I cared no more for those other two hundred thousand people at Blackbushe who came to see Dylan than I did about any random crowd of two hundred thousand you might pass by. But I cared very deeply about the woman I fell in love with there, the one who seemed to come out of a Dylan song. Love minus zero. Silver bracelets on her wrists.
I suppose, when I go to a show and I try to get close, so I can pay attention better, hear better, see better, I am studying Dylan. It’s true, I am trying to learn and understand. And now I write. But I am going to reject this “Dylanologist” thing. I think it simplifies something that is very complicated and very personal. Count me a fan and a follower, please. Happy Birthday, Bob.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Palm Leaf Shadows and Scattered Flowers: Bob Dylan in Hawaii


            Things Have Changed (Bob center stage)
            She Belongs To Me (Bob center stage with harp)
            Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Bob on piano)
            What Good Am I? (Bob center stage)
            Waiting For You (Bob on piano)
            Duquesne Whistle (Bob on piano)
            Pay In Blood (Bob center stage)
Tangled Up In Blue
(Bob center stage with harp then on piano on 4th verse)
            Love Sick (Bob center stage with harp)
            High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage)
            Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob center stage with harp)
            Early Roman Kings (Bob on piano)
Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage with harp)
Spirit On The Water (Bob on piano)
            Scarlet Town (Bob center stage)
            Soon After Midnight (Bob on piano)
            Long And Wasted Years (Bob center stage)
            All Along The Watchtower (Bob on piano)
            Blowin' In The Wind (Bob on piano)

            There you have it. The very nearly unchanging set list from spring, 2014, Japan and Hawaii. Bob singing what he wants to sing, singing with clarity and vehemence, pounding and caressing that piano. Blowing some very sweet harp. Nearly shouting some songs in his excitement. Two years ago in Missoula and Seattle I was desperate to hear a Tempest debut that never arrived. It’s easy to see in retrospect that he simply wasn’t ready. This year we get six songs and they are the best of the set. The rest is fine as well, impassioned and inspired, but the band and Bob somehow turn it up a notch for the newest material.
            It probably should go without saying that if a casual fan turns up at one of these shows hoping for some acoustic folk, there’s going to be a little cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately and predictably, it still happens. The fellow next to me in Honolulu left halfway through, and on the way out I overheard some blowhard saying, “He put no energy into that. I don’t think there’s a single person here leaving who thinks that was a good show . . . blah . . . blah ….”

        “They chirp and they chatter, what does it matter?
        They’re lying, they’re dying in their blood”

        “People see me all the time, I guess they just can’t remember how to act
        Their minds are filled with false ideas, images and distorted facts.”

