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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Grapes of Wrath: Bob Dylan at Chateau St. Michelle


It seemed to me last night, as I stared at the old man in his funny hat and funny suit, singing such deadly serious songs, that I have lived my entire life at a Bob Dylan concert. There is a perpetual moment, a moment which sums me up,  in which I am sitting in row 2, as last evening, or standing in a crush eight feet back, looking at this man singing.  It seems, in those seconds or minutes, that everything else — my job, my children, my wife — has been merely a time before or a time after.  The real me is forever listening and looking at this strange man tell his musical stories.

This is ridiculous, of course. I know that. I know that, here on the couch, working on my laptop, as the dog crunches her chow, as my brilliant daughter does her homework, as my wife and lover finishes the dishes.  I am no spectator. I have my work and my garden and my life. Bob Dylan concerts are the moments out of time.


I saw both shows that opened this current tour, at the winery I mentioned above, in a nearby suburb to my home in Seattle. I have recently lost count, but it may have been numbers 50 and 51 for me. For Dylan, it was the first two shows he’s played since he turned the majestic age of 75 last month. When I saw him in 1978, he was 37. So, like Mavis Staples said last night, we go way back, Bobby and I. Way back. If you are reading this I bet you do too.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the way he treats us. Those heavy-lidded unseeing eyes, that frown.

Last night, after I entered the sunny wooded outdoor venue, I walked up a path on the right border, through the  GA section. I stood among the wine-bibbers.  They reclined in camp chairs, dipping chicken drumsticks into ranch sauce while they waited for tonight’s musical act — who is it again? — to provide a soundtrack for their picnic.

What a long ways we’ve come from Blackbushe, I thought.

At the edge of the field, I looked out over a fence to some concrete ponds terraced down the hillside, and there is Donnie Herron, multi-instrumentalist and main musical foil to Bob Dylan, feeding the ducks. He really seemed to have a thing for those ducks. He would hold out the bread, and sometimes one would waddle up and grab it quick, but just as often they were disinterested and he had to throw the crumbs toward them. Sometimes they would spectacularly splash into the pool for the tidbit, but mostly they were aloof. Still, Mr. Herron was persistent, as if nothing really mattered more in the world at that moment but getting those ducks to eat some catered bread.

Probably nothing did. The man, unlike me, truly lives his life at a Bob Dylan concert. In between the electric mandolin and the pedal steel guitar, in between the banjo and the violin, what is there? After the jams on “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” and on “Duquesne Whistle,” in which he plays Robbie to Bob, Bloomfield to Bob, Charlie McCoy to Bob, George to Bob, after the smile flashes between them when it rollicked and rolled just so, well, what else really is there? What else could there be? Feeding the ducks I suppose. On to the next show. I can relate brother, except I, of course, have no musical skills for one, and I never get the smile.

Instead, I get the frown, from the stage manager guy, who knows very well I am looking at band members, and who regards me as a potential threat in this age of potential threats. I want to say, hey, it’s just me, Seattle Bob Dylan fan trying to get a little insight into this crazy phenomena called “Bob Dylan,” but I know he’s got a mental muscle memory of me from other times, other places — Waikiki?, he ponders — and I am at least a nuisance, hopefully no more.

So I wander off to my seat. Enjoy those ducks, Donnie. Sorry for the attempted eye contact.

What of the shows, you ask? How does Bob vibe at 75?

It’s a melancholy mood for the most part.

You can’t really point to but one song in the whole set that conjures anything else, anything but a sorrow inside the soul and a dismay outside the soul at this sorry world. No wonder I feel hung over. That one song is “Spirit on the Water,” and that must be why he keeps it in the set. Frankly, it’s a crazy art piece from any perspective. People stand and applaud when he’s done rolling around those piano keys, singing what passes for a love song in 21st Century Dylan-land. People stand and applaud because for a moment, even though the energy of the set has diminished at this point, just when it might have risen, people stand and applaud, not only for the crafty jazz of the song, which has sounded much jazzier in the past than it does tonight, sorry to say, when it sounds disheveled and too well lived in, but people applaud wildly, because for a moment, despite the death of momentum, they feel less suicidal.

