Monday, April 20, 2020

Bob Dylan's New Truth-Talking Songs

     At Desert Trip, in 2016, Mick Jagger thanked Bob Dylan for opening the evening, saying that the band had never before played on the same stage as a Nobel Laureate. Jagger then said, “He’s like our Walt Whitman.” Mick probably wasn’t the first to compare the Bard of Hibbing to the Bard of Democracy, but the Stones, to my knowledge, are the only group featured in both of the new 2020 Dylan songs. One of these tunes, of course, takes its title from the Whitman line: “I Contain Multitudes.” 

    I’ll discuss the Stones allusions in a moment, but first, isn’t it fantastic that Bob is back with new songs? And perhaps an album is coming? It’s exciting that five or more additional compositions could be on the way. In this bizarre moment of pandemic, of uncertainty and change, Dylan is with us, throwing us a line. It feels like all of society is on pause right now, looking for a way forward. It feels like we are at a turning point, a crossroads. In “Murder Most Foul,” the narrator says, “I’m going down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride,” an obvious reference to Robert Johnson. Bob raved about the early blues master in Chronicles, claiming him as a major influence. But he waves off the the popular story that Johnson traded his soul to the Devil for his skills. Instead, Dylan says Johnson learned by listening to old records. By listening to old songs. And historically, the most likely truth about Johnson’s meeting at the crossroads is that the itinerant singer was being victimized by the devil of Jim Crow racism, and trying to stay alive. That sort of thing will give a man a deep knowledge of the Blues. 

    Here at our own crossroads, I hear two clear messages in the new Bob Dylan compositions. First, listen to the old songs, for comfort, for sustenance, for a way forward. Second, seek truth. 

    I doubt we will be seeing Dylan live for a while (despite my excellent tickets for two shows scheduled here in Washington in June). I believe we might need to wait a year or more for Dylan to return to the stage. If that’s what it takes for Bob and the rest of us to stay healthy, it’s okay. In 2021, he will be 80. Here’s hoping we see him then, feisty as ever and forever young. And here’s hoping that a new record drops in the meantime. 

    As I listen to these songs, themes and connections wash over me, on the soft flow of Dylan’s piano, the gentle guitar, the soothing violin, and the deep, reassuring cadence of his voice. I feel a Whitman vibration in my body. I’m on a riverbank and the water is rushing over a bed of pebbles. I’m looking at the sky, a spear of grass between my teeth, and the clouds are making beautiful and frightening shapes. I’m recalling another song, one set in Whitman’s time — Dylan’s masterful 2002 Civil War ballad, “Cross the Green Mountain.” It’s a thematic and musical cousin to these recent songs, and many of the pictures Bob paints are disturbing: “Heaven blazin’ in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream.” And from “Murder Most Foul,” “they blew off his head while he was still in the car.” But there is also a beatific calm behind everything, “an ancient light that is not of day,” and “music that comes from a far better land.” In the second half of “Murder Most Foul,’ Dylan calls out for the Wolfman to play those songs, that music, as a channel to truth, as a portal to a higher reality. 

    In their poetry, Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan each stand at the crossroads of heaven and earth, the sublime and the sensual. Whitman was a poet of the people, telling the truth of their topical struggles, and he was a poet of the cosmos, describing the spiritual qualities of nature and the connectedness of beings: “every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.” Never has this been more apparent than in this time of pandemic. The new Dylan songs are also transcendental, with a pop culture sensibility. There are whispers of the eternal in each stanza, alongside allusions to the likes of Lindsey (Buckingham) and Stevie Nicks, and many other musical icons of the age — including Mick, Keith and the boys, twice. 

    In these new songs, Bob plays with the fact that the boundaries of literature have changed, as recognized by the Nobel committee in 2016. He knows, of course, that he didn't start that ball rolling. In his Nobel lecture he credits everyone from Buddy Holly to Homer to Charlie Poole. Popular song, from Sinatra to Carl Wilson, from Nat King Cole to Jelly Roll Morton, is the language the people can hear, a language that “transcends” suffering, evil, and even death itself. In “Murder Most Foul,” we are told to “write down the names.” These are the voices we can trust. They might have all kinds of problems, many have the blues, and some may even be in thrall, in a moment, to dark powers. But the important thing is that they speak emotional, historical truth. 