              In contrast, anyone paying attention heard something spirited, fantastic, musically exciting, and often quite bleak. 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. The Man is at the center of it all, and while his own playing can be idiosyncratic in moments, his power is unquestionable. The turn of the millennium is very far away indeed, when you might find Sexton and Dylan and Campbell on a parallel 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 still a single organism, but 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 that are not just so, any pandering to the name of the town, or any indication that he is just playing around.
            Every move the band makes focuses on the poetry Dylan feels now and the particular way he chooses to musically highlight those images. Some might criticize the static set list of this tour, but looking back two years to the “Tempest” –less set in Seattle there were only three songs that we heard again this time. That’s remarkable. Obviously Bob has the depth to shift the songs constantly and only play amazing tunes, but it’s silly to look to a changing set list alone as a mark of quality. For now, the composer is sacrificing the matchless extent of his oeuvre for dedication to a particular, precise communication.
            “Tempest” is at the center. In an earlier post I discussed the overall themes of the album, and all of those ideas come forward in the live performance, but these renditions pretty much blow the recorded template out of the atmosphere. “Pay in Blood” is a song that illuminates Dylan’s current poetic moment, hearkens back to earlier concepts, and dispels any notion that Bob is sitting in the 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 aimed, not so much at the other, as at the ability of Everyman to live in the heart of evil while going about his business. At these shows in Maui and Honolulu, Dylan sang with vitriol about “another politician, pumping out the piss,” but he acknowledges, just as forcibly, that 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!" But the song seems to be asking a question: Who is listening? Who is listening to anything outside the chatter in their own skull?
            There are two general 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, a tornado in a laboratory. For the second, he sits on the edge of his piano stool, crooning his twisted love songs and leading a jam, such as on one of the few sixties era songs, “All Along the Watchtower,”  that takes its inspiration more from Miles Davis or some earlier bygone jazz than from Hendrix. The band plunks and beats and strums in skillful sympathy, sometimes transcendently, at other times a bit hapless before the madness of their leader.
            The most extraordinary example of the latter is a staple of the set over the last five years, “Spirit on the Water.” It is clearly a song Bob feels strongly about considering how regularly it has appeared amidst the changes. In Maui, Bob’s piano continually brought the tune to a point not far from incoherence, and a point not quite close enough to brilliance. In between his love rhymes, his runs on the keyboard and the rhythm section’s beats and the guitarists’ fills nearly added up to something sublime, but not quite. They nearly fell to mayhem, but not quite. In contrast, in Honolulu, the same improvisation, led of course by Dylan’s funky, off-key, soulful piano, gave that rare sense in music, that a veil had been pushed aside and another dimension revealed. We had the marriage of beauty and chaos and the love and the orgasm of that union. In my section in the fourth row, several people, including myself, actually leapt into the air in delight.  
            It’s not hard to see that anyone who came expecting a sing-along would be befuddled.
            “Duquesne Whistle,” as performed in the spring of 2014, is much better than the album version. It moves like the train should move, at a fast clip. Bob calls out the lyrics clearly as we rollick along on George Recile’s marvelous wheeling drumbeat.  It feels like Dylan has decided that if the train moves fast enough and he keeps shoveling in the coal, maybe the ride won’t ever need to end. Even as he sings about the end. Whereas the recorded version seems to drag ever so slightly, in a way that reminds you that this is a composition, in the current live version you are sitting in a boxcar on a warm day, your feet dangling out the open door as the fresh countryside rolls by. Simply joyous. You are more hobo than beggar. You are doomed to die, but you don’t care.
            Another piano standout, but not loose and jazzy at all, quite the opposite, is “Early Roman Kings.” This song just kills. Sure, the live rendition, same as the record, is a copy of a standard blues. But these boys can wind that up to high tension. And again, although the music is central, the music is there to serve the epicenter, and the epicenter is Dylan’s rage. I would say that this is one of the few angry songs that is purely directed outward at a societal ill, as opposed to a societal ill with a high degree of existential culpability. This is a song that says: there are some people out there who are seriously fucking it up for the rest of us.
            It’s a song that reminds us that we are living under the hill in “Scarlet Town.” I’ve written in an earlier post about this bleak update of “Desolation Row” and “Ain’t Talkin’.” This was the first live rendition I’ve heard, and if the album cut is a bummer, the performance version is suicidal. It’s a musical edition of “The Scream,” and who wants to look at that for very long? Here you look it square in the face for about five minutes and damn if it doesn’t haunt you.  