Maybe we can have a whoppin’ good time!

And then he plays “Scarlet Town.” The people in the back who got excited at the end of the first set when he blew a bouncy harp and sang with energy about the death of love in “Tangled Up in Blue” — one of exactly three songs in the set from before 1990 — have now started muttering to themselves. This is not the death of love we love! We were not young during this death! This is not the death of love we desire!  We don’t know the words!

Dylan, one hand over his chest and the other to his brow, like a witness to a particularly gruesome crime, sings: “Set it up Joe, play “Walkin’ the Floor,” play it for my flat-chested junkie whore.” I can’t help wondering what the 15 year old boy sitting to my left must be thinking. He and his slightly older sister, elegantly dressed, look to be the very offspring of Seattle’s own Early Roman Kings. Still, they seem spellbound by the “living legend” twenty paces in front of them, attentive and appreciative, despite a commensurate interest in the candy corn. They don’t seem put out —as I am, who should know better — by the lack of facial expressions on the face of the master.

Indeed, at the end of the song, as Tony Garnier’s bow on the stand-up bass bids goodnight and good luck to George Recile’s feathery touches on the snare and the ominous droning of the guitarists, and to a final, updated, age-old warning from Mr. “It’s doom alone that counts” himself, something about the death of beauty, these fresh young ones leap to their feet in ovation. Go figure. Are they listening to this stuff in their Lake Washington manor hall?

Which brings me to “the standards.” Much to my chagrin, especially in the unlikely event you read my last post, and equally as much to my pleasure, if you know how much I love Bob Dylan, “the standards” are pretty much the reason this Bob Dylan live show in the year 2016 exists. Not a big surprise really, if we have been paying attention. There is not much you can generalize about the Mystery that is Bob Dylan, but I dare say this: Bob Dylan is always about what Bob Dylan is about right now. The reason to see these shows, if you should choose to accept this mission, is to see Bob Dylan sing “I’m a Fool to Want You,” and “Autumn Leaves.”

I feckin’ hate to admit it, cuz I don’t much like it, but they are feckin’ sublime. Here’s the deal: I think Dylan decided he doesn’t NEED to write any more tender and moving songs that he loves to sing, like “Forgetful Heart,” because there exist already all these other wistful sad songs in the world. He’ll make do with them. He don’t care if the boys would rather play Highway 61 because it’s more fun. To hell with fun.

Straight ahead: the Tempest material is mostly good, still fresh and powerful. “Duquesne Whistle,”  “Pay in Blood,” and “Early Roman Kings” are just tremendous controlled jams. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” from an earlier record, has the same feel, and is refreshing for its semblance of optimism amid the chaos and destruction. “Long and Wasted Years” seems a bit rote with the descending chord pattern, but I suppose it’s the point he wants to make. I guess I just have a problem with the songs with very predictable structures. This band is too good for such repetition. I personally do not need to march along to “She Belongs to Me” again. If he is going to put a sixties song in the set … fill in the blank.

Straight ahead: The standards are wonderful, because of the feeling Dylan conveys. His voice has no range, but it sure has reach, just like it always had. Right into your heart and a big squeeze. I’m not sure I will ever love those tunes on the record, but performed live they are worth your money. “Autumn Leaves,” the closer, will make you shiver on the warmest day.

The encore duo of “Blowing in the Wind” and “Love Sick” is perfect. For the first, he is your kindly grandpa singing a lullaby.  The light touch of his piano and the merry cadences of the band swing you back and forth gently, and you nearly forget that the essential message of this song is that the answer is not to be found. Voice of the sixties indeed. Then he stands before you again (for the last time, you always fear, these days) and tells you, that despite the end of love that pervades each and every song, love is still what he wants, what every human wants, and his last words tell it all: “I’d give anything to be with you.”