     References to figures of the popular imagination abound also in “I Contain Multitudes,” and this tune includes more traditional literary citations, such as to Poe and William Blake. Dylan erases borders. Here we get one of the nods to the Glimmer Twins. Bob sings, “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones, And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” Obviously, in a superficial reading, Bob has a spot in the rock pantheon next to the Stones, but there is much more at stake here. In the next lines, Bob delves in: “I go right to the edge, I go right to the end, I go right where all things lost are made good again.” The link here is that all these characters confront the darkest aspects of humanity, and in its presence, speak truth. Anne Frank went right to the end, killed in the concentration camps, but she left behind a powerful testament. She told the truth of being an adolescent girl in a terrible time, and she told the truth about fascism. 

    The Stones pass along truth also, of a different order: 1) white boys love the Blues, and 2) the Devil is with us always, and like it or not, he kind of rocks. (“You might be a rock and roll addict, prancin’ on the stage . . . “) In “Murder Most Foul,” the Brits get their second namecheck, and it's an ominous reference. After attending a blissed-out Woodstock, the narrator says, “Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit by the stage.” One unlucky young man didn’t survive such a decision. Here, Dylan performs another trick, one he does in of both these new songs: he updates cliched perceptions with a wider perspective. He directly equates the supposedly beautiful gathering at Yasgur’s Farm with the darker lore of Altamont. Dylan states plainly: the Peace and Love Era arrived stillborn, and Flower Power never stood a chance. How could it, when in Dallas, that day in November, 1963, “the age of the Antichrist has just only begun.” 

    In Bob’s telling, by the time the Rolling Stones sang “Please allow me to introduce myself,” the Bad Man had been lingering in plain sight for years. He lurked not only in the hypocrisies and self-indulgent nature of the hippies, but all through American culture. In other lines of MMF, Dylan references Jim Crow sundown laws and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The continuing legacy of slavery — one of America’s two original sins — and the lack of enduring civil rights justice, is much on the Bard’s mind. Dylan made clear in Chronicles that he never believed in the sixties, or his part in it, in the way those concepts have been mythologized. He takes a longer view that is on full display in these two new songs. 

    As for Indiana Jones, the only fictional character in this meet-up, he both defeats Fascism and discovers Ancient Truth. If Dylan really wants to compare himself to any of these figures, in “going to where all things are made good again,” perhaps he would choose Jones. Bob might relate best to the swashbuckler who overcomes evil, finds God, AND gets the girl. 

    One unnamed comrade in “I Contain Multitudes” is Allen Ginsburg, who is certainly one of the “old queens from all my past lives.” Ginsburg’s relationship with Bob was crucial and deep for both men. The poet is placed here in ICM because of his acclaimed role as an heir to Whitman, but also as another vital truth-teller. In the recent Scorsese film of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Ginsburg gets the last word, talking directly to the camera, telling us, as I recall, to be searchers, to look for deeper meanings in life. 

    “What is the truth, and where did it go?” — MMF. “I’ll drink to the truth and the things that we said . . .” — ICM. Among the many similarities in these two songs, this need to find and speak truth stands out. On the surface, both of these tunes are simple in their exposition, but as with most of Dylan’s writings, there are layers upon layers. I have already read a few critics online dismissing these tunes as facile. They are deceived. On repeated listenings, I find myself falling deeper and deeper into the well of meanings, and the subtle ebb and flow of the music.   

    Perceptive listeners have discovered many of the song references, the borrowed lines of literature, and alluded references. All of this is fascinating work and I’m grateful. But my take on Dylan not really one of lyric analysis. A personal reaction to the voice and music, based on your own life story, your own connections, your own willingness to change, is of greatest consequence. In these tunes, Bob offers a central question — What is truth? — and then points down a variety of avenues where one might walk, and “stay observant.” The important thing is to ask the question in your soul. The important thing is to pay attention. The important thing is to look at disturbing truth. Dylan, as always, leaves the answers in the wind, but what he says, over and over, is listen to the songs.  

    What I hear in the gems referenced here, and the ones he played on Theme Time Radio Hour, is grief and beauty. I hear double meanings, of tragedy and deliverance. I hear the gospel of “The Old Rugged Cross,” and the punk fury of the Dead Kennedys, “In God We Trust.” I hear the horror of the Confederate ideas that still live in our culture, symbolized by the shameful flag, “The Blood-Stained Banner,” and also, again, the gospel of “Soldiers of the Lord,” which contains a reference to the same phrase, with an entirely different sort of faith. In the first, “What is truth?” is answered by the smallest of minds: truth is our cause, truth is power, truth is nationalism. In the second allusion, the answer is as wide as heaven: truth is justice, truth is Love.   