The previous day I was sitting in an awful little taco shop in Waikiki in search of a meal costing less than $40, while the two angry dudes behind the counter took a very long time to produce a fish taco that proved inedible. I spent that 20 minutes listening to some thumping bass and staring out at a young pauper on the corner, lolling and burning on a camp chair in the hot noon hour, his dog sleeping under an umbrella — the only evidence of love on that street. He crouched there, death in his eyes at twenty-five, while the high fashioned tourists, with their cute little hats, their human forms so glorified, strolled by. I knew I should buy him a taco but I was suffering myself under the weight of the tall buildings and I had no room to breathe. “In Scarlet Town, crying won’t do you no good.”  
Tell it, Bob, even when I don’t want to hear.
            Love. Pain. Love. Pain. In this set we travel between those poles until we are not sure if there is any difference. “Forgetful Heart,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Soon After Midnight” and the closer, “Long and Wasted Years.” The first and the last in this list delivered from the center, with a torch. The middle two at the piano, with  lilt and bluster. “Long and Wasted Years,” is another shocking performance, each line offered in a shout, rough and smooth at the same time, 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 emphasized, every line piling up, crashing toward 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!

Again with the crying, and the futility of such.
I know some will 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.
            In this set we get three that might be primarily called spirituals. Two songs close to the beginning, and one at the end. For “What Good am I?” Dylan stands center, declaiming, gently and clearly, while the band follows on tiptoes:
What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

I always thought he was speaking to a lover in this song, but tonight I don’t see that at all. I see that beggar again, the same one blowing me a kiss. The same one crouching at the gate of the taco place, sheltering his dog from the harsh sun instead of himself.

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

There he was, dying on the street in Scarlet Town. He knew his crying would do no good.

If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

Maybe help will come for that fellow and his dog. Maybe it will come too late. It won’t come from me. I shut myself off. My hands were tied. What Good am I?
            The next tune invoking his mortality and his maker is “Duquesne Whistle.” As mentioned above, the performance is rousing, a hand-clapper, and one that makes you feel that being on a train headed toward death might just be the same as a train headed home.
            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 that 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 classic or an anthem, but a comfort in hard times. He sings like he believes deeply in an answer, even if we can’t see it. Like he knows the questions are really hard, 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: there is an answer, and it’s not the nihilism of greed and power or the determinism of science. It’s a mystery but it’s out there in the wind. We might get a sense of it when our guard is down.
But you know, I’ve always been a child who wants to believe. It’s soon after midnight and I’ve got a date with a fairy queen. 

A few postscript band notes: I was talking to my wife on the phone in the Maui airport on Sunday when Donnie Herron walked by. My wife has since forgiven me for hanging up on her. I spoke to Donnie for a couple minutes before we were interrupted by Dylan’s sound guy, so I didn’t get a chance to ask any really fun questions. I did tell him that I’d seen the first set of shows he played with Bob back in ’05 in Seattle. I wasn’t very nervous because it was completely spontaneous. I asked him about the fiddle case he was carrying and he joked (I think) that it was an urn containing his grandmother, who had “always wanted to go to Hawaii.” I did get nervous a few minutes later when I noticed that the entire band, except Charlie Sexton (and Bob of course) were also in my waiting lounge. I thought they were all on my flight, so I made no effort to speak to the others, thinking I would have plenty of time and could be all cool and casual-like. To my dismay, it turned out they were on the following plane to Honolulu, as I noticed while boarding. So I hung around the baggage claim in Oahu for another chance. By that time I had conceived a lame idea to have them sign a small card advertising the Maui show that I had picked up. Indeed, they tromped on through 30 minutes later, and I spoke briefly with Tony Garnier and Stu Kimball, who were very kind, very gracious, and they signed my card. But by then all spontaneity and naturalness was long gone and I felt like a stalker. So I thanked them for their shows over the years and fled, losing any chance of a more substantial conversation. Funny thing is I could care less about autographs and managed to lose the card later anyway!
In any case, it was a cool happenstance overall, much like a year ago in Saint Paul when I walked into my hotel bar to see Sexton talking with Jakob Dylan. At that time I also raved incoherently with Charlie for a few minutes before running away. I also ran into him again this year by the stage door of the Maui show. I honestly was just walking by, not hanging out, and walking quickly even, when we nearly collided. We shook hands so that was nice. I don’t quite understand why I seem to bump into the band like this. Especially since I can only achieve minor conversation. Still, kind of fun. And nice to meet them and have the chance to express my thanks. 

