Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dylan Speaks (through Song)

                            (Doris Lessing, myself, and my son, circa 1993)

Bob continues to subvert expectations. It’s just how he is; it’s why his art is so reliably good. Surely, those of us who have been paying attention should have learned, by now, to have no particular expectations at all.

Like so many other fans, I was thrilled when I heard the news of Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I even used it as an excuse to fly to Vegas to see him on the very day! I felt proud to shout my congratulations to him on stage. But now I wonder, what does the Nobel Prize mean to Bob? Anything?

We grow up knowing about the prestige of the award. Many greats have been named through the years, from Neruda to Beckett. I had a deeply emotional reaction, as if I was somehow being rewarded, because I love Dylan’s work. Thousands of others felt the same. The Nobel is a cultural symbol that has enjoyed nearly entirely positive connotations.

Before this week, I knew nothing about its namesake’s armaments business. But now, I do. “Sometimes, the silence can be like thunder.” Or dynamite?

Of course, I don’t know if Dylan gives a damn about Alfred Nobel’s business history, but the quiet has made it something to think about. Strangely enough, nearly a week before the prize was given, Dylan performed a searing version of “Masters of War” for the encore at Desert Trip. Surely a “coincidence” but it seems even more bizarre when you read the set lists and see that Bob hadn’t sang the song for nearly six years!

He has also been singing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at recent shows. I guess we need to take what we can gather.

Does he care about the prize? Should I, after all? Leonard Cohen said it perfectly (of course): “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

But, the Nobel Prize! How can you resist? Look at that list! Yeats, Pinter, Singer, Szymborska!

Who is this committee anyway? Seven distinguished Swedes. Professors and writers.

“It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.”

Perhaps I might have held Doris Lessing’s reaction more firmly in my mind.  “Oh Christ!,” she exclaimed, accosted at her door by the reporters. As if she was already fed up with the whole business.

You know who really cares about The Nobel? All those snarky young writers insulting Bob on twitter. What a laugh.

“They chirp and they chatter

What does it matter?

They’re lying there dying in their blood”

Here’s what Lessing said at her own Nobel Lecture in 2007, entitled, tellingly, “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize.” She speaks of what she has seen happen to a young artist, suddenly applauded, suddenly in the public eye:

“And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. ‘Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go.’”

Some young writers commenting on Dylan’s Nobel seem eager to give up that “necessary place.” Fame is the prize, they have been taught.

And Dylan, two weeks ago in Vegas, on the evening of the day’s news:

“You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known.”

Mr. Jones needs approval.

Lessing, again:

“The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.”

The storyteller lives to tell the tale. She is beholden only to her muse.

In these days of flashy media, the storyteller is conditioned to respond to page hits, “likes,” blurbs of peers, positive reviews, and of course, literary awards. The dust jackets of books no longer offer much of a hint of what a novel is about. They only tell what “important people” think of the contents.

It was not always so. The storyteller who describes accurately, or changes the direction of the culture, needs only to see the eyes of the audience to understand if the tale has had an effect. He doesn’t need a “blurb” from the bard of the next valley.

Most of Lessing’s lecture (well worth a read) speaks of the poor in her childhood home of Zimbabwe who are hungry for knowledge, for literature, who might never have the education or cultural inroads to become prizewinners, but who would simply love to have access to the stories themselves, and perhaps to write their own. She posits that these basic human values have been lost in the wealthy vortex of a status and fame obsessed society.

The Nobel Prize and other awards affirm a fashionable perception that critical reception of the art matters greatly. But while a discussion of the art can be worthwhile, can inform and teach, Lessing (and now Dylan) reminds us that it’s not the important bit, not at all. Art is a direct communication to the very heart of the listener/reader/viewer. And this has always been Dylan’s genius: to touch thousands of listeners in their own home-life, their own soul-life.

So, finally, I’d like to put to rest one more basic assumption that has saturated the whole post Dylan Nobel discussion.