    In ICM, Bob says, “I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind, I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind.” This is the path he invites us to travel with him, that he has been on since the late fifties, since his teenage years in Hibbing, just a few years before that “dark day in Dallas.” It’s a path that seeks the Highlands. In these new songs, Dylan makes clear that the world has suffered since the early sixties, “in a slow decay,” and there has been no Aquarian age to the rescue. A mere glance at today’s headlines will confirm his account, with inequality, injustice, and environmental abuse the law of the land, and scant hope on the political landscape for change. But despite this bleakness, faith is possible and the truth can be found. It can be found in the words of Anne Frank and the saxophone of Stan Getz, in the blues of Etta James, and in the rock anthems of the Who. Here at the crossroads, Satan is still hanging around on the corner (Pennsylvania and 17th), racist as ever and wanting to deal. Right now he’s offering a few more years of affluence, for the already well-to-do — before the flood. But if we look down a different path, the sky is so clear you can see the Himalayas. You can nearly see between worlds. Song helps lift the veils.  

    Bob isn’t telling us what to do. I think he’s not very hopeful for change on this earth. “I hate to tell you mister, but only dead men are free.” He asks us only to listen to the old records and learn, like Johnson did.  The truth can be found in the hearts of the good people around you, in the blossoms of spring and in all the sad songs, and always, we are blessed to say, in the words and music of Bob Dylan.
— Seattle, April, 2020

“Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right.”

‘Cross the Green Mountain

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Brief Encounter with Bob Dylan, 1993

Here’s a story about my only direct encounter with Bob Dylan, separate from the 53 times I’ve seen him on stage. Although brief, it looms large in my Dylan mythology. My theory of Bob is that each fan has a set of intensely personal lore and legends: a particular concert perhaps, or songs and albums that hit hard at critical life junctures. Entire aspects of our consciousness are tied up with these meaningful moments, and in that mythology we understand the genius of Bob. Through a fantastic diversity of periods and musical styles, and the mystic timelessness of so many songs, he connects to the individual psyche. In this respect, a twenty-something in 2019, just getting into Bob, has the same vitality and truth in their Dylan fandom as an older guy like me. The artist brings a mask for everyone. There are a thousand points of entry to his music and writing. In addition, the spiritual quality that Bob embraces (always present, but showcased front and center for only a few brief years), also deepens our experience of the art we recognize as Bob Dylan. Some might characterize this spirituality as Christian, based on the gospel period, or Jewish, based on his birth and the Biblical thread running through the albums, but I think most fans feel it strongly in a less dogmatic way, as the truth you find in song, in folk music, in rock and roll. 

    In August of 1993 my friend Wayne and I saw Bob at Memorial Stadium here in Seattle, a 1940’s-era open air concrete and steel edifice mostly used for big high school football games. It sits only a couple hundred yards from Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. It’s a ridiculous concert venue. The high bleachers face the field, so your neck is twisted on the seats if you hope to see the stage, set at the western end, well behind the goalposts. A better vantage point can be found standing on the grass. You can pack a lot of people into a football field, so over the years the stadium has often been used as a MainStage for the city’s Labor Day Bumbershoot festival, and for the odd major concert. I recall walking through the parking lot during the very last Grateful Dead show played in Seattle in 1995. I never followed that band, but my friend was a Deadhead, so I went down that day to meet him and window-shop the strangeness.

    In that summer of ‘93 Dylan toured on a double bill with Santana. This was in the first decade of the Never-Ending Tour. Bob had fallen out of critical and popular favor, and only the devoted still paid much attention. I suppose it required a double bill of “sixties stars” to fill the auditoriums and stadiums. Dylan had been circling the globe with great musicians since the mid-eighties, and releasing some fine records too (plus a few misses), but mostly the world categorized his genius as “a thing of the past.” A few years later, after the release of the astonishing “Time Out of Mind,” and his subsequent heart scare, and after the Oscar for “Things Have Changed,” the critics jolted awake. The buzz started again. Writers and old fans alike began to comprehend that the songs of the sixties and the seventies were first and  second acts. At the end of the millennium it became clear that a brilliant third act was in progress, and Dylan’s maturity would also be something to behold. But in the early nineties, we didn’t know any of that, and it appeared that Bob Dylan, although undeniably sealed as one of the greats, was more or less a journeyman musician, just making a living doing what he liked to do, playing some old hits and some folk songs to whoever cared to show up. These were the days when women would regularly jump on the stage and dance, and Bob was only too pleased. 

