Dylan Turns 80
By ice rivers
Somebody said that today was Dylan's birthday. I've had the pleasure of seeing him perform at least 10 times each of them memorable in their own way. I wrote a review of one of his concerts. If i ever write another book...I will include this piece.
DYLAN AT RIT
Dylan failed last night to resolve one of my longest standing differences of opinion with my wife Lynn. Lynn is from the “Dylan is an icon of the sixties who writes great lyrics but who has a lousy voice and arrogant personality” point of view.
I’m from the “authentic cultural spokesperson whose unique voice and enigmatic personality are as inseparable from his lyrics as the lyrics are inseparable from the music and the message” point of view.
I resist “the icon from the sixties” point of view because it turns Dylan’s timeless compositions into nostalgia acts. I agree with the “great lyrics” observation but always feel like Lynn is setting up the polite quid pro quo of devastating criticism with faint praise followed by the real message…“his voice sucks and he’s an a-hole“, which she unfailingly does.
I had seen Dylan perform live four times ( including the amazing Rolling Thunder Review)before Lynn agreed to go with me to see him about ten years ago at the Finger Lakes Performance Center. That night, Dylan seemed angry at the audience and infuriated with his own songs, so his performance was brusque and furious. Lynn who believes that an entertainers first job is to entertain, (which means as the song goes to smile when they are low )was put off by the moody seemingly indulgent performance which fueled her original biases especially the A-Hole part.
“He never even talked to the audience. He never connected. Why didn’t he at least tell a joke or something,” Lynn wondered and would continue to wonder until last night.
I said “the guys not a comedian and he’s not a lets all get together by the campfire and sing cumbaya type of guy. He is what he’s always been which is exactly what he is at any particular moment and what he was that night was pissed off for whatever reason and that’s good enough for me” and it was until last night.
Last night we took the tie-breaker with us, our thirteen year old daughter Mary. Point of reference, Mary attended her first concert of her young life a week before, Green Day at the Blue Cross Arena. She loved it. Mary plays guitar herself and blew us all away last week when she brought home the self-portrait in pencil she had been working on in her advanced art class.
Dylan played at a much smaller venue, one of my several alma maters, the Rochester Institute of Technology. The choice of venue in itself is interesting. Is Dylan playing to smaller houses because he seeks the intimacy of smaller crowds having exhausted himself on the stadium circuit or does he no longer have the drawing power to book larger spaces ?
The main reason we got the tickets in the first place was to expose Mary to Dylan as well as to RIT. We tried to get two tickets for just me and the Mare but since we had to buy a group of three minimum, Lynn went along for the ride.
Whatever, twenty minutes after the scheduled starting time of 8:00 at 8:22 to be precise the sound system crackled to life with a rapid fire minimalist introduction apparently pre-recorded by an invisible emcee featuring garbled clauses like “The poet laureate of rock music and his generation……..thought to be washed up in the eighties……. His last two albums are two of the most critically acclaimed albums of his career thus the history of American recordings….the author of a currently best selling auto -biography…..Bob Dylan and his band”.
Dylan came out in his black outfit with black Stetson. The members of his band, two guitarists a bass player and a drummer were also dressed in black, two of the four in cowboy hats kinda like Dylan’s. Dylan went to the piano on the left side of the stage and the group broke into “Maggie’s Farm”.
All of the elements of working on “Maggie’s Farm” intact and primal. Lyrics mostly clear and decipherable. Off to a raucous start. Mary applauded. So did Lynn. I felt not only renewed but also partially redeemed.
Just before Dylan hit the stage, a friend of mine came over and told me that he had researched the set list. There were fourteen songs plus an encore of two. This would be a sixteen round contest. Round one was a winner.
My favorite fighters were guys like the Sugars Rays Robinson and Leonard, Alexis Arguello, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo and of course Muhammad Ali. As these guys got older, I used to count of each off their rounds one by one hoping that somehow they’d win each round but with equal fervor that they would at least survive the round. Then I get into the minutes per round, hoping that somehow they could win ninety five seconds of each round and keeping score in my mind as they neared the magic number of eight which would win them a decision if they didn’t get knocked out. I found myself using the same accounting system with Zimmerman on this night.
