Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Bob Dylan Post.

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.


Gary A. Lucero said...

I like Dylan just fine, but to the point: The same sorts of things can be said of Neil Young. You either get him or you don't.

Neither of these guys needs our adoration but they appreciate us as fans. More importantly, we need them (well, me NY, you BD) and look expectantly to their next creative effort.

Macroe said...

First and foremost, happy belated birthday Mr. Green!

Was this your birthday gift or were you also introducing Dylan to your kid? As a parent, have you been able to have her share your appreciation for his music?

baxterpunch said...

Shel Silverstein's commentary on Bob Dylan - It's, uh, pretty dang harsh.

Unknown said...

Great post, Jeff. I've seen Dylan eight times since 2002 and may catch another show soon. I'm very excited that Charlie Sexton is back in the band -- I haven't seen him since my first show, which was before Dylan was playing keyboard at all.

It's a shame what has happened to Bob's voice in the past 20 years; I love pretty much all of his singing before that. But the reason I keep going to his shows is exactly what you pointed out -- these aren't nostalgia concerts. Bob isn't going to play your five favorite songs. Instead, he's going to put on a rowdy, unpredictable concert in which he and the band create spontaneous music. Very few musicians can still be creative after five decades, especially not with the musical baggage that Dylan carries.

Ian Jacobson said...

will you be enjoying his new Christmas album?

Ken in Irvine said...

Jeff, I am glad that you enjoyed Dylan's show. That being said, I think it is pretty arrogant to assume that people who do not agree with your opinion of Dylan are "not trying hard enough". Not arrogant in a nasty way...just arrogant in a "Berkeley" way. ;)

conrad said...

haha, spoken like a true game designer. "You didn't play the game the right way! It's your fault you don't like it."

*End Griefing*

I don't mind Dylan, but I guess I never understood why he was so popular originally.

Jeff Green said...

Re arrogance:

Oh, I'm just having fun on my blog, you people. I don't actually mean you're WRONG. Well, maybe I do. Anyway, you're free not to like him. I won't ban you. :)

Big Swifty said...

Your thoughts about Dylan echo my feelings about Frank Zappa. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to see FZ create music on stage in over 20 years. I'm glad you got to see Dylan again and hopefully there is at least one more Dylan show in your future.

Milkman said...

Dylan is the wife's favorite musician in the world. Does he do the post-show CD thing, where you can get a copy of the show you just watched perchance? Trying to find him a unique gift.

Milkman said...

Oops, I meant the wife's father's favorite musician in the whole wide world.

Polkamaniac said...

I bought Highway 61 Revisited two years ago; never listened to any of his stuff before. Last year I found it stuffed in some deranged part of my car and I finally listened to it.

The problem now is that I like it so much, everything else he did is sure to be a letdown by comparison. Maybe I should have started by listening to a really bad album and working my way up.

Unknown said...

My favorite Dylan song: Mr. Tambourine Man.

Seriously, for those who don't get Dylan, just listen to that song.

Pure poetry.

GeekyDad said...

Meh...I don't hate Dylan; I just always preferred hearing The Dead doing Dylan over Dylan doing Dylan. :P

But I'm a trained jazz guitarist, so technique has always had great appeal for me. I still cherish his tunes...many of them, anyway. Of all the things that I think distance me from that type of fandom you seem to feel, though, is probably just his persona. Seems like a guy I'd have a good time with over beers (if I drank), though not someone who necessarily inspires me when I listen to him perform.

Jonathan Crossley said...

I would have never considered myself a huge Dylan fan, but seeing him live last Sunday has made me a convert. I was about 5 feet from the stage at the Greek, and for not expecting much, it turned out to be an incredible show. Singing along to Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were amazing moments, and just seeing how his music can impact people of different generations was a wonderful revelation. My group of 17 year old friends struck up great conversations with a 72 year old grandma, a 42 year old dad, and a 20 year old french exchange student.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, are you specifically listening to the Magic Couple (Amadou et Mariam) compilation? or some older stuff?