The falsehood: Dylan has remained silent. The truth: Since the announcement, Dylan has played 10 concerts, totaling approximately 15 hours, directly addressing approximately 100,000 people, on topics such as the rape of the economy by Wall Street (Early Roman Kings), the general state of the Union (Desolation Row), busted love (Long and Wasted Years), true love (Make You Feel My Love), the role of vengeance in contemporary geo-politics (Pay in Blood) and a variety of other themes pertinent to the human heart in the early 21st Century.

What’s that? He didn’t say a word about a Scandinavian prize? I guess he’s been a little busy being a troubadour.

My guess, however, is that when the current tour is done (the important thing), Bob will graciously accept this latest honor. He has accepted other prizes. The Medal of Freedom. Why? He clearly loves many aspects of his America. You could even call him a proud American but that would be oversimplifying. He is, without a doubt, the greatest American artist. And of course, he accepted the Oscar, a facsimile of which accompanies him on stage every night. Why? He has always loved the movies, especially old-school.

But mostly, I have gleaned, second to music, he loves books. He is no doubt an admirer of many of the previous winners, and I think he will respect them by accepting the award. I think he is probably honored to be in that company. He probably won’t hobnob with the Swedes, however, anymore than he did with the president.

He has accepted other prizes too, but always on his own terms.

I would even venture to guess, that between shows, between conducting his own nightly poetry readings, his séances that defy time and critics, Bob might be perusing the lectures of past Nobel Laureates, wondering how exactly he might address the issue, when he is ready. A speech of his own, like MusicCares? A song with the band? Or a simple handshake? Or less?

In the meantime, all this “silence?” Sure has provoked a lot of thought.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

I Congratulated Bob Personally: Dylan at Desert Trip and in Las Vegas

Everyone who loves Dylan’s music has a story that tells how his or her life was influenced by the bard from the North Country. In the days following Bob’s Nobel Prize honor, these are the tales that mean the most to me. Analysis of his words as great “literature,” while relevant and often insightful, do not reveal why this announcement has had such a profoundly intimate affect on so many thousands of his fans. For example, as soon as I read the news, I cried. I’ve heard of many other such reactions.

My next thought was community: I wanted to share the news. Texting commenced. Friends who like Bob, who know how much Bob has meant to me, reached out immediately. My point here is simple: Dylan’s music is an experience shared over many years, with the people we love. My wife was thrilled to discuss the news with me. She likes Bob a lot, not in the same way as me, but she has her own meaningful relationship with his art. She has her own story. Thousands of people have their own story. That is why so many of us cried, and in large part, why Dylan is so deserving of this high accolade.

My Dylan tale is complex, so entwined with my life, that in order to tell it, I included it as part of a memoir. I won’t try to summarize here, but if you’re curious, refer to other pages of this blog. Suffice to say, it began in my basement in our home state of Minnesota, took wing at a large outdoor festival in 1978 England, and had me flying to Las Vegas two days ago. My book, by the way, is called The Golden Bird.

Here I’ll stick to just the latest episode of my inner Dylan odyssey, taking place over the past week.

I attended the first weekend of the Desert Trip festival, and saw Bob open the show on Friday the 7th of October. My friends and I had purchased tickets back in the spring, excited to hear all the acts. Neil Young has been another long-time favorite. I was a bit concerned how Dylan would come off, however. I had last seen him here in Seattle in June, in two shows at a local winery. You can read my review below, in my last post, but the upshot is that while the shows were wonderful, they featured and emphasized many very quiet songs from Dylan’s last two records, the American Songbook covers. In addition, Dylan on stage was more reserved and unreadable than I had ever seen, singing from deep within. The songs came alive but there was virtually no sign that the man himself even noticed that an audience sat before him. I have long since (more than fifty shows) understood that there will be no spoken words, but on these two evenings he seemed to take personal reserve to a new level. We often get a few more smiles, some pointed fingers, a “thank you, friends,” but these nights, if memory serves, nothing. In any case, I was worried how this show was going to play in front of 75,000 nostalgic fans who are less familiar with the recent material.