Round two was “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Dylanologists remember this song as the response Dylan used so many years ago when he was booed off the stage at the Newport Folk festival for committing the unforgivable sin of going electric. Since then, it’s always been one of my favorites. An anthem I use to chart my own changes and willingness to leave behind whatever is/was no longer needed.Dylan remained to the side and guitar less as the first words hit the air.
“You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast“
Unfortunately it sounded more like this
Ulleeenowuneeulas, whatchoo wishookeegrafaaaaaaaa.
Dylan hunched over the mike, growling, confronting the mike like a gambler keeping his cards close to his vest because he’s got such a bluff goin’ that if anybody sees the pasteboards he’s screwed for the whole ante. I could see Lynn frowning and Mary following suit I could not give Dylan round two even though I wanted to.
Round three was another of my favorite songs, the haunting and magically melancholic Visions of Johanna whose first line is:
“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?”
The only word I could make out was night. Through the entire song, the only words I could understand were “Visions of Johanna” and I knew the song well.
For any of you like Mary and Lynn who don’t know the actual words, let me quote the first verse as Dylan wrote and published . Read them and weep because last night they disappeared completely into incomprehensibility.
“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind”
Whoops, I made a mistake. I forgot that between “Baby Blue” and “Johanna”, Dylan sang “Lonesome Day Blues”. The fact that I forgot about it, tells me all I want to know about the effort.
Next came a song I won’t forget for a long time, no matter how hard I try. “Dignity”, another one of my favorites. If Dignity is clarity than this rendering was particularly undignified. If Dignity is plunging into a compost pile and emerging as if from a Halloween hayride with the ghost of Aunt Helen then the effort had some saving grace. Once again Dylan’s verbal articulation was puddle muddy and he continued to hover by the keyboard still not strapped in to his axe. I got the feeling that he might not be strumming’ at all on this evening. Still when he gave his howling a break and hurled his oxygen into his harp, some of the magic returned. The band, minus one geetar was carrying the weight of this concert as if it had just pulled into Nazareth which seemed allright with everybody especially the integrationists amongst us who knew deep inside that there could be no segregation of lyrics and voice from music. The music in spite of the singer continued to soar even as the lyrics because of the poet continued to disappear.
At this point thirteen year old Mary turned to Lynn and commented “everything sounds the same” . Lynn nodded in ‘I told ya so’ acquiescence. The show went on as it must.
I recognized “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” immediately which nudged it/them towards the win column even as it/they lurched and lumbered fitfully amidst the graceful thundering wonder of the musicians.
I grabbed Mary by the hand and with the approval of Lynn, we headed to the floor for a closer look. One of my weird aptitudes is my ability to wade through a crowd. When Dylan had played with Petty and the Dead at then Rich Stadium before a crowd thirty times this large, I had managed to work my way to the edge of the stage. The secret of getting through a crowd is knowing how to dance with it rather than shove against it. When ya dance the crowd dance, openings appear.
Of course, I was so much younger than I’m older than that now.
The closest we could get was about fifteen rows back as this crowd was much less fluid, hardly any dancing or even movement to make advancing through it amenable. A calm brick wall.
It was from here that we heard and saw Dylan sing three slower numbers in which he had more control of the lyrics as if he actually knew the words and was going to sing them. “Po’ Boy”, “High Water (For Charley Patton)” and “Girl Of The North Country”. I could see Zimmy pretty well but Mary was being blocked by taller folks in front of her. I lifted my little girl up as high as I could for as long as I could so she might get a glimpse of the great man. With the way she’s growing and the way I’m deteriorating physically, maybe that was the last time I’d lift her up like this. Made me kind of sad but kind of proud as well.
I started to believe that maybe the reason we couldn’t hear Dylan clearly for the first half-dozen songs was the fact that we couldn’t see him. Ya know, that weird reflex that confronts us when we feel the need to shout at a blind man.
By the time Mary and I got back to Lynn , we were already learning the illusion behind that reflexive truth. I’m no longer a thin man but there was definitely something going on here and I didn’t know what it was. I started wondering if Dylan did.
The last five songs of the show , “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”, “Honest With Me”, “Standing In The Doorway” and “Summer Days” proved to be a split decision. Three of the songs I was relatively unfamiliar with so I couldn’t very well be disappointed with them. As a matter of fact one of the songs that I never heard before, Standing In The Doorway, sounded more familiar than most of the songs that I knew by heart based on the rate of decipherable words per lyric.