    I don’t recall much about the concert itself. I believe my seats were somewhere around the fifty yard line in the bleachers. Luckily, however, we have Olaf’s Files, and he reminds us that Dylan played before Santana that day, and performed only thirteen songs. In that period the set lists changed nightly, although the basic pattern of a show was steady. First, an opening acoustic folk tune — on this occasion, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” Then several old hits and perhaps a deep cut — on this night, “Emotionally Yours,” all performed electric with full band. Then a center section, acoustic again, Dylan on guitar and harmonica — one adapted folk song and two Dylan classics. In this show we heard “Little Moses,” written by Bert E. Williams and Earle C. Jones, “Gates of Eden,” and “Don’t Think Twice.” These center acoustic sections were highlights. I enjoyed similar interludes in New York City and  Colorado in 1988. In May of 1993, Dylan had recorded the second of his albums of folk covers, “World Gone Wrong,” at his home studio in Malibu. In some senses, Dylan returned to his folk days during these early NET shows. The version of “Gates of Eden” I heard this early evening in Seattle was directly related to the versions he performed in the early sixties. 

    Any highlights of Santana’s set are lost to memory. It was the second time I’d seen that group, and strangely I recall the first show better, from 1976, I believe, in St. Paul, MN, in an auditorium at Saint Catherine’s College. I remember it because it was my very first rock show as a teenager. The air was filled with mystery and marijuana, and the future promise of sex, drugs and rock and roll. With hits like “Black Magic Woman,” and “Oye Coma Va,” Santana seduced me with dark and sensual promises. But in 1993, Santana, like Bob, had been eclipsed by Seattle’s own grunge scene, and pop songs. The master guitarist, however, like Bob, would earn new respect in the late millennium. For Carlos, it would come with the dramatic success of the album “Supernatural.” On this late summer evening in 1993, I’m sure I enjoyed the Santana set, but I was not the same starry-eyed boy I had been in 1976. Now I had a one year old son at home and duties on my mind. The mysteries of Santana’s musical prayers still sounded good, but mostly I needed to turn my substitute teaching gigs into a steady job. 

    When the concert ended, light still shone in the western sky. It’s not truly dark in a Pacific Northwest summer until around 9:30 or 10:00 PM. I’m sure it was still light because from my perch on the bleachers I saw Bob Dylan walking around backstage. At least I thought it was him. A small figure with a towel up around his head. I was two-thirds up the bleachers, on the very edge, the edge closest to the stage. Wayne and I had stopped there to take in the view on our way out. From that vantage I could see the backstage area,  the trailers and open spaces, although it was quite distant. Directly underneath me was a path that ran from the backstage and continued along under the bleachers where we stood, all part of a secure area. Most people had already filed out of the stadium, but since I thought I had caught a glimpse of Bob, my friend and I stood for a while. Sure enough, after we had leaned on the railing for five or ten minutes, the figure I believed to be Dylan left the backstage area through a gate, accompanied by a much larger man. And here they came, walking down the path directly toward us! I still couldn’t be sure it was Dylan, because the towel was nearly completely wrapped around his head. But as he came closer, there was no mistaking the gait, the wiry small frame, and dare I say it, the aura. In a few moments his path would take him directly beneath me, about thirty yards down. As Bob and his man came very close, I did what any fan might do. I shouted at him. First, I yelled out the completely obvious, “Hey Bob, great show!” He did not break stride or move his head. In a few more steps he would pass beneath the bleachers and the moment would be lost. So I shouted once more, with the only thing that came to mind, “Hey Bob! Remember Blackbushe?”  

    I guess he did. Because at these words he stopped dead in his tracks. He pushed the towel off his head. He tilted his head toward the sky. He revealed a mop of frizzy black curls, a prominent nose, and he stared, with brilliant blue eyes, directly up at me. And then, in a moment I will remember all my days, Bob Dylan nodded. A tip of the head, up and down, clear as day, Bob Dylan nodded at me. 

    With this slight gesture, Dylan confirmed that we shared a memory of that concert on July 15, 1978. Which would be cool even if it had been just a regular old Bob Dylan concert, but it was instead my first, and one of his greatest, and also a day that changed my life forever, for reasons that only began with the artist, reasons that have led me to believe that one’s relationship with the music of Bob Dylan can shake up your life and psyche way beyond mere fandom. Probably if you’ve read this far, you know something about Blackbushe. If not, look it up! If you are curious about my personal experience that day, you might read my old posts. 

    After the nod, he looked back down, pulled the towel back over his head, and walked on, into the tunnel under the bleachers. 