AMERICAN FALL TOUR? Here’s hoping.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Forty Miles of Bad Road: Bob Dylan’s Chrysler Ad

            (I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sometimes I like to wait for all the initial reactions to a new Dylan story to die down. Usually time offers a clearer perspective. I haven’t seen any blogs accusing Dylan of being a “fascist” lately, so hopefully the stupidity has ebbed.)

The few of you who have read this blog in the past might notice I have been long absent. Last time around I wrote about my trip to Minnesota in July to see Bob Dylan in his home town, Duluth, and in mine, St. Paul. I’m a public school teacher so in the summer I have time to make trips like that, and write about them. This time of year, not so much, although I have just made plans to go to Hawaii (!!!) at the end of April for two more shows of the Someday-It-Actually-Will-End-Tour.
            In the meantime, I was happy to get a glimpse of the man during a timeout while my Seahawks were busily thrashing the Broncos in the huge spectacle sporting event of the year. So I was already in a good mood when I got to hear that voice I love. We don’t usually do sports championships here in Seattle, but this team was the real thing from the get-go. These Hawks had the power and the confidence and skill that went some distance toward healing decades of Seattle sports pain.
            I shushed the teenagers and we all listened in. Oh man. Bob said more in two minutes than he’s said from the stage in the last two years. My seventeen year old boy’s only reaction was “that was a really long commercial.”  I was still turning over the images of middle America in my head when Joe Buck came back on screen and tried to make the blowout football game more interesting to middle America. I was thinking about Dylan saying, “we believe in the zoom and the roar and the thrust.” It seemed to capture perfectly my adrenaline filled, Seahawks pumped, American moment. Never mind that the car I just bought was made in Austria; I immediately wanted to drive out on some back road that doesn’t even exist around here on Seattle’s traffic choked streets, that hasn’t existed since 1953, and take it up to ninety.
            That’s what Bob makes me think I can do. Time travel. Limitless possibilities. One hand waving free. That’s what I’m inspired to imagine. Now I might have it a little backwards, because I was drinking a delicious locally made American beer and I am quite happy with my sporty little Austrian car, but frankly I don’t think it matters one bit. I don’t think Bob is quite as literal about his American products as some might have you believe.  I hear some Michigan brewers are upset because Dylan said “Let Germany brew your beer.” Come on. It’s just a verbal device to set up a great line, that Dylan, an American worker himself, a maker of songs, says in stutter speak: “WE will build your cars.” To me, that line promises a mythic America, where there are plenty of good jobs making real things that earn a real wage and real respect. But did it ever really exist? Is Bob Dylan ever describing a reality that exists outside the story-time? Even the when Motor City was thriving, when it was also Motown, I bet it was also a racist, sexist, desperate place for many people. Parts of that American dream existed and parts still exist. But whether it’s cars or beer or another craft, it’s what you build in your own head that counts. Some people see that ad, and all they see is the darkness. Yes, it’s there, of course it is. God knows Dylan has explored that side of things plenty in his tunes, even about the fall of the auto industry.  “I was up on Black Mountain the day Detroit fell. They killed them all off and they sent them to hell.” But for some reason then they pin that darkness on Dylan, when all he is doing here is talking decent work, open roads and imagination. And earning a check. Why would anyone take the ad so literally, that Dylan wants you to buy a certain car?
Honestly, let’s just pretend the ad was for some Michigan microbrew and Bob was standing in their facility next to a big vat of mash. He’s surrounded by dedicated and happy American brewery workers and he says, “Let Austria build your cars. WE will brew your beer.” Just as moving for me personally and it could have happened.  
            Maybe I am being a little funny, but I am not joking. I was thrilled to see Bob selling Chryslers and I was thrilled to see him selling ladies undergarments and I would be pretty darn happy to see him selling beer. Not everyday of course, but on special occasions. I have always been happy to see him: on my little black and white TV in “Hard Rain” in 1976, in the rare commercial, or in the parking lot outside the Moore theater here in Seattle a few years ago getting into a SUV (not sure, but I think it was an American model) and most especially on a stage singing the tune they used in that particular ad: “Things Have Changed.” That one always rocks and it is a consistent acknowledgment in this particular age of Bob that it’s all a dream. That you can be sincere as you like that you love your mother and half the people will swear you hate her. The images are not to be taken literally as a political statement. They do not exist in your political world.
            I doubt Dylan cares exactly what the product is, as long as it’s decent. I’m sure he’s intrigued by quality lingerie and cars and yogurt. Why not? One thing he  seems to be doing in that commercial is offering Americans another reflection. What do you see? What do you see, during the Super Bowl — the ultimate American entertainment/recreational event of the year — when Bob Dylan try to sells you a car? When he talks about the originality and vigor of Americans? A lot of people that I’ve been reading on the internet see something busted, something corrupt, something old, something laughable, something just a little bit sick. I’m not sure why. It’s not what not Dylan is talking about. He is talking some mythic America, again. How does a car ad indict the singer as a hypocrite? What does Dylan betray by this vision? Why is he Judas again, because he like cars and American iconography? Again, I think these critics are seeing something in themselves and in their country, perhaps something valid, but it’s not Dylan’s fault.
            It’s interesting how some folks are finding such disturbing images in the Chrysler commercial. I saw a cowboy and a weathered man in a diner. I saw a woman laughing in a moving car and man playing pool and some folks on assembly lines. Of course none of these symbols are very original or cutting edge. Some people say they are “banal.” Some people must be so hip that any image of regular American shit must be “banal.” It must be a burden to be so hip. It was only an advertisement, but I liked the pictures. What pulled them together was Dylan describing an idea of the America he loves, the America of the people he grew up among on the iron range in his home state, my home state. Here is Bob talking to us, one of the largest television crowds in history, about the basic decency of working people and the heart that they put into their work. He extols the automobile and its historical significance to that worker, and its current significance in that same Midwestern heartland he grew up in. He never mentions Chrysler by name. It seems to be at least in part an ad for the integrity of a laborer, and for the necessity of supporting those labors. But I think Dylan trusts that any thoughtful, feeling listener knows that history is more complicated and terrible than any single romantic image. It was in Duluth, Dylan’s place of birth, that the postcards of the hanging were sold. Home, in a Bob Dylan song, is not the America of the cynics and literalists. It is a far more mysterious place, an older place, a place of the imagination.  What’s more American than America is a complex question, involving brotherhood and slavery both.  
            The scenes in Bob Dylan’s Chrysler commercial are similar to the pictures that Dylan has been singing about for fifty years, realities that live in libraries and forgotten manuscripts and folk songs, even if they no longer exist on our streets. “Things Have Changed,” the signature song of latter day Dylan, plays in the background, because Dylan is aware that the America he extols no longer exists except in the sacred space of his childhood. It only lives where he hears the whistle of that Duquesne train. According to one commentator on the internet, these ideas are “protectionist.” Another says the entertainer is selling cars with images of “exceptional” America. Those politics have nothing to do with the songwriter. These people accuse Bob of being the cynic, but they only projecting their own callousness. On the ground level, Dylan is sometimes as straightforward as it comes, as direct as his Christian gospel: I Believe in You. In one vital sense, you CAN take him at his word: this ad contains a sincere concern about the value and integrity of the American worker. And what is more American than advertising, anyway?
But Dylan questions our ideas of time itself, and whether an individual life should be viewed in the context of a single historical period only, or in the more limitless world of the imagination and folk story. We know he steals sometimes, from the past and distant lands, and he makes you doubt his own authorship. He makes us doubt our own authorship of anything. What new art do we really create in this age? He makes you know you don’t know who he is.  He might be someone else. At some point we all will change into someone else.
Have the critics ever listened to “Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan’s civil war dirge? Pretty much everything you ever want to know about America is in that song. I remember saying the same thing once about “Desolation Row,” but that’s true as well. How dare these two-bit writers tell Dylan that a simple tribute to his country is banal when his entire body of work has shown the complexities of his nation? If folks are going to cry sell-out again, we better go a few songs deeper than “The Times They are a Changing.” In Dylan’s music, the times have changed so much that time itself is often moving backwards.
In “Cross the Green Mountain,” a soldier, a lone survivor of a terrible battle, stands on the “dim Atlantic line,” watching the enemy advance upon his position, contemplating his coming death. We don’t know if he is Union or Confederate. He sees the soldiers across the ridge not as enemies but as brothers in arms. All are pawns in the game. As the “foe crosses over from the other side,”  they “tip their caps.”