One of my favorite songs, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues” Again was even more deconstructed then any of the previous numbers. I even resorted to whispering the chorus lyric into Mary’s ear in the hopes of convincing her that these songs actually had words which meant I kept repeating “Oh Mama can this really be the end” over and over which I think is exactly what Mary was thinking when she was looking at Lynn and wishing she were somewhere else, wondering when the growling would cease. Of the final songs, “Summer Days” was by far the best. It sounded world class and indicated a rally in progress.
The band left the stage and I wondered if they would bother with an encore.I also wondered whether there was going to be enough applause to merit a return that could be anything more than hypocritical. Amazingly enough, the crowd didn’t move and began to applaud some even igniting about two dozen of the traditional lighters. Sho nuff, it worked. The band re-appeared.
The encore consisted of “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower.” These two turned out to be the best efforts of the evening. I later found out that the band had been encoring with these numbers through the entirety of the tour. It sounded like they had played them before and everybody knew the words and the music.
In the past when I’ve heard Dylan howl the anthemic “Like A Rolling Stone” he would stretch out the line “how does it feeeeeeel” and the audience would sing along with him. This time all but the required two e’s were missing as was the audience participation. More stenography. Between the two numbers Dylan, as if sensing the tension between me and Lynn, did the unthinkable. He told a joke. The joke went like this, as he introduced one of the band members Dylan said . “He comes from Louisiana so he stretches rattlesnakes across the front of his car. Calls ‘em windshield vipers”
He introduced another band member by saying the guy was “so tough he shaves with a chain saw”. Then a magnificent version of “All Along the Watchtower” prologued by what sounded like an electirc version of Exodus turned everything over, under and upside down. Like all champs Zimmy came through in the end.
A little before the encore, I realized that I had been listening to the music through the ears of Mary and watching the performance through the eyes of Lynn. During Watchtower I watched and listened for myself and what I saw and heard was exactly what I wanted to see and hear other than the fact that Dylan never touched a guitar.
The concert reminded me of the Ali-Bonavena fight in which Ali looked listless and distracted throughout the fight until he finished off his clumsy, lumbering foe with a sudden knockout in the final round which removed from the judges the task of ruling in favor of the clearly inferior fighter.
That’s the task that the last song removed from my critique. I didn’t have to rip Dylan any further. The final song of the encore gave me everything I could have wanted.
On the way back to the car Mary said, “I expected more” which pretty much sums up most people’s feeling about Dylan even as we forget how much we already have.
Lynn said to Mary “ I want you to keep this ticket stub because someday, you’ll be telling someone that you saw Dylan and they’re going to want proof”. From Beatrice, that’s high praise. I guess the joke worked and there are many here among us along the watch tower who think that life itself is but a joke.
As for me, well it had been ten years since the last time I was in the same room with Dylan. Ten years from now he’ll be 73. I’ll go again but I won’t expect to get real close to the stage even though the crowd will be less than half a thousand. I suspect Mary will be amongst them. She might even be holding me up next time. Lynn and I will still be arguing.
Some times I’m a tick or two slow on the uptake. Sometimes I forget where I am and with whom I’m with wherever I am.
We in Rochester are fortunate to have the National Technical Institute for the Deaf as part of our Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT is where Bob Dylan played in the concert that I have just reviewed. When Dylan was leaving after completing his first fourteen songs, he paused in the middle of the stage raised his hands to chest level , palms out, fingers extended as if he were signaling “ten” while simultaneously wiping an invisible windshield using both hands.
From my distant seat, the gesture looked oddly quaint.
From where I sit now, I begin to understand. Dylan was using the universally accepted gesture of silent applause used by deaf folks, waving ten fingers. I bet the people in front of Dylan, part of the under whelming audible applause, were returning his gesture. The crowd on the floor nearest the stage and the performer were silently validating one another. A conversation was happening. Thus the non-hypocritical encore that followed.
Because we have so many deaf folks in Rochester, particularly in Henrietta; the community where RIT is located, I have become accustomed to interpreters speaking sign language at most large gatherings. At the time, I didn’t think it was unusual that to the left of Dylan, off stage, a woman was interpreting the concert. As I’ve mentioned in this review, up until the moment that Dylan silently applauded, he positioned himself to the far left of the stage. In fact, Dylan was as close to the interpreter on his left as he was to the lead guitar play