I must be getting predictable. After a few tweets from the Bob Dylan concert at the Greek theater in Berkeley last night, an astute commenter on my previous blog entry here asks, "Does this mean we're getting a blog about it tomorrow?" Well, yes. Dangit. I need to work on my element of surprise around here. [EDITOR'S NOTE: DUE TO TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES (LAZINESS), THIS BLOG POST IS NOW APPEARING ON TUESDAY, RATHER THAN SUNDAY.]
I never want to write about Bob Dylan on this blog, despite the fact that, more than anyone I would consider giving this label to, I would consider him my "hero." That may be why I don't want to write about him. I don't want to diminish, or jinx, the topic. It's a very personal one for me--just as often happens between an artist and fan--which I don't mean in a fawning, worshippy way (honest), but just in a "words can't do it justice" way. Also, Bob Dylan doesn't need my praise or defense. My feeling about Bob Dylan is that if you say you don't like him, or don't get him, then you're not trying hard enough. Or you've heard the wrong stuff. Or your preconceived notions don't match with the truth.
This is not the Bob Dylan you get anymore.
For example, on this latter point: When I say I went to the Bob Dylan concert last night, how many of you already have the image in your head of some old folkie hippy doing boring old folk songs on an acoustic guitar? This is not reality. Reality, as regular Dylanites know, is that Bob Dylan has for many years now been touring with a great, *really loud,* kick-ass band that delivers an unexpectedly tough, angular, rockabilly-blues-country swing set night after night, with pretty much no concession towards meeting audience expectation or fan service. Meaning: After he wallops you over the head with two loud, rocking numbers you don't recognize, he is not going to do the standard concert thang of throwing you a bone with some lovely, acoustic version of one of his (many) classics. It's just not what he and his band are doing these days. What they are doing is a barn-burning road show, a lesson in How To Rock by a bunch of grizzled veterans, with a leader now so comfortable in his own skin, and with his own legacy (at last!) that he actually, finally, looks like he's having fun up there.
Here's who you get now: Vincent Price meets John Waters. And look how happy he looks.
And that was the big deal about Saturday's show. I've seen Dylan numerous times now--maybe 8 or 9? Some of the shows, especially when I first started attending in the 80s, were dismal. And probably more what you might think: Depressing, rote sets by a 60s burnout going through the motions. The amazing thing, when you read his recent, revelatory autobiography, is that Dylan totally, painfully knew that about himself at the time. In fact, at his rejuvenated, inspired concerts now--after he got his shit together again--the offstage voice that announces him to the stage, reciting his decades-long history, makes fun of this era for all to hear.
But even in Dylan's return to form of the last decade, the live shows can be a crap shoot, and require even the biggest of fans (like me) to adjust your thinking and expectations. The guy's voice is shot. It just is. It's a fragile, creaky, broken rasp, allowing him only to bark or whisper out phrases he used to make soar. If you never liked his voice when he could sing, then forget it now. Depending on the night you see him, he may or may not even play guitar, instead sticking behind his keyboard. And then there's the song list, which, like Springsteen, or the Dead, he varies every night, digging deep into his ginormous catalog, sometimes pulling out totally beloved gems, but other times super obscure, odd choices that are guaranteed only to please only a tiny subset of any given audience.
Saturday's show featured the fewest songs I recognized than any Dylan show I've been to, but it was easily in the top 3 I've seen. I read some fan comments on the SF Chronicle's web site, and you can tell the people who haven't seen Dylan either ever or in 10-20 years, because they were utterly disappointed and flabbergasted. Why so loud? What the fuck were these songs? Where was "Blowin' in the Wind?" But for me, and I know, too, for all the ecstatic, hardcore fans around me up in the front (the guy behind me was wielding the previous night's setlist from Portland, for comparison's sake), we knew we were seeing something special. Dylan was in rare form. Easily, by far, the happiest and most playful I've ever seen him live. I don't know if it's because legendary guitarist Charlie Sexton has just rejoined the band, or if this is a new happy phase for him, or if maybe he took an extra dose of antidepressants or something, but, whatever the case, what we got Saturday night was Dylan the song-and-dance man, getting out from behind that damn keyboard at last for some outstanding, confident guitar and harmonica, and even occasionally indulging in some slightly spazzy, cheesy rock star moves that delighted everyone--including his own band--simply because he was doing it. Make no mistake, Dylan is no Freddie Mercury or Springsteen or, well, ANY musician who makes his showmanship and connection with the crowd part of his act. I don't think he said anything to us other than "Thank you!" the entire night. So it's all relative. But if you're used to seeing him live, you knew this was different. You knew what you were seeing was a Bob Dylan who was as happy to be himself, to be playing music at age 68, as we were. It's a subtlety no doubt lost on those not familiar with him, or his live show, and so, yeah, I can see why those with certain expectations would have been lost, or disappointed. But for the rest of us, it was just a great night, and an inspiring one, and one of the reasons he remains my hero: Because he never gives up, never tells himself he's "too old," never stops challenging himself.
Yeah, I know. You hate Dylan. Or you never got him. Or his voice is too annoying. I've heard all that before. But like I said at the start of this post, that just means you haven't tried hard enough. Sometimes the best artists, in any medium, require a bit of work on your part. You have to read the book twice, you have to spend an hour staring at the painting (along with some expert's analysis), you have to take a whole freakin' class, just to see what you were missing. But when you get there, it can change your life. It can expand your mind. It can soothe your soul. I've already overstayed my welcome with this post, so I'll move on. A post about Dylan the poet and lyricist would require boring you for much, much longer. So let me just list, for those of you who care, or might ask, or are willing to take the plunge, the absolute must-have Dylan albums, just for starters. Any order will suffice, though I will say that if it's break-up/brokenhearted/woe-is-me music you like, then get Blood on the Tracks first--the best break-up music of all time.
1. Bringing It All Back Home
2. Highway 61 Revisited
3. Blonde on Blonde
4. Blood on the Tracks
Enjoy your discovery.