I needn’t have been concerned about the set list. Dylan, while not exactly conceding  to popular tastes (there would be no “Rolling Stone,” and several songs were lesser known recent gems), played a sixties hits heavy set, intense, rollicking, well delivered, dark enough to suit the political moment, yet leavened by a couple love songs. The crowd reaction, nonetheless, was lukewarm. Some folks near me said they couldn’t understand the words of the newer songs. Well, I thought, those tunes are among the best, so please, rock those records a few dozen times until the lyrics to “Pay in Blood”  and “Early Roman Kings” are burned into your brain alongside “Highway 61.” Then you’ll hear all the words. As usual, my response to the casual fan is: Don’t blame Bob if you didn’t do your homework. You get a lot more out of Picasso too if you’ve studied up a bit.

Because the sound was great at Desert Trip. The music was crystalline and the words were clear. Often, people think Dylan sounds bad (harsh, unintelligible, too loud, “I don’t recognize these songs”) because they still have some image in their heads from yesterday, last year, last decade, thirty years ago, “when I was in my twenties.” That is not how it works with Bob Dylan. If you want to understand the dialogue at his ongoing art party, you’ve got to keep up. It’s always been true, from “Judas” to the gospel years to the fire and brimstone of “Tempest.” I’m sorry if I sound holier than thou. I do understand why people stop paying attention. I myself have resistance to “Shadows in the Night,” and “Fallen Angels.” They are too much my father’s music, and my dad and I, well, we didn’t really get along. But in concert in Seattle in June, I paid close attention, and I have to admit, those tunes were gorgeous.

Another complaint at Desert Trip was that the screens went out during Bob’s set, and even when they were working, Dylan was only shown in silhouette and from behind. Meanwhile, movies scenes of Americana from the fifties were projected alongside, and later, exclusively. Yes, it was a big festival and people at the back could not see anything. Hell, I couldn’t see anything from halfway back in the grandstand. We could “only hear.” I hope you see the irony implicit in my quotation marks, but in case not, this sentence also exists. Back in the fifties, when Dylan was a boy, he mostly “only heard” music, except for the rare live show — famously, Buddy Holly a day or two before his death. In 1978, I saw Dylan at a rock festival with four times as many people than at Desert Trip. My friends and I were a good half mile from the stage, and we could “only hear.” It sounded amazing. It quite literally (ha!) changed my life.

So, here’s my only Dylan quote in this essay: “Gotta get up near the teacher, if you can, if you wanna learn anything.” — “Floater (Too Much to Ask).”

What that teaches me is: Do your homework, and it will help you understand. Not just Dylan, of course! Read books. Study the world. Look at people’s lives. See how children learn. Find a teacher. Have experiences. Get up close. You want to see the teacher previously called Zimmerman up close, but the Desert Trip pit tickets were too expensive too allow that privilege?

Bob Dylan (Nobel Laureate), at age 75, still plays over 100 concerts every single year, in small towns and big cities. I have seen him in ball fields, theaters, and once, in Missoula, in what seemed to be a cow pasture. Some of these events were general admission, and at some the seats were reserved. Often, good tickets were available on the day of the show. For many years it has been possible, and it is still possible (we lucky people), spring through fall, to see Bob Dylan perform in small venues. In the next couple of months, if you can get away, or if you live in the American south, you can easily see him sing his Nobel prize winning songs, from right up close. In fact, you can do it two or three days in a row if you like! Big screens are over-rated. Dylan’s wrinkly, mostly impassive countenance can be right in front of your own eyes if you get yourself to Chattanooga on November 13. You could follow him across south for the week and spend less than a single ticket for Desert Trip.

If anyone tells you Bob Dylan is not available to his fans, well, you could say, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” You won’t meet him, you won’t be his friend, and you won’t discuss politics. You will hear great art.

Which brings me to part two of my personal Bob Dylan story, for the week he won the Nobel Prize. I was safely home from Desert Trip this past Monday, and on Thursday morning there I sat at my kitchen table, reading the news and weeping into my oatmeal. By good fortune, I am living a life of few obligations at the present, newly retired and my children mostly grown. I remembered the gig in Las Vegas. A quick search at Ticketmaster showed availability, even some pretty good looking seats. But still: airplane, hotel, money, hassle, etc . . But Dylan! The Nobel Prize! Good seats! I refreshed my browser. OMG, as they say. Not just good seats. First row! Only one thing to do: consult the wife. Again, by supreme good fortune, I am married to a woman who knows me and is the most supportive, loving person in the universe. First row ticket, boom! Flight, boom! Off to Vegas.