Pass that bottle over here. No, not the burgundy. The harder stuff.

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!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Fans and Followers" and "Dylanologists"

As I write this, it is late in the evening on Bob Dylan’s 73rd birthday. I hope he has had a fine day, celebrated by those he loves. Meanwhile, we who don’t know the man, but are intimate with the music, also wish him glad tidings, and many more productive and expressive years. Certainly he seems as active as ever, with a tour of Europe coming up, followed by Australia in the late summer, and rumored dates in the States in the fall. Not to mention a new album to be released sometime soon. It’s difficult to imagine how he can handle such a life at that age, but he’s clearly made of tougher stuff than most, and I guess it’s the life he knows.
I am grateful that he keeps on keepin’ on.
Unluckily, here in Seattle there seems to be no musical celebration of Bob going on tonight, so I am left to sit on my couch and contemplate, without the fellowship of “my people,” as David Kinney calls them in his new book titled The Dylanologists. These are individuals he describes in many ways, but for tonight, I think it will be sufficient to say, that these are individuals who didn’t need to be told through social media, that today is that day. 
If you follow.
For really, as Dylan himself addressed us from his website  a couple years back — when there was the little kerfuffle about whether the songs he was playing in China had been censored or preapproved by that government; when he felt a need to say that was a load of shit — he called us “my fans and followers.” It was surprising, I thought at the time, both that he spoke to us so directly, and that he called us “followers.” But let’s face it, he was right. I am both fan and follower. I follow his old music, I follow his new music, and sometimes I quite literally follow him from city to city on tour. I am fanatical about his art because it touches me deeply and has intersected with my life in incredible, mystical (I say without the least hesitation) ways.
But just because I follow, I don’t think that makes him a leader, and I am also pretty sure I am not a “Dylanologist.” Well, I can’t be I suppose; I didn’t make the book. Just as well. I don’t specialize in the study of Dylan or the science of Dylan.  I just live my life (school librarian, father, gardener, etc . . .) and he keeps showing up. When he shows up, with a new record or in my city or a city not too far away I go visit. It’s the least I can do.
I’d be willing to bet that most of “my people” are of a similar shade, some a little darker, some a bit lighter, some with more sparkle, others with finer hats. So I am really not sure about this whole “Dylanologist” thing. Who wants to be “ologized?”
I’m also not sure if this is a book review. I will say I enjoyed the book tremendously. I devoured it. As “a fan and follower” of Mr. Dylan, I am fascinated by these stories of other lives that have intersected so profoundly with his art. I am amazed by the different levels of meaning people have found, such as Scott Warmuth’s discoveries, and the various folks who found solace for hard times in some phase or another of Bob’s output. Kinney does a great job reporting on these folks.
But the book also made me feel kind of queasy and upset. For one, if these truly are “my people,” why are they pushing me so hard as we scurry to get to the rail? We are not truly close, “my people” and I. Unless we are squished there up front listening to Bob. It’s strange that way. I don’t actually know them, any more than I know Bob Dylan.  
When you first encounter personal meaning in Dylan’s music, when you first hear the bits that seem to apply so directly to your situation and your days, there is none of the self-awareness implicit in this tome. There is none of the meta-cognition of affect, there is only the affect. It’s disturbing to be analyzed so, and it’s ironic as hell that those who are supposedly “ologyzing” Dylan are being “ologyzed” in this book. And Mr. Kinney, who claims to be one of "us," seems to be watching me and taking notes. Hmmm . . .
To say it plainly. When I was a boy and Bob blew my head open — when I watched “Hard Rain” on my little black and white TV at sixteen, when I went to the Blackbushe festival at eighteen and discovered sex and real love, and even when I played “Time Out of Mind” a thousand times as a newly middle-aged man — I was not analyzing or collecting anything at all. I was living. I cared no more for those other two hundred thousand people at Blackbushe who came to see Dylan than I did about any random crowd of two hundred thousand you might pass by. But I cared very deeply about the woman I fell in love with there, the one who seemed to come out of a Dylan song. Love minus zero. Silver bracelets on her wrists.
I suppose, when I go to a show and I try to get close, so I can pay attention better, hear better, see better, I am studying Dylan. It’s true, I am trying to learn and understand. And now I write. But I am going to reject this “Dylanologist” thing. I think it simplifies something that is very complicated and very personal. Count me a fan and a follower, please. Happy Birthday, Bob.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Palm Leaf Shadows and Scattered Flowers: Bob Dylan in Hawaii


