Our ceiling tonight is high and vaulted with spotlights. Inside the spotlights, shapes tumble and bloom and dissolve--cigarette smoke made pretty, the sort of pretty you might have thought majestic and cool and profound once, in college perhaps, studying a natural phenomenon like “cigarette smoke, in beams of light” with the self-consciousness of an artist with a camera. Everyone is standing, bunched, crowded, shoulder to shoulder. In front of me, two couples: one teenaged, one soft middle-aged. The teenaged couple won’t stop talking and smoking. The middle-aged couple won’t stop fondling each other. Hands in each other’s ass pockets. Swaying to the music, singing, canoodling. I am distracted. But the man on stage is grunting, spitting from the gut, and it is all very persuasive. At the moment I am aware of deep meaning.
“High water everywhere . . .”
Everyone knows this lyric, the one lyric the audience grunts in sympathetic reply when the kick drum and ride cymbal finish their boom-boom . . . pause . . . boom. The surrounding music--early-American R&B, I’m guessing--that this man makes with his five-piece band is flawless, expert. Like Booker T and the MG’s. It is a rolling thunder mix of backwater blues and slick amplified guitars that lean so hard into the treble clef you want to close your eyes and clap, clap it down, clap it away. Yes, you want to absorb the music, but there is much, much more at stake with this particular performer. Nowhere have I thought more about the meaning of it all.
“You’re a prophet!” someone shouts.
“Thank you!” Then another. “Thank you, Bob!”
The Bob is Bob Dylan. It is April 2004 and Bob is sixty-three years old. He is very thin, with a very thin moustache--Slim Whitmanesque--and a cowboy hat and jacket that would look smart onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. In a few weeks the moustache and gaunt figure will turn up on television in advertisements for women’s lingerie in this very outfit. He will have never looked older.
Watching him in the flesh right now is like entering memory, but a peculiarly detached one, and, for anyone born after 1965, very much like observing the rituals of a departed generation. To stand at this concert is to pay respect to tradition, to living history and to a particular brand of coolness that Dylan embodies for people who grew up not liking him, not really, but nonetheless aware of what he was supposed to be all about. The man was an idea. Bob Dylan had his own sort of meaning even before he made any sense.
The middle-aged couple stops swaying and the husband looks down on the teenaged couple, who have yet to shut up. (They are very excited about being here, seeing Dylan. Their parents dig Dylan. Everyone does. Dylan is awesome.) The husband narrows his eyes--the smoke is bothering him, it seems. Perhaps he is disdainful of the idea that teenagers can appreciate, can even begin to fathom, what this man means. What he was and what he still is. Dylan is now seven songs into a show that started punctually at 9:30 and will be finished by 11 sharp. My companion checks his watch. This is the earliest rock show we’ve ever attended. The performer is an old man, after all. He wants to be resting and in bed at a reasonable hour. Over on the merchandise table are T-shirts with this strange, exploding eye--an Egyptian eye, like the one on the back of the American dollar bill--that was painted onto the stage curtains before the show started. It’s creepy, just looking, watching us.
I turn to my left. “Why did you come out tonight?” I ask the person next to me, a twenty-four-year-old man who does not seem to be enjoying the show as much as the middle-aged couple but nonetheless won’t show disrespect like the teenagers. “Well, you know,” he says, as if the answer is obvious. “It’s him.”
Standing and watching Bob Dylan perform in concert is akin to going to church after a long spell of not attending. Church of an ordinary, middle-American sort. There is no conversion, no dizzy-with-the-spirit testifying. Quite the opposite. The feeling I’m trying to articulate belongs to someone who only goes to church on Easter and Christmas. You observe, you take in, you remember. Here you are, regarding the experience with an amazing amount of self-awareness. The atmosphere is familiar. There is a presence, a warmth, maybe a nostalgia. But most importantly there is a kind of faith that the experience will live up to an image or a long-held standard, and if you believe that the man right there, the skinny old man playing the electric piano is really that guy--just like the Christmas churchgoer who believes that the baby in the barn might, at any time, really be that guy--then the performance has done its job. Here you are. And there he is! Bob Dylan, so alive and so thin, distracted, clapping to music that he has played for years; he doesn’t care who made it, who wrote it, he’s just playing. Right there. Am I compelled to feel something specific?
I have never known a world without Bob Dylan. By the time I was born, he had been washed up seven or eight times. In 1970 he was wearing a leather vest with fringe and living in Nashville and recording Self Portrait, an album of other songwriters’ material that was upon its release generally crapped on by critics who said it was trivial . . . these were critics who had, in fact, known a world without Bob Dylan. They remembered popular music before him, felt his presence when he first appeared, felt how he altered the game. A protest singer, a folkie, an acoustic player, a strange skinny Jewish kid from Minnesota with a frightening eloquence and enough Beat imagery to scare girls and old people, which he did. They endured his conversion to electrified chords and music for squares. They marvelled at the “Royal Albert Hall” concert and the stuff with The Band and his talent for not caring. Critics took no notice of my birth--May 7, 1972--and neither did Dylan, because he was off recording music for and acting in a Sam Peckinpah movie about Billy the Kid. Then Blood On The Tracks. Then gospel records. Then performing with white powder on his face. Then more crap. Whatever he had been in 1965 was finished and tucked away, like a track record no one could break. And then there was the long phase of simply being the caricature, a frizzy-haired old musician--he was old when I was eight--whom anyone could imitate.