“I dreamt a monstrous dream. Something rose up out of the sea. Swept through the land of the rich and the free.”

“Pride will vanish and glory will rot, but virtue lives, cannot be forgot.”

Dylan’s  vision of America cannot be sold out.  A Bob Dylan song may take a point of view, it may even articulate that point of view better than anyone else has done, it may be sincere, but we make a mistake to raise it up the flagpole. It is a dream and everyone is fallible, including the singer. From “Rolling Stone” to “Idiot Wind,” the finger points not at the other, but at the human heart. The enemy is within.

“The bells of evening have rung, there’s blasphemy on every tongue.”

“You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.”

I’m dreaming about Maui in late April. Time travel. Limitless possibilities. One hand waving free.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Lights of My Native Land: Bob Dylan in Minnesota

"Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through." Although this lyric from Things Have Changed was penned in the first years of the new century, it has been Dylans credo for his entire travelling, performing career. When Robert Zimmerman left Hibbing for Dinkytown in the late fifties, he was looking for his unique calling, a destiny unobtainable in small town America. In the following 55 years he uncovered layer after layer of  his fate. The first decade of his creativity was undeniably a period of brilliance, but even within that brief span the only constant in the music was change. In the beginning he reached toward the blues, then he became the face of folk, then rock. In his latest phase, Bob has returned to the blues as a mainstay, while bringing in elements of jazz and western swing. His lyrical concerns and styles have also changed through the years, according to his time of life and preoccupations, but the sum total of his songwriting is the deepest catalog in the pop/rock era.
A central theme runs through all the music and all the years: the distance between the self, living on earth, and the soul. This is the alienation screamed out in rock’s greatest song, “Like a Rolling Stone.” “How does it feel? To be without a home? Like a complete unknown?” We recognize our selves, our heros and our antiheros within the drama of a Dylan composition, always struggling to find a purchase in the world, by good means or ill, coming closer to “home” or driving ourselves further away. Dylan himself is only a character in the narrative and we can’t say exactly who. But he is the singer, and when we think of his public changes — the speed-driven genius of 1966, the man in a failing marriage of “Blood on the Tracks,” the gospel singer and ranter, the “has-been” of the mid-eighties, and the endlessly touring, brilliantly dark songwriter of the last two decades — we can’t help but characterize the artist as the protagonist. I claim no way to know of the personal life of Bob Dylan, of how it interacts with the songs, but the creative entity that exists as his main persona in the world has had one defining motif, already etched in stone by two biographers, Robert Shelton and Martin Scorcese — “No Direction Home.”
But in 2013, surely nearing the final years of his performing career, Dylan has turned this essential idea on its head. He still wanders the earth, playing over a hundred shows a year as a troubadour, a road warrior, a minstrel. But in big cities and smaller towns — many rural, like the towns of his origin — the persona we see on stage has altered, in a subtle but significant way. This shift has been two decades in the making, perhaps from the very beginning of the Never Ending Tour. But only this year, with live performances from “Tempest” integrated into the set list, has Bob’s latest change become clear. We still get up-to-the moment brutal commentary on the culture, but now, more and more, we see and hear a man finding his way home.
         Recently Bob Dylan played two shows in Minnesota, in the places he lived before he became Bob Dylan. I returned as well, to see him perform first in the town of his birth, Duluth, and then in the city of mine, St. Paul.  This time around, Bob is sharing the stage with members of his own generation as well as younger acts. Bob Weir was along earlier on, but in the shows I saw, Richard Thompson, of Fairport Convention legend, opened the evening. Jeff Tweedy's Wilco is second on the bill. They look to be in their thirties and forties, but they are a bunch of oldsters compared to the third act, the immensely loud, clever and psychedelically oriented My Morning Jacket.  
         Each concert offered five hours of fantastic music and sore feet for those of us at the front. The group I stood with both nights reflected the generations on stage. Bev, in her sixties, is a long-time veteran of Dylan tours. Her thirty-something adult daughter came for Wilco, and the twenty-something fellow with long flowing hair and beard, looking much like Jim James, was there for My Morning Jacket. Musically, there was something for everyone and something not for everyone. Bev complained at the volume, sonic distortions and "pretensions" of MMJ, while the young guy mocked Dylan's voice without staying for him, both nights. When I asked how he could possibly judge the performance of Bob Dylan without seeing him, he said that YouTube had told him everything he needed to know. I thought, man, if everything you know about Bob Dylan you learned on YouTube, you do not know shit, sir.
I liked it all and loved quite a bit. Jim James is a showman all right, with his bears and red cape and electronic boxes, but he's a good one, and young, and entitled to play out his powerful fantasies and dreams for his followers. The band produced mountains and forests and meadows of sound and my ears enjoyed the walk, although they were glad for a rest when it ended.
Wilco simply does it all, from the American folk idiom that gave the festival its name (Americanarama), to crunchy tight jangly rock hard jams, to space out rhythms, to tender love songs. In Duluth, in Bayfront Park, on the shore of Lake Superior, they were joined by two members of the local band Low, who sang Gordon Lightfoot's famous ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." As well as being a song with local significance Tweedy introduced it as the most important song ever perhaps this was also a nod to Bob. Dylan once called Lightfoot a favorite artist and we know how much he likes a good disaster epic. In Saint Paul, Jeff briefly forgot the lyrics to "I am Trying to Break your Heart." A couple songs later, he explained that it was because he was distracted by a cute child waving at him.  "Do not," he warned, "hold up that kid again!" He was joking but also telling the truth, and a bit later he needed to shield his face with his guitar and really concentrate to remember lyrics to another tune when the child started waving again. Soft heart, that Jeff Tweedy, easily broken. 