    Obviously, my memory of Blackbushe is utterly different from Bob’s memory of that day, he being Bob Dylan in a top hat, jamming with Clapton to nearly a quarter million, me being a skinny boy sprawled on the ground half a mile from the stage. But in that moment in Memorial Stadium in 1993, as on that July day in 1978, that immense gulf disappeared, and I knew what every Dylan fanatic knows in his or her heart: we were there together, and we are here together, and he wrote the songs so that my own soul might sing.


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Bob Dylan on Tour, 2019

        I saw Bob Dylan perform just under three weeks ago, in the first show of his fall swing through the States, in Irvine, CA. As you may have heard by now, he and the band are putting on a great concert. There are two new players, several beautifully reworked versions of songs, and Dylan is in fine fettle. His voice is strong and his phrasing is top-notch. The band rocks and swings and goes church quiet when necessary, so we can hear every syllable when Bob breaks out a slow one, like the gorgeous, ominous new take on “Not Dark Yet,” and the wistful, eligiac "Lenny Bruce." Without a doubt, the concert was one of the finest of his I’ve seen, and this was number 53, over a span of 41 years.

But . . . I’m actually getting kind of tired of reading the accolades for this tour. Like, shut up already, even. To me, it reads like, once again, OMG, he’s back! He's back! What utter bullshit. In truth, this is the same Dylan I’ve seen for the last four decades. The same Rolling Thunder Dylan, from that Scorcese movie. The same, ever-growing, ever-changing Bob Dylan. He never left. That is who Dylan is, the one who never left. Creating himself as I create me and you create you. Together through life.

I have never bought into the myth of inconsistency that is preached by so many who pretend to know. It is supposed to be accepted wisdom that “You never know what you’re going to get,” or “He can be way off or way on,” but in all my years of following Bob live on stage, I’ve never found this to be true. He and the musicians he gathers have been excellent, over all the decades. Different always, but excellent. Of course there are nights on fire and nights when the players are tired, better sound and worse sound, but Bob himself, smiling or scowling, always brings the finest songs any writer ever wrote, and he always sings them with faith and skill and emotion.  

On the way down to California on the plane, I listened to a couple episodes of a Dylan podcast called “Is it Rolling, Bob?” It’s well done by a couple very knowledgeable and curious fans. But no less than three recent guests, literary and musical intellectuals of high repute, okay I will name them — Michael Gray, Geoff Dyer, and Robyn Hitchcock — panned the Dylan shows they have seen in recent years. Gray and Dyer even offered the learned opinion that Bob is not really worth seeing anymore. 

I don’t know what shows these fellows have attended, but perhaps not Yakima County Stadium on September 3, 2010, when a dapper Bob, pounding the organ, sweat flying off his face in the heat, sang a version of “Highway 61 Revisited” that was for every note and nuance the equal in quality, of the one he sang in Irvine this month. Or at the Paramount Theater here in Seattle in October 2014, when a dramatic center stage “Forgetful Heart” had me musing deeply and sadly on old lovers and long gone days. Or in 2009 at the tiny Moore Theater, when from the first row of the balcony I was heavily rocked out by “Beyond here Lies Nothin’” and confronted by mortality in a different, but equally stunning “Not Dark Yet.” 

It is strange to notice that many real fans, people who love Bob, or some version of Bob, are still so often not prepared to hear him. We all know by now that Dylan is resolutely creative and he insists that you receive the songs as he delivers them, not as you might expect them. But this seems to be easier said than done, even today. It still seems to trip up even the highest echelon of Bob “authorities.” Perhaps the more you think you know about Bob's tunes the more you need to let go. This pattern has repeated itself over and over in Dylan’s career, from Newport ’65 to San Francisco ’79 to Seattle in 2005, when Dylan played a glacially slowed down take on "Mr. Tambourine Man", that has haunted me ever since  — thank God for bootlegs – but surely left many thinking their favorite song had been massacred, because there was absolutely no chance of singing along, and disappointed others because it wasn't sung like . . . that other time . . . when I was cool . . .

Except, suddenly, here in late 2019, all is forgiven and he’s great again? You still can't sing along. Yes, it is a really really good show, and yes there are mannikins, but why this sudden outpouring? Maybe because he’s 78?  Well, I thought 77 was pretty freaking old too, but Bob apparently thinks nothing of it. I fully expect him to die on stage at 96. I hope to be there. And at another couple dozen shows in-between, because Bob Dylan is ALWAYS worth seeing, worth hearing, the great artist of our era, the one who helps our eyes stay open.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

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



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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan: 21st Century Performing Artist

Hello Friends

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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