Now the kids who only knew him as a whiner, or as an ugly old guy their parents liked, have grown up. They have passed through college, hung out with a few girls who dug Dylan, or who dug the imagery and characters--sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, Napoleon in rags, the brother on the farm who won’t work no more--that felt like characters out of old myths (Bible stories from a blasphemous Bible); they have listened to and partly understood these stories a little too vivid to make literal sense. And now they are watching the old guy perform “High Water” and repeating that phrase, over and over.
But tonight, in performance, Dylan provides none of this. Instead it’s the band, the music, of all things. And it’s not the same Bob Dylan. Have you ever heard “Amazing Grace” come out of an inner-city church? The Grace United Methodist Church on Waterman Avenue, right off the St. Louis Loop, plays a load of gospel, and that gospel is electric, with organs and drums and guitars that sound like handclaps keeping time. “Amazing Grace” gets a beat at this church. This is what Dylan’s band does, what he has apparently asked them to do: get low, get loud.
One of his earliest, most recognizable folk songs is “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”--the one about the black maid killed by a socialite named William Zanzinger--but whatever power the original had in its spare, scratchy acoustic form, the original protest of one man with one voice, is gone. Dylan has turned it into a swing blues in 3/4 time. It’s this alteration that brings churches to mind, because Dylan’s music has always felt like a collection of hymns. But tonight, when the lyrics of this particular hymn are pressed into the background, when the music itself is old style, soothing, almost reassuring, the protest is not only muted, it’s moulted into something else. Grown up. Or more appropriately, aged into retirement, with all the perspective and weariness that implies.
It is only when he--Bob Dylan! Right there!--picks up his harmonica and blows through it that the audience time-travels, even a bit, back to the original protest singer. The sound is a preacher’s sermon, connecting like a current to a church full of people on Sunday.
Not to belabour the church metaphor, but honestly--it’s like staring into the history of an institution. The institution in this case is rock ’n’ roll (who uses that phrase anymore?), but the institution of the church creates a similar feeling; it makes attendees wonder if they’re staring at an oft-repeated ritual, a service, a performance that originated in a foreign tongue, in an old world no one really remembers. But if you believe--and what exactly you should believe is unclear--then the experience means something quite different.
I once planned a road trip across Nebraska with three things: the journals of Lewis and Clark, the Roadside Guide to Nebraska and a tape of Dylan’s three-volume box set, Biograph. I could not get lost, I thought, not with these. What strikes me now, remembering the trip, is how much I wanted to believe those things would actually help me, broaden the experience, provide an emotional tool to enter the landscape, enter the dramatic skies, preserve and deepen the humming of tires on a county road, the stopping of time. I should have brought along William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience; then I might have understood what I was asking those three things to do: keep me safe and ward off evil.
Dave Eggers said this not long ago, that Dylan’s music, especially the early music, which everybody can rally behind, can ward off evil. Listen to his acoustic work and its strange deadpan honesty reveals--there is no other word--its goodness. His is an original text, pure because we sometimes believe it to be pure, the sound of old virtue and probity and righteous anger and Blake’s notion of beauty and music--folk-level music, a guy making some fingering mistakes on a crap guitar and singing even though he can’t sing (Barry Hannah said that Dylan has the desperation of not being able to sing, which is always better than Glenn Campbell, who can sing)--and it’s all an embodiment of what is good about popular music. Just the song titles: “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Dylan is on stage intoning these words, this ancient text. The words can ward off evil. Like I said, if you believe they can, then they do.
Tonight, a bunch of very old hymns are played by the man who wrote them, decades and decades ago, and they are listened to by the audience as if we’re hearing not karaoke, not nostalgia, not Vegas, not a lounge act and (sadly) not even a crack rhythm and blues band pounding out a really cool groove. We’re not time-travelling, either, which is a shame, because we who grew up after Dylan appeared and made his mark realize we’ll never really know what it was like. We are only here because of what we’ve heard about him. “High Water” ends; the applause is warm and grateful. The next song sounds very much like the last one. People seem to appreciate it anyway. I wonder why. I wonder what they expected.
For a final example: church requires silence. A moment of recognition between the institution and the faithful--I should say hopeful--that acknowledges the great and unreasonable work of belief, acknowledges that what both entities are doing is trying to enact belief in something greater, some current of history and memory that still lives.
At the end of the night, Dylan took his bow without bowing. He and the band left their instruments, and then stood before the applauding crowd. Cries of “Thank you, Bob” and “Dylan” and requests for “Rainy Day Women” rang out like Amens. Dylan stood silent before the audience for a whole minute, observing all, giving up a moment of silent recognition. Then he left. The curtains again covered the backdrop, and the strange exploding eye appeared in the place where Dylan had just stood.
“What did you think?” I asked the guy next to me. With the house lights up, he looked older than twenty-four. “Well . . . ,” he started, and I tuned him out.
Instead I was thinking how much work it takes to believe in something. And how good Dylan’s band was, how new and sharp the music sounded. And what that music must have sounded like in the original.
To be continued . . .
The Score appears every second Monday.