     Dylan was in great form both nights. I think he had in mind the gravity of these two shows in these places. He conveyed that weight to us. My evidence is mostly circumstantial and subjective, based on conjecture and coincidence and the way he sang the songs. But I believe it anyway because my entire theory of Dylan is based on these things. Its based on how one's own life, mine or yours, intersects with the art. Its based on the fact that childhood and coming of age is powerful, and at certain times Dylans own memory of these things must bounce up against his current moment, and more so when he is in Duluth than say, Malibu or Milan. There was one unusual event, one solid bit of documented fact to support my contention he spoke. In Saint Paul, Bob Dylan did a very rare thing; he directly addressed the crowd. He paid tribute to Bobby Vee, who hired him to play piano way back when. Dylan referred back to his beginnings, in the humble medium of speech, because the place and the occasion demanded it.
         Here is exactly what Bob said, based not on my memory but a very clear recording. I write it out so specifically because I have already seen in two places in quotes, with slight but important distortions.
         Thank you everyone, thank you friends. I lived here a while back, and since that time Ive 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. Ive been on the stage with most of those people, but the most beautiful person Ive ever been on a stage with was a man whos here tonight, who used to sing a song called Suzie Baby. I want to say Bobby Vees actually here tonight and maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So were going to try to do this song like I, Ive done it with him before one or twice.
Another small matter, perhaps significant or perhaps not: Bob went hatless in Saint Paul. His hair billowed and floated in curls around his head, wild and free. Like his words about Bobby Vee, his appearance nodded to an earlier time and seemed another kind of tribute, to a different self-portrait than he paints today. Crossing generations in yet another way. (I see from photos and videos he has been losing the hat at other dates as well).  
But most of the gravity was in the music. Bob's phrasing, his harp playing and piano smashing, was intentional, intense and persuasive.  "Duquesne Whistle," while probably not in the top tier of Dylan's compositions, is nonetheless a song of this very moment in Dylan's art. Its a jaunty western shuffle about death and home, especially poignant in Duluth, where he performed on a stage less than two miles from the hospital of his birth and the street he lived on as a small child. Bob stood at the piano and sang it with clarity and purpose. That Duquesne train is time, and its bound to kill him dead.
"I can hear a voice softly calling. Must be the mother of our Lord."  In this simple lyric Dylan called forth his own eventual demise, his faith, and an image of all mothers, through whom we arrive, who predecease us, and for whom we always long.  
Dylan has had a different train song for every phase of his career, but there is only one train. We ride differently based on our stage of life. A child is ever in the present, thrilled with the ride. A young man or woman is always looking toward the future. A person in middle years commutes in two directions toward the memories and choices of his past, and forward toward his work and his hopes and his children. But for a 72 year old, there is only the journey, and the end of the line, and a vision again of the beginning.  "I wonder if that old oak tree is still standing, the one we used to climb?" Other wise elders share this idea that life is a circle, and that endings and origins are not so different. A recent article by the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks says that at nearly eighty, I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. Much of T.S. Eliots late period masterpiece, Four Quartets, is devoted to this theme.
             I drove up the hill in Duluth the morning after the show to take a look at the places Bob Dylan began. Just above downtown, I scaled 5th St., to the plain two story duplex where he lived his first six years. No trees on the property itself, but the neighborhood is leafy and idyllic, with views out over the huge water. Not much to look at concerning the home itself. A plain wooden duplex, not even as solid-looking as most old Minnesota houses. A man working out back rebuilding a wall. A small yard but a wide, pleasant alley. A soft breeze played along the street and the day itself felt young and full of life. Bob left here for Hibbing before he learned more than a nursery song or two, but surely something of the place stayed with him. The smell of the water in summer, the horns of the giant ore-bearing freighters moving out onto the Great Lake, a vicious winter gale. Was that old oak tree somewhere in the neighborhood? I wondered if he walked by the house while in town. I remembered how Dylan visited Mendips a few years ago, the childhood home of John Lennon, on a regular tour. Another time Bob was picked up by a police officer while strolling in a rainstorm near an early dwelling of Bruce Springsteen. So I knew he would not find it strange that I pulled up outside 519 N. 3rd Ave. E. and stared for a while.
     The following morning I visited my own childhood home in Saint Paul, where I lived until I was twelve. I drove the alley between Iglehart and Carroll, where I once rode my tricycle down the hill on a dare, straight across Finn without even thinking to look. I went around to the front and parked, then walked up and down the street a couple times, looking at the place from different angles, marveling at how little had really changed. Same white stucco. Same red brick walls on the long shallow stairs from the road. I remembered sitting on the ledge near the top, tracing my fingers along the hot brick. I was seven or eight and it was mine forever and it always had been. Same strange wide spotlight on the roof to illuminate those steps. Same trees, a huge deciduous of some kind in the wide side yard, I want to say elm, but I dont really know. And maybe all the elms died of disease? They say everything looks smaller when you go back and look at scenes from your childhood, but its not true for that tree. It had exceeded my own growth by many times and looks every bit as magnificent as it did when I was five. Same mulberry further up the lawn that we climbed for the fruit, but it had indeed shrunk. My memory has four children clambering through it for the purple berries but it looks now like it wouldnt hold one.
         Three young girls walked up the quiet road. I could hardly believe that this was their childhood now, this stately, leafy street and these sturdy, large, winter-tight old houses, and not mine. Where did mine go? Im 53 and my train, I hope, is still in the middle of the journey. Childhood is a long way from this station. But for a little while, standing there on Carroll Ave., it seemed very close. Nothing much had changed on this street since the year of my birth, 1960, when I lay in my crib in the bedroom high above the street, and Bob Z. prowled Dinkytown, just a mile and a half away, across the Mississippi, stealing old records and trying on names and attitudes for size.
         Other than the performance of Suzie Baby in Saint Paul, and accompanying words, Dylans performances were very similar both nights. The set list on this tour is more static than it has been in years. Some might believe that at 72 Bob needs to keep it simple, but I doubt it. He wants to play these exact songs because they are his songs for right now, even if a few of them are 50 years old. At 72, he has narrowed the list with intention, because, face it hes facing it, and we should face it too that Duquesne whistle is blowing at his chamber door. We hope not, he probably hopes not, but it could be the final run.
         In the article by Oliver Sacks on old age, he quotes Freud, saying that to love and to work are the most important things in life. Sacks hopes only to continue these things as long as he is granted, and to one day die in harness. Bob Dylan is clearly of a similar mind.