At 10 minutes before 8 PM the day before yesterday, I am sitting in my front row seat at the Chelsea theater, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, waiting for the band to take the stage. There’s a Nobel buzz in the crowd, although I also have the idea that many of the attendees are Vegas vacationers who stumbled into the show on an auspicious evening. I think at least half of any Dylan audience is usually nostalgia seekers anyway, so no surprise there. This night however, because of Dylan’s intensity, the heightened excitement because of the prize, and also the excellent sound in the auditorium, very few will go away less than thrilled, even if they didn’t quite get all the words. (Okay, one guy behind me demanded severely, right after the show, “Why didn’t he play “Rolling Stone?!” Um, um, because he didn’t? Because he has 400 other classics to choose from? Duh?)

Anyway, as I’m sitting there, a man takes the seat next to me. We chat, and he tells me he’s Michael, a high school English teacher from Santa Cruz. It seems, 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. Thing is, he was in class at the time. Apparently, he then confided to the students that while they were studying, he was looking for tickets (new Nobel Laureate!), and much like my wife, they said, “Do it! Do it!” Michael, it seems, had been a fan of Dylan for ages, and also a big fan of the Nobel literature award. When these two of his passions collided, along with an opportunity to see the bard of Hibbing that very night, how could he refuse? It seemed ordained.

It seemed to be written in the stars. We sat together, two absolute strangers, two brothers in Bob, on the edge of seats, leaping up at every opportunity the ushers would allow. We could not contain ourselves. We wanted to applaud this artist who has been with us, from the opening of our minds through the changing moments of our lives. Of course, as expected, he spoke only through song. It was a very similar set list to Desert Trip, and although that had sounded very good, this was another level. The acoustics in the auditorium were stellar. On the soft songs, like “Baby Blue,” “Simple Twist,” “Make You Feel My Love,” his voice was rich and smooth, very like his records of the early century, with very little gravel. I’m not joking when I say it even put me in mind of the “Nashville Skyline” voice. On the tight blues rockers, “Early Roman Kings,” “Pay in Blood,” "Highway 61,” the tone was just devastating, clear and sharp and stinging like a wasp. Several times he held long notes at the end of lines. But how can I ever 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. 

The social commentary in these tunes, whether from 1965 or 2012, is just so spot on, at this moment in time. Who can sit in a theater in a casino in Las Vegas and not feel the images of “Desolation Row?” You have just seen some of these things in the corridor outside! I read today online, someone mocking that a Nobel Laureate would be playing Vegas on the day he won the prize. This person claimed irony, that a Vegas showman would be honored and the prize thus debased. That’s very funny, because there is indeed irony that Dylan should play Vegas this night, but it is because no one else in literature has described the excesses and human carnival seen in that city in quite the way Dylan has. His cultural observations are one more reason Bob Dylan’s significance towers above the other great acts that played with him the previous weekend at Desert Trip. Although, its true, unlike Mick, he never shouts to the crowd, “Who knows how to party?”

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 new kind of literature, one that integrates the spirit rousing, muse calling, soul stirring qualities of great music with words of intellectual vigor and visual beauty. It’s either a very old or a very new category of art. In any case, it accounts for the personal connection that is possible for so many in his music. Great 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. Unlike at Woodinville in June, 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, “Yah!!” 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 also 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 in person. In fact, I read that even the Nobel committee has not reached him yet. How does it feel? It feels good, that’s how it feels. And I do not feel so all alone. I know I spoke what many would like to say.

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. It’s in this way that 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 made me a better person. He has helped me to think about my own life, my own actions, my own path. In 1978, Dylan was asked, “What is the purpose of art, Bob?,” His reply: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire.”

Thanks, Bob.