Anonymous said...

Well, I was a big Bob Dylan fan when I was in high school - but I was pretty much alone in that.

I started the eighth grade in 1980 and graduated in 85, so most of my peers were listening to Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Bryan Adams (huge in Vancouver during the early 1980's).

The two Dylan albums I listened to the most (at the time) were Blood On The Tracks and Infidels. "Sweetheart Like You" from Infidels was a great song, although to this day I have no idea what the thing was supposed to be about?

Actually, now that I think about it, that's true for most of the Dylan songs I like - what's 'Queen Jane Approximately' about? Or 'Farewell Angelina' - I like the lyrics there, but what the hell's all that nonsense about the Jacks and The Queens forsaking the courtyard, and fifty-two gypsies filing past the guard? It's a first-class mystery?

The one song I do get is 'Idiot Wind' - while in high school, anytime I got angry with one of my friends, male or female, I would play that song on my Walkman, and go outside and pace the meadows with a heavy tread.

But clearly the best song that Dylan has written as an older person is Mississippi, the song he wrote for Cheryl Crow. My god that is a brilliant song - "Well my ship's been split to splinters, and it's sinking fast, I'm drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past. But my heat is not weary... it's light and it's free... I've got nothing but affection for all those who've sailed with me."


The Goose.

Anonymous said...

Hey, there's a mondegreen in my post.

I meant to write '... my heart is not weary...' - not '... my heat is not weary...'

Yeah, well don't go out tonight, because it's bound to take your life... there's a bathroom on the right.

Peter Saumur said...

There's always his Christmas album.

The Omega Man said...

I agree with you 100%, I saw Bob Dylan in concert last year here in Montreal and I was pleasantly surprised of how good and loud the concert was. The guy just reinvented himself and with pretty good new songs I may say.

Matthew Layman said...

I'm a young man, only 23, but I've been digging on my parent's generation of bands and musicians as of late.

I grew up on Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, NIN, etc. While at the time of my adolescents I thought these bands fairly represented my generation; they now only seem to represent the idea of teen angst. With each subsequent generation being able to relate to their music just as I did when I was a teenager.

This is where I feel the music of my parents youth really differs from my own. There is a maturity imbued in the the song's of Dylan. Some music is said to be a product of it's time, and that has always been a point of contingency with Dylan's music.

Time, as you mentioned, is the key to appreciating anything beneath a superficial value (i.e. Dylan's raspy voice). Time may very well be the point of contingency, but it is not time within the context of Dylan's career. It is instead the time we take to find, maybe only one thing, that makes us completely disregard the concept of said time.

Tristessa said...

I adore 'Bringing It All Back Home'. Many Dylan fans scoff when I say it's the finest work he he's done. From front to back there isn't a second where I'm not entranced by the guy's talent. Then I like to follow it up by listening to Fairport Convention's 'Unhalfbricking'.

The last two Dylan albums are pretty awesome. I like 'Modern Times' a lot more than 'Together Through Life'. It might be because I don't listen to the newer one as much - when the desire to hear recent Dylan creeps up, the tendency is to grab 'Modern Times', since I like it so much.

Jeff Green said...

Goose: Mississippi is my favorite song of his of the past 10 years, at least.

Tristessa: Yeah, I adore that album. I almost included the full lyrics of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" in this post, since that was one of the first songs of his that made me worship him, but then realized I'd need another 10,000 words to discuss his lyrics....

And yeah, I'd rate Together Through Life maybe a half or one star lower than the last few, but still glad I own it! For whatever reason, that one sounds best in the car to me...

winkie said...

Jeff, this is neither here nor there but for whatever reason you remind me of my High School Digital Arts teacher in your writing.

Also I'm seeing the Dirty Projectors and the reunited Pixies in the span of two weeks, is this awesome y/n?

Bob Branman said...

I'll agree that "Mississippi" is my favorite of the last ten years. I love the alternate take on "Tell-
Tale Signs."

ArcliteHawaii said...