         Midway Stadium in Saint Paul is located near the site of the citys old agricultural industries. When I was a boy of nine or ten my friend Charlie and I rode our bikes to a working slaughterhouse in the neighborhood, where we asked for a tour and witnessed production first hand. Sometimes the smell of these factories would drift over my otherwise genteel childhood environs. First thing out of bed in the morning I would hear the grain and pork belly prices on WCCO radio. I always imagined these were broadcast straight from the Midway, as we called it. For Americanarama, the scene at the stadium was celebratory. Tailgaters had set up their grills in the parking lot as if it were a Vikings game. Inside the minor league park, home to the Saint Paul Saints, you could only buy Budweiser products.  
         He opens the current show without an instrument, taking center stage for Things Have Changed. If any song can define late period Dylan, this is it. He has performed it 527 times over the last 13 years, putting it in the very top tier of modern songs. And now, first on the set list, perhaps because it says, right out front, do not expect some idea of me in your head. Do not expect a Rolling Thunder or a sing-along folksinger or any voice from the past. The origin of the songs span the years but whatever you expect it means or sounds like, forget it.
         No one in front of me and nothing behind
         Im well dressed, waiting on the last train.
         Only a fool in here would think hes got anything to prove.
         The delivery is tough and succinct, sharp and clear. He draws out the end of Putting her in a wheel barrow and wheeling her down the streeeeeeet! In this song we also have our questions answered about The Voice.         
         The Voice is fine. The Voice does what it needs to do in every song. It still gives me shivers of pleasure. If some folks dont like it, well, thats why we have the records. The show is probably not for them. When I go see Bob Dylan I realize it is not 1978. I am not 18 anymore and Bob is no longer 37. It is no longer 2002 either. I am not 42 and Dylan is no longer 61. The man is 72 years old and that is not an excuse it is a fact of life. The voice is worn to shit. The voice is still used well. The reality of time is a vital part of the show, part of the experience. We are not static. Things have changed.  
         The harp playing is also excellent, better in Duluth than St. Paul. It is not extravagant, but it is expressive, and it punches home the songs.
Theres a great story on the Expecting Rain discussion boards currently from a couple of friends who met Dylan near his tour bus in Illinois last week, just after the Minnesota shows. It contains many interesting details of the casual and respectful encounter, such as Bobs playfulness with the four-year old girl of one of the men, and his curiosity about their occupations. But the most poignant and revealing remarks from Dylan were about the show coming up that evening. He is quoted as saying, Ill do my best, and repeated several times that he hoped the folks would enjoy the performance.
You could make an argument that Dylans voice sounds better on the more recent records than it does in live performance. Sure, its harsh on some of the Tempest cuts, but on others it is smooth and clear. In the studio he obviously has time to prepare for each take. Most likely Bob has been pleased by the success of the records also, and proud of their sound, but the interview evidence and facts on the ground overwhelmingly suggest that Bob Dylan lives for the live performance, and he will not give it up until he is physically unable. He is doing his best. It is up to me to listen deeply and listen closely. I am not looking for vocal range or the sweet tones; I am looking to reconnect with the songs on a whole other level.
The second song in the current set list is Love Sick, also played in front with harp. Here we find an example of how YouTube and the recordings might give some clues but they wont tell you what is really happening. Played 504 times since 1997, Love Sick has often been a highlight of the shows, and Im sure you could find several hundred takes that beat St. Paul in pure sound. But in sound alone it is difficult to perceive the drama in this performance, the particular growl in sometimes the silence can be like thunder, and the perfect hesitation before he declares that he is once again, love sick. You need to feel those things live. You need to feel it in real time.
I am going to see Paul McCartney in a couple days and I fully expect a great show, strong vocals, and a sound not unlike that I might have heard from Paul 20 years ago. And thats not bad, its great, its a static greatness.  
Blind Willy McTell is up next. Disappointingly, I cant see Donnie Herron picking his banjo. From my angle he is invisible behind the piano, but it sounds great. Thematically, to my mind, Blind Willy maintains its place not only as a super tight jam but also as a comment on Bobs continuing concern with human evil and injustice as seen through racial history in America. I always think its funny when people think Bob has no concerns along this line. Its no coincidence that this song retains its importance in Bobs show during a time when the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the Trayvon Martin case have been headlines. Looking at social realities and Bobs career from 1964 to the present, we can also see the irony expressed when Bob says that things have changed. Yes, and yet, no. For Blind Willy he switches perspective back to a more direct view: power and greed and corruptible seed, seem to be all that there is. He anchors the truth with some nice blows on the harmonica.
For Soon after Midnight, Bob evens out the snarl into a melodious groove. A track off Tempest, this tune carries the idea that in the darkest night, the singer is just getting started. His love is not limited by the hour of his life. Instead, he has new perspective on the idiots (they chirp and they chatter, what does it matter?) and the spiritual nature of his earthly love (Ive got a date with a fairy queen), nearly un-seeable by the very young. He does not live in a nostalgic past, but in a vibrant present (Its now or never, more than ever).
Early Roman Kings has been derided by some as a boring Mannish Boy knockoff, but I think the simplicity of the form allows Bob and the band to ramp up the intensity. Theres a lot of finger pointing in this one, and you understand why he  values the occasional encounter with regular folk over the fawning of the privileged classes. Apparently he never had a conversation with Barack or Michelle, despite at least two visits to their house. Particularly in Duluth, Bob delivered these lyrics with vehemence and contempt. Sluggers and muggers, wearing fancy gold rings, all the women going crazy, for the Early Roman Kings. Bob, meanwhile, aint afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag. If you look at nearly any Bob Dylan set list over recent years, you will find at least several social meaning songs, despite the fashionable idea that he has no interest in such things anymore. In the last decade it may be John Brown or Hattie Carroll or even Masters of War. In the current show, Early Roman Kings fits the bill, along with the classics Hard Rain and Blowing in the Wind.
Bob spices up Tangled Up in Blue with some lyric changes. Well meet again someday on Lonely Avenue, and She lit a burner on the stove and brushed away the dust, why she looked at me, and she said to me, you look like somebody I can trust, and she opened up a book of poems, and she said, just so you know, memorize every one of these lines, and you can useem when youre walking to the flow, and everyone of those words rang true . . and later, got to get to them somehow, all the people we used to know, theyre an illusion to me now, some went up the mountain, and some went down to the valley, some of their names are written in flames, and some just left town . . .  Tangled always seems like one where Bob goes his own way on the piano while the band struggles to find him. All part of the fun, but I guess not if you came to see Paul McCartney.
“She Belongs to Me” is done as a ringing, stately march. Might be the highlight of the evening. His phrasing, again, needs to be seen and felt to be believed, but on a recording of the Saint Paul show you can certainly hear some of the beauty, such as on the rhyming of “back” and “black” in the first stanza. Simply gorgeous. Many Dylan fans probably remember being deeply affected the first time they heard this song, how it knocked the cap off any notions of what a love song might sound like. They might recall how it rearranged the very idea of how a song could express emotion — no longer with just sentiment, but with subtlety and complexity and weirdness.

