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.