A Modern Day Dylan Show

Bob Dylan & His Band, Credit Union 1 Arena at University of Illinois Chicago, Oct. 30, 2019

There was a time when a Dylan show was something to you went to to see the world stop on a dime, revolve like some kind of frozen fossil, there were several times throughout history where that’s what the effect was. His early days as a folksinger (he’s foresworn that term and many others, but we’re trying to communicate here, not taxonomize), his Judas concert, Rolling Thunder, even some of the Christian shows, those probably blew some minds, if just for the solid force of the music, the depth from which the songs arose, even if the depth was one he had to dig for, yet another mask to wear on the path back to total openness. All these phases must have been soul-rending for the people in attendance. [were they? dunno. I think, beyond my fanboy-ness, that they likely were, some of them. but I am a young man looking at something old and therefore can only conjecture.]

The Dylan show of today is not soul-rending unless you’re so obsessed that you’ve demented your filter, that you think non-great things are great just because they come from a source of former greatness. Is that a fair way to describe Dylan? A source of former greatness? Not entirely. The element that made him special, that stylish wrinkle, is alive and well. Sometimes you hear it when he twists a phrase just so.

“Lenny Bruce,” for whatever reason, he brought back into the set; to my mind, it’s a three-quarters-convincing elegy, written fifteen years after Bruce died. Kind of like “Roll On John,” from 2012’s Tempest, for John Lennon, the latency between the protagonist’s death and the song’s release makes you wonder whether the writer didn’t stumble into that grief, whether he’s contriving something from an old feeling, or from words in search of a feeling — you do get feeling from Dylan’s work, but it’s some kind of secondhand.

For whatever god damned reason, “Lenny Bruce” was the most tenderly sung song of the night. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” came close, as did “Girl From the North Country,” and “Early Roman Kings” shimmered with senility, the meaty rage of someone who’s too far gone to give a shit. But “Lenny” fucking “Bruce.” Why? Bob, why?

The quality of the song was high. He protected the melody and used his husky voice to the song’s advantage, he didn’t fight the song’s legacy with his own decrepitude — which is what he does with many of his classics, if we’re to give him the ultimate artistic benefit of the doubt, he tears his torn-up voice into “Like A Rolling Stone” to give further evidence that his stone is still rolling, away from what’s familiar and into what’s unknowable — perhaps because “Lenny Bruce” has practically no legacy, and no one was clamoring for it, performing it tenderly is, therefore, a kind of oblique affront to his overall legacy. “Lenny” fucking “Bruce.”

Every member of the audience wants to see him stroll out with an acoustic guitar and sing “Mr. Tambourine Man” from start to finish, the way he did in ’64. Everyone would be happy for him to sit at the piano and play “The Man in Me” like a gentle codger. If he dunked a few minor seventh chords into a rearranged “Tangled Up in Blue,” and maybe used the Real Live lyric sheet (which had several marked improvements) some of us might actually ejaculate. The closest thing we get to this unconscionable orgasm is “Lenny” fucking “Bruce,” sung with nearly all the tenderness of a grandfather. [bob is a grandfather, but we are not his grandchildren. we are his ghosts.]

Materially: The 2019 Dylan show was a 78-year-old man bopping around the stage like Little Richard at 40% speed. It was a man whose voice had been so gnarled by cigarettes and road-doggin it that unless you come prepared with a full mental libretto, you would not understand a word. It was a band that plays syrup-blues, counts around the notes or chugs them into the place where the blues become gold, the stage lit like a wintry living room, three mannequins dressed in formalwear standing at the back. A white marble bust of a woman front stage right. Dylan himself played mostly piano, specializing in three-note riffs that the band gathers around. It’s like the Dead if Jerry were geriatric. That’s what’s going on onstage.

Occasionally his voice does something that makes you remember how mobile it used to be. He did a particular thing, a couple-note embellishment at the end of a phrase in “Girl From the North Country,” that sounded like a habit he formed during the Christian tours. He’ll draw out a note or take advantage of that gravel-shovel-night-burial range to make an eerie line eerier. You can see these things if you’re a specialist, if you go into a Dylan show like into a conference, eager to see what the latest developments are, what sticks and what doesn’t.

The crowd eats it up. Completely — there are no doubt some backsliders in attendance who’d sworn they’d never come again, and then came, only to see this outrageous charade repeat itself. There are probably some people who’ve heard of Dylan and were expecting a wily-voiced lunatic to strum his six-string and blow his harmonica and belt out some incoherent gibberish. But mostly, the people there are acolytes, people who know what his shows are like and want to come anyway. The crowd approves of this demonstration rapturously, the crowd responds to his tenderness, and when, during “Early Roman Kings,” he growls, “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings,” they knew the line was coming, they knew it was in the fourth verse, and they applaud and hoot in agreement. [the person in the song is not dylan, but they respond as though it were, and no one’s the worse for it, except of course the judges of cosmic correctness who have to mark another infraction.]

Here’s the deal, folks. This was the first I’d seen him since 2014, when I was but a young lad of 21, down in Dublin where the water flows like beer. As a wizened 26-year-old this time, I found it was the show at which he was the most human, the least godlike. Dylan himself had not changed that much. His mission has been essentially the same, as remote and addictive (if you have the taste buds for it) as ever, since 1988 when all this 100-shows-a-year nonsense began. But I have changed from a pothead wannabe meaning-maker to a straight-edge (mostly) straight-shooter, or at very least my brain has finished its major development and my world has begun to settle around it. I see the symbolic action of the world perhaps more than the material action of it — I spend more time in the cerebra-verse than the universe. Dylan 2019, to this newly jaded visitor, looked like a man, who had figured something out about people and exploited it for more than half a century.

What did he figure out? That if you, the entertainer, can make the audience want your approval — and not the other way around, which is what most performers do, the Celine Dions of the world, the Bruce Springsteens, God bless em, they work for the audience’s approval, work like pack mules, do their damndest, to get the audience’s approval — if you can successfully invert that relationship, you’ll be set.

You’ll have em on a string. You’ll pull em close every so often to give em a taste, then you’ll send em a mile back with the memory of what once was. You disappeared, you didn’