Dad is a huge Dylan fan. So I grew up listening to him. And his comments on the new album basically echo yours. He says the new band is great, and the music is fantastic.

Dylan's 60's & 70's songs were absolutely great folk tunes. I can play a bunch on guitar (they're simple), and the songs are both lyrical and thought-provoking. Hendrix covered Dylan. That says it all right there. (Gotta love that the BSG guys used All Along the Watchtower at the end of Season 3)

Favorite song: Tangled Up In Blue. I just love the narrative of that song. And it's such an American song.

@ baxterbunch Ouch. BTW, speaking of Shel Silverstein, if you have young kids, get his books: Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk ends, etc. My daughter got them a few months ago and has already read through them three times. At bedtime, that's all she'll request anymore. Absolutely the best children's poetry available.

@ Matthew. Well said.

Isaiah said...

Unfortunately, I'm one of those twenty-somethings that don't really dig Dylan. I've even resorted to reading his lyrics [which, for the most part, I like], because his voice is an acquired taste in my eyes.

Keep in mind this is coming from a bboy who was raised off of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and the hiphop genre which was birthed from the funk and jazz era.

I did my girlfriend a solid a couple years back and listened to every single damn Dylan album within a week, just so when she wanted to argue about his greatness...I could have an educated opinion. Really wish I could get that week back.

Cliff said...

Jeff your blogs are works of art. I wonder if EA would not mind if you wrote for a mag on the side. Great stuff.

TheDeviot said...

Well there's no question Dylan will forever be a musical icon. That said, I think it's not so much I don't get him as much as his tunes aren't really for me. I am glad to see that he never went away though.

It does bring up a question though Jeff. What do you think of his kid's tunes?

Anonymous said...

This was the first of your long-ass posts that I bothered to read, and it was great. I'm not even that into Dylan.

Thank you for validating your spot in my RSS feed routine.

ScrambledGregs said...

I saw Dylan with my Dad two years ago at the local zoo amphitheater and it was an amazing show. Reading this post brought that experience back to me, and how cool it was to share with my Dad.

I think it's easy for people my age (I'm 25) to overlook how much of a sense of humor and general levity Dylan actually had and has. All we mostly get is a focus on his 60s social commentary stuff...which is kind of a shame, and something that probably leads a lot of younger people to dismiss him.

That said, I've met people who genuinely dislike the Beatles, which is something that baffles me to this day. It's like someone telling you they don't really like this whole "food" thing.

Kevin Elgar said...

Who doesn't love "The Times They Are A-Changing" Watchmen intro? Tracking down albums from a oldie sounds like I just may have to drop one of my classes to thoroughly listen to them!

But I'll admit, I'd forgotten about Dylan, and will try and listen to a few songs tomorrow. Also, I've gotten that I look like him before.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts about Tropico 3 - I played the demo and found it to be rather taxing on my high-end system. Nor was I too fond of the camera, which I found incredibly difficult to work. Hopefully the game will be better than the demo, but the demo turned me off, meaning I won't be buying this game unless hordes of the great unwashed start singing its praises.

I bought Majesty 2 based on the strength of the demo but I've hardly touched it - too many great games, and not enough time.

I'm still hooked on Elven Legacy, which is basically Fantasy General updated. Just yesterday, some DLC was released for Eleven Legacy, called Elven Legacy: Ranger. Essentially, with 16 brand new missions, spread across 1 campaign, Ranger is a new game, with a new narrative as well (in these games, the central characters actually communicate with one another via spoken dialogue - a neat idea that works really well... not in a million years would I ever have thought of doing that).

You should blog more about gaming, Jeff. We really miss reading your stuff. (I now buy every issue of PC Gamer - most of the stuff in it I've already read about, but I just like reading a physical publication, though I have no idea why.)

Unknown said...

Been listening to Before the Flood and Nashville Skyline a lot lately. There's a lot of good stuff in the 'middle-Dylan' period. Before the 80's. Before 'Saved'. *shudders*