Bow down to her on Sunday
Salute her when her birthday comes
For Halloween give her a trumpet
And for Christmas, buy her a drum

In this version, it seems odd and perfect and brand new again. One of the best love songs of the 20th Century, re-imagined.
Near the end of the St. Paul show, Dylan plays the Bobby Vee song. Its a nice tribute, and it sets up the eeriest moment of the performance. Just after the band begins the opening 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. Blowing right on time.

A couple days later:
I saw that Paul McCartney show last night at Safeco Field here in Seattle, with some 40,000 other fans. I was in section 111, row 23. Paul was amazing of course, jumping around the stage, and he played a whole bunch of Beatle songs. Of course I came of age during Wings, so the tunes from that era moved me most, like Maybe Im Amazed, and Let Me Roll It. The fireworks and confetti was pretty awesome. At 53, I was probably a few years younger than the average, although there were plenty of people of different generations. It seemed like a family affair, where you bring the kids and grandkids to see a Beatle. And the songs sounded nearly exactly like they do on the records, so you could really sing along, if so inclined. Paul fudged a bit on some of the high notes, but what can you expect? Near the end, Paul was joined by ex-members of Nirvana, which changed things up, but the people around me seemed kind of bewildered by the harder rocking jam that ensued.
The night was like a big group hug for boomers. It was a nostalgia fest and a chance to feel like you were twenty again, or thirty, or at least remember what that felt like. I overheard the folks next to me, watching Paul dance on the big screen, say, He looks great!! Before the music, the display showed images from Pauls childhood, the Beatles, and Wings. And who can argue with 40,000 people waving their arms, singing Let it Be? People loved the show and got what they paid for, for sure.
But the thing is, I kept thinking, as the sounds of my early childhood washed over me, hes 70. Hes not 25. And yes, he looks great, but most of these people dont look great and they are not 25 either. They are old and a bunch of old folks gathered together to remember being 25 is not fun, it is sad. I got sad too. Even the nod to current youth and Seattle by bringing on Nirvana seemed heavy on the nostalgia, seeing that the real creative force behind that act killed himself nearly twenty years ago, and the drummer has gone on to middle-of-the-road superstardom. It was a little hard to picture Kurt being a part of the jam but what do I know? Not to mention John. What kind of shows would he be performing, if any? Not this.
There was a young beauty standing in front of me dancing in a sheer skirt shaking her beautiful ass trying to turn her dumb boyfriend on but he did not want to know. Why I cant guess. He kept looking at scores on his phone. But all I could think was I will never be 25 again. Usually I dont care. Usually I have zero desire to be 25 again. But the way all those people were hearkening back to the music of their youth just made us all seem so . . . so . . . old.
Paul McCartney obviously feels forever young, but Im not sure many of his boomer fans do. There is a difference between acting like an old person most of the time and nostalgically remembering 25, and just being an older person and acting alive and free in your mind. Because when your hands are busy and your feet are swift and your heart is joyful, you dont care what age you are.
Truth is, when you are Forever Young, when you see the lights surrounding you, they dont need to be fireworks. They can even be regular stage lights and the singer might be growling, in voice thats hard to make out, something about an old blues singer named Blind Willie McTell. Or he might be telling you about a great love, in a song that sounds familiar, like you heard it way back, but it couldnt be, because this sounds like nothing youve heard before. And the fantastic thing is, you only bought your ticket yesterday, yet here you are, not twenty feet away from this master of song. This 72 year old who just keeps moving, changing, all the while acting his age singing about the past and the present and the future all at once singing about whats ahead for you, about what its like being old and still being real singing that the lights of my native land are glowing. You are in a field outdoors in the middle of America somewhere, maybe in the town you were born in, that you grew up in, a long time ago. And then he lifts that old-fashioned microphone and a harmonica to his mouth, giving it his best, just like he promised, and he blows.