Seeing Bob Dylan and/or Divine Revelation
Two related theories about Bob Dylan, based on his November 19, 2001, show at Madison Square Garden.
Theory one: Bob Dylan wants to be Eric Clapton. When you go to an Eric Clapton show, you hope and expect that the songs are going to be mere launching pads for fiery solos and blistering improvisation. Might be brilliant, might be hackneyed and dull, might just not be to your taste. But if you go, it's what you expect. True, Clapton’s not quite a jamband, in that he has famous songs and rock star mystique and all of that. There's a classic-rock warhorse vibe when he cranks up Layla or even Cocaine. But Clapton's also not a greatest-hits act, where you pretty much are there to hear your favorites with the live-show magic that allows them to transcend their cliche.
Surely Dylan seems like he should be that kind of act. You go to hear Rainy Day Women, not see where Bob’s gonna take the solo on third go-round of a nameless blues-rock song. Right?
Not tonight. This time -- it was one of the "good" Dylan shows, thanksfully -- Dylan was all about the jam. He was taking solos (off Honest With Me, or Lonesome Day Blues, or Summer Days, all rockers off the new Love & Theft) into stratospheres worthy of Slowhand or any of his more recent disciples. Dylan's band has begun to coalesce, not just as an exceptionally tight Dylan and standards group, but as an improvisatory unit as well. The three guitarists (Dylan included) traded riffs, solos, short phrases; they picked up where others left off; facing each other, they seemed to be on the same page as only some musicians – but all great musicians – are able. So what are we to make of Dylan’s four-minute long exploration of Watchtower (the Jimi Hendrix, 4/4 version no less)? With the intentionally old fashioned (but classic, in the way the word used to be used before Led Zeppelin existed) lyrics and sonic structures on the album, with the pretty fuckin' cool soloing -- is Dylan trying to be Jerry Garcia?
It was a surprise, to me, to realize how many solos Dylan was actually performing – I seem to recall his playing mostly rhythm the time I saw him three years ago. This shouldn't be so shocking. Dylan proved on the acoustic albums which began his latter-day comeback, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, that he’s an outstanding technical musician. But somehow it surprises me every time I really see it. I sort of expect him to be barely there, stoned, grizzled, war-weary -- not launching off into intense blizzards of 1-4-5 rock & roll improvisation.
Maybe we just focus too much on the Voice. Dylan’s voice is so distinctive, so desperately far from standard measures of beauty – we tend to fixate on it. The guitar gets overshadowed. And of course, the voice is saying those words. Dylan sang Blowin’ in the Wind tonight like it was forty years ago. At first, I turned to my friend and wondered what relevance the song could possibly have anymore – it seemed like lame nostalgia. But then I remembered that the song has been on every September 11 compilation, and, despite the likely misunderstanding of the song's anti-war lyrics (I feel like it's the new Born in the USA, in a way), it has brought solace to millions of Americans. Dylan was actually singing his most recent hit. And of course the words, through it all and despite all the quotings and misappropriations, are beautiful.
But it would be a mistake to let the voice and the words drift away from the music, because Bob Dylan has long realized what great popular music is often all about – words of pain to beautiful music. That's what it is. Take Dylan's first encore, Things Have Changed, which despite having won an Oscar seemed to be unknown to the MSG crowd. Dylan sang words like
Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
with the desperation that makes them resonate through the interwoven guitar riffs and cool shuffle beat. The song spoke through the music, and the music found articulation in the words. It seems to me that a similar juxtaposition of sorrow and transcendence runs through all the best slow Beatles songs, animates the power of garage, and powered every good band of the grunge/rock revival of the 90s. The words may be about sorrow and desperation, but damn if you don’t want to get up and dance.
So maybe, in his old age, Dylan has started to let the music speak more and more. There were a couple of songs where the vocal delivery echoed some of the lean years (ooh, around 1979 to 1993 or so): the all-too-usual thrown away lines on Tangled up in Blue, the curt Just Like a Woman. I really wonder whether he mangles the vocal delivery on these songs on purpose, or whether he doesn’t think he can hit the notes. Tonight was rare in that Dylan really did sing out on the long open notes of Forever Young, Blowin’ in the Wind, and others. It was a treat. But there was a lot of chopped, up-note-ending lines that seemed to say ‘I don’t much care about this song anymore.’
Not so the music. Aside from a meager two-note harmonica solo on an otherwise beautiful Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright), Dylan rocked the harp, the electric and the acoustic guitar. And, to repeat, the solos were long. I felt I understood what the folks that put Dylan and the Dead together thought they were doing. (And why they were so disappointed in the result.) Dylan seems like he's in a different world from the Neil Youngs, Claptons, Allmans, et al – but why do we think that? He played out on almost every song, and in his recent fashion he seemed to be physically shaken around by the arrangements of the notes, gyrating and responding to each surprising turn of phrase.
This reading of Dylan helps inform Love and Theft, as well as his live performances since the beginning of the good new days. L&T has been called the Immortality album, in marked progression from Time out of Mind, the “Death” album. This isn’t a bad tagline – Love and Theft does seem to be searching for immortality in music, in revisiting these old styles of songs. “Summer days/summer nights are gone/But I know a place/Where there’s still something going on.” Dylan is in the autumn years, if not the winter. He knows it. But even though summer is over, there’s a light on somewhere, in the old juke joint where the band of journeymen know their tunes and earned their chops. They’ll give you a good time, and you’ll dance, and watch this geetar-man play his solos like Bird soaring, man he’ll play in a way that every note is dancing on his own grave.
In fact, Love and Theft is filled with songs that are just screaming to be played live. We heard a lot of the new album tonight – seven songs, in fact, from Tweedledee to Sugar Baby. Like the Dead and the zillions of contemporary jambands, Dylan seemed to be using the tunes as springboards for jamming. That explains Honest with Me, which on the album is a lame caricature of “arena-rock.” Tonight in the arena, it rocked the house. Summer Days felt altogether more confident live; the song jumped. Older material – Like a Rolling Stone, for example -- was good, and definitely pleased the nostalgia crowd, but in general it just wasn't as lively. You feel like he wrote these new songs just to have more fun jamming to them at shows.
Of course, these two strands are really the same strand. The album is about immortality in the music, and the music begs you to bring it to life on stage. Dylan’s charlatan-journeyman look (‘I sure can play, and I can entertain you, but I’m still a con-man too.’) isn’t an abandonment of Dylan’s search for truth. He just found out that the truth is up there on stage, under the lights, in those moments that make all the rest worthwhile.