I’ve spent the better part of a week trying to come to grips with how I was going to write about Bob Dylan. Dylan is a difficult subject at the best of times, and far better writers than me have expended countless words attempting to wrap themselves around some aspect of Dylan, only to see it slip away into meaningless twaddle.
Well, here goes nothing.
The Lady and I went to see the man himself last Thursday at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. Billed as the Bob Dylan Show, Bob was preceded by a superb set from Amos Lee and a phenomenal set from Elvis Costello. Talk about warming up the crowd! We were all pretty stoked by the time the lights went down for Bob’s set.
I guess that was part of the problem. With two outstanding performances behind us, we were carrying high expectations that were disturbingly not met on so many levels.
Let be start out by saying that the Never Ending Tour is a well oiled machine that has become a little too slick and greasy for its own good. There’s an obvious carny thing going on here, from the hawking of merchandise to the intro music when Bob takes to the stage; whirling carnival music with a barker making the introduction over the PA system. Bob and the band pick up their instruments and begin to perform.
People have a soft spot for carnivals in their collective memory; usually associated with childhood. Being children, they don’t really see the darker side of it all, blinded as they are by the lights, clowns and cotton candy. As you get older, you begin to realize that no matter how much the barker works up the sideshow tent, you always feel a bit let down when you get in. Usually, it’s just not what it was cranked up to be. A degree of acceptance follows you out of the tent; when they ask, you tell your friends how cool it was. Who wants to come across as a rube? Besides, it’s the carnival and you don’t want to be a bummer about it. The carnival is counting on this attitude.
I really want to be enthusiastic about seeing Dylan. I’ve seen him so many times in the past, and I’ve enjoyed myself immensely most of the time. Oh, sure, he would have the occasional off night where things just didn’t come together, but you always sort of brushed that off and waited for the next show to come around.
But now I’m wondering if Dylan shouldn’t give it a rest.
His band is amazing. They always are; Dylan is Dylan, after all, and he can pick from the cream of the crop as far as musicians are concerned. When they tore into the first song, with Bob on electric guitar, you couldn’t help but be carried away; they were roaring into it, as tight as a band could be. It was encouraging to see Bob on guitar; one of the complaints I’ve heard of late is that he’s become a keyboardist (and he did switch to keyboards after the 3 song.). Which, quite frankly, is not how people see Dylan, or why they come to see him in the first place. I’ve come to accept it of late, so I was quite happy to see him pick up a guitar and tear into, well, something. Whatever it was, it was rocking out.
And then Bob started singing.
I once had a friend who told be that Dylan never sang a song the same way twice, because he didn’t want people singing along while he performed. It sure seems reasonable to me. Bob is nothing if not eclectic in performance, constantly reworking songs, music and his style and approach to them. People who count themselves as fans of Bob Dylan take the time to learn the songs and the lyrics, and I usually have no problem following him through a song.
This time, he was midway through the second verse before I realized that he was groaning out Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat, on of the more distinctive and recognizable songs in Dylan’s repertoire. And groaning he was. Or something. You really couldn’t call it singing. Making out individual words was nigh on impossible; his voice was a staccato monotone spitting out syllables like gravel against a sheet of galvanized steel.
His voice sounded completely shot. I don’t know whether it’s age catching up with him or what, but any trace of sweetness or nuance in that voice is long gone.
Don’t get me wrong; he can work this voice into certain songs with great effect. Bob snarled his way through a version of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall that was brutally potent, slamming you in the gut with the punch of a glass of moonshine. But it’s not a voice suited for a song like Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.
That’s the frustration of it all. Dylan is a mythical beast, and you screw with those at your own peril. Throughout the set, there were flashes of brilliance, where his voice happened to fit the material. The whole arena exploded as he went into Highway 61 Revisited, barking and blasting his way through that amazing piece of apocalyptic genius. Other times, the arena just sat there, this big question mark in a balloon hovering over us; a feeling of disorientation that seemed to fall over the crowd. Highway 61 was the ninth song in the set, and was followed up with Spirit On The Water. By this point a trickle of people were leaving. Midway through Stuck Inside of Mobile, With the Memphis Blues Again, the trickle became a rupture, as people began leaving in droves.
The next day, so people we know told us they left early; one couple had an early plane to catch. Another couple was tired from a long day. But it’s Dylan. A living legend performing. This is something that should energize you and make you want to stay until the arena people kick your ass out onto the curb. We’ve all been to shows like that, where you wouldn’t dream of leaving early, no matter what. People were blowing off Dylan left and right. You could feel something; not so much disappointment but something more subtle than that. Perhaps regret. Not regret for having come to see Dylan, but a regret of memory of a time when Dylan meant something else to you.
Bob Dylan has had an enormous impact on our culture of an order of magnitude that will keep musical historians busy for years to come. He is always larger than life, even when you’re sitting in the nosebleed seats of a huge stadium; his aura would always reach up there to you. He obviously still has the energy of a man half his age, and can still rock with the best of them, oft times surpassing anyone out there.
I fear, however, that he’s being subsumed by that carnival he runs, his voice ground down to an eventual hoarse whisper as he begins to fade into the dusk. I don’t want Bob Dylan to become a sideshow attraction that people walk by, while exclaiming in hushed voices, “Remember when?”
(crossposted at Daily Pundit)