            Things Have Changed (Bob center stage)
            She Belongs To Me (Bob center stage with harp)
            Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Bob on piano)
            What Good Am I? (Bob center stage)
            Waiting For You (Bob on piano)
            Duquesne Whistle (Bob on piano)
            Pay In Blood (Bob center stage)
Tangled Up In Blue
(Bob center stage with harp then on piano on 4th verse)
            Love Sick (Bob center stage with harp)
            High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage)
            Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob center stage with harp)
            Early Roman Kings (Bob on piano)
Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage with harp)
Spirit On The Water (Bob on piano)
            Scarlet Town (Bob center stage)
            Soon After Midnight (Bob on piano)
            Long And Wasted Years (Bob center stage)
            All Along The Watchtower (Bob on piano)
            Blowin' In The Wind (Bob on piano)

            There you have it. The very nearly unchanging set list from spring, 2014, Japan and Hawaii. Bob singing what he wants to sing, singing with clarity and vehemence, pounding and caressing that piano. Blowing some very sweet harp. Nearly shouting some songs in his excitement. Two years ago in Missoula and Seattle I was desperate to hear a Tempest debut that never arrived. It’s easy to see in retrospect that he simply wasn’t ready. This year we get six songs and they are the best of the set. The rest is fine as well, impassioned and inspired, but the band and Bob somehow turn it up a notch for the newest material.
            It probably should go without saying that if a casual fan turns up at one of these shows hoping for some acoustic folk, there’s going to be a little cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately and predictably, it still happens. The fellow next to me in Honolulu left halfway through, and on the way out I overheard some blowhard saying, “He put no energy into that. I don’t think there’s a single person here leaving who thinks that was a good show . . . blah . . . blah ….”

        “They chirp and they chatter, what does it matter?
        They’re lying, they’re dying in their blood”

        “People see me all the time, I guess they just can’t remember how to act
        Their minds are filled with false ideas, images and distorted facts.”

              In contrast, anyone paying attention heard something spirited, fantastic, musically exciting, and often quite bleak. 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. The Man is at the center of it all, and while his own playing can be idiosyncratic in moments, his power is unquestionable. The turn of the millennium is very far away indeed, when you might find Sexton and Dylan and Campbell on a parallel 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 still a single organism, but 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 that are not just so, any pandering to the name of the town, or any indication that he is just playing around.
            Every move the band makes focuses on the poetry Dylan feels now and the particular way he chooses to musically highlight those images. Some might criticize the static set list of this tour, but looking back two years to the “Tempest” –less set in Seattle there were only three songs that we heard again this time. That’s remarkable. Obviously Bob has the depth to shift the songs constantly and only play amazing tunes, but it’s silly to look to a changing set list alone as a mark of quality. For now, the composer is sacrificing the matchless extent of his oeuvre for dedication to a particular, precise communication.
            “Tempest” is at the center. In an earlier post I discussed the overall themes of the album, and all of those ideas come forward in the live performance, but these renditions pretty much blow the recorded template out of the atmosphere. “Pay in Blood” is a song that illuminates Dylan’s current poetic moment, hearkens back to earlier concepts, and dispels any notion that Bob is sitting in the 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 aimed, not so much at the other, as at the ability of Everyman to live in the heart of evil while going about his business. At these shows in Maui and Honolulu, Dylan sang with vitriol about “another politician, pumping out the piss,” but he acknowledges, just as forcibly, that 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!" But the song seems to be asking a question: Who is listening? Who is listening to anything outside the chatter in their own skull?
            There are two general 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, a tornado in a laboratory. For the second, he sits on the edge of his piano stool, crooning his twisted love songs and leading a jam, such as on one of the few sixties era songs, “All Along the Watchtower,”  that takes its inspiration more from Miles Davis or some earlier bygone jazz than from Hendrix. The band plunks and beats and strums in skillful sympathy, sometimes transcendently, at other times a bit hapless before the madness of their leader.
            The most extraordinary example of the latter is a staple of the set over the last five years, “Spirit on the Water.” It is clearly a song Bob feels strongly about considering how regularly it has appeared amidst the changes. In Maui, Bob’s piano continually brought the tune to a point not far from incoherence, and a point not quite close enough to brilliance. In between his love rhymes, his runs on the keyboard and the rhythm section’s beats and the guitarists’ fills nearly added up to something sublime, but not quite. They nearly fell to mayhem, but not quite. In contrast, in Honolulu, the same improvisation, led of course by Dylan’s funky, off-key, soulful piano, gave that rare sense in music, that a veil had been pushed aside and another dimension revealed. We had the marriage of beauty and chaos and the love and the orgasm of that union. In my section in the fourth row, several people, including myself, actually leapt into the air in delight.  
            It’s not hard to see that anyone who came expecting a sing-along would be befuddled.
            “Duquesne Whistle,” as performed in the spring of 2014, is much better than the album version. It moves like the train should move, at a fast clip. Bob calls out the lyrics clearly as we rollick along on George Recile’s marvelous wheeling drumbeat.  It feels like Dylan has decided that if the train moves fast enough and he keeps shoveling in the coal, maybe the ride won’t ever need to end. Even as he sings about the end. Whereas the recorded version seems to drag ever so slightly, in a way that reminds you that this is a composition, in the current live version you are sitting in a boxcar on a warm day, your feet dangling out the open door as the fresh countryside rolls by. Simply joyous. You are more hobo than beggar. You are doomed to die, but you don’t care.
            Another piano standout, but not loose and jazzy at all, quite the opposite, is “Early Roman Kings.” This song just kills. Sure, the live rendition, same as the record, is a copy of a standard blues. But these boys can wind that up to high tension. And again, although the music is central, the music is there to serve the epicenter, and the epicenter is Dylan’s rage. I would say that this is one of the few angry songs that is purely directed outward at a societal ill, as opposed to a societal ill with a high degree of existential culpability. This is a song that says: there are some people out there who are seriously fucking it up for the rest of us.
            It’s a song that reminds us that we are living under the hill in “Scarlet Town.” I’ve written in an earlier post about this bleak update of “Desolation Row” and “Ain’t Talkin’.” This was the first live rendition I’ve heard, and if the album cut is a bummer, the performance version is suicidal. It’s a musical edition of “The Scream,” and who wants to look at that for very long? Here you look it square in the face for about five minutes and damn if it doesn’t haunt you.  
The previous day I was sitting in an awful little taco shop in Waikiki in search of a meal costing less than $40, while the two angry dudes behind the counter took a very long time to produce a fish taco that proved inedible. I spent that 20 minutes listening to some thumping bass and staring out at a young pauper on the corner, lolling and burning on a camp chair in the hot noon hour, his dog sleeping under an umbrella — the only evidence of love on that street. He crouched there, death in his eyes at twenty-five, while the high fashioned tourists, with their cute little hats, their human forms so glorified, strolled by. I knew I should buy him a taco but I was suffering myself under the weight of the tall buildings and I had no room to breathe. “In Scarlet Town, crying won’t do you no good.”  
Tell it, Bob, even when I don’t want to hear.
            Love. Pain. Love. Pain. In this set we travel between those poles until we are not sure if there is any difference. “Forgetful Heart,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Soon After Midnight” and the closer, “Long and Wasted Years.” The first and the last in this list delivered from the center, with a torch. The middle two at the piano, with  lilt and bluster. “Long and Wasted Years,” is another shocking performance, each line offered in a shout, rough and smooth at the same time, 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 emphasized, every line piling up, crashing toward 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!

Again with the crying, and the futility of such.
I know some will 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.
            In this set we get three that might be primarily called spirituals. Two songs close to the beginning, and one at the end. For “What Good am I?” Dylan stands center, declaiming, gently and clearly, while the band follows on tiptoes:
What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

I always thought he was speaking to a lover in this song, but tonight I don’t see that at all. I see that beggar again, the same one blowing me a kiss. The same one crouching at the gate of the taco place, sheltering his dog from the harsh sun instead of himself.

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

There he was, dying on the street in Scarlet Town. He knew his crying would do no good.

If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

Maybe help will come for that fellow and his dog. Maybe it will come too late. It won’t come from me. I shut myself off. My hands were tied. What Good am I?
            The next tune invoking his mortality and his maker is “Duquesne Whistle.” As mentioned above, the performance is rousing, a hand-clapper, and one that makes you feel that being on a train headed toward death might just be the same as a train headed home.
            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 that 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 classic or an anthem, but a comfort in hard times. He sings like he believes deeply in an answer, even if we can’t see it. Like he knows the questions are really hard, 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: there is an answer, and it’s not the nihilism of greed and power or the determinism of science. It’s a mystery but it’s out there in the wind. We might get a sense of it when our guard is down.
But you know, I’ve always been a child who wants to believe. It’s soon after midnight and I’ve got a date with a fairy queen. 

A few postscript band notes: I was talking to my wife on the phone in the Maui airport on Sunday when Donnie Herron walked by. My wife has since forgiven me for hanging up on her. I spoke to Donnie for a couple minutes before we were interrupted by Dylan’s sound guy, so I didn’t get a chance to ask any really fun questions. I did tell him that I’d seen the first set of shows he played with Bob back in ’05 in Seattle. I wasn’t very nervous because it was completely spontaneous. I asked him about the fiddle case he was carrying and he joked (I think) that it was an urn containing his grandmother, who had “always wanted to go to Hawaii.” I did get nervous a few minutes later when I noticed that the entire band, except Charlie Sexton (and Bob of course) were also in my waiting lounge. I thought they were all on my flight, so I made no effort to speak to the others, thinking I would have plenty of time and could be all cool and casual-like. To my dismay, it turned out they were on the following plane to Honolulu, as I noticed while boarding. So I hung around the baggage claim in Oahu for another chance. By that time I had conceived a lame idea to have them sign a small card advertising the Maui show that I had picked up. Indeed, they tromped on through 30 minutes later, and I spoke briefly with Tony Garnier and Stu Kimball, who were very kind, very gracious, and they signed my card. But by then all spontaneity and naturalness was long gone and I felt like a stalker. So I thanked them for their shows over the years and fled, losing any chance of a more substantial conversation. Funny thing is I could care less about autographs and managed to lose the card later anyway!
In any case, it was a cool happenstance overall, much like a year ago in Saint Paul when I walked into my hotel bar to see Sexton talking with Jakob Dylan. At that time I also raved incoherently with Charlie for a few minutes before running away. I also ran into him again this year by the stage door of the Maui show. I honestly was just walking by, not hanging out, and walking quickly even, when we nearly collided. We shook hands so that was nice. I don’t quite understand why I seem to bump into the band like this. Especially since I can only achieve minor conversation. Still, kind of fun. And nice to meet them and have the chance to express my thanks. 

AMERICAN FALL TOUR? Here’s hoping.