Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bob Dylan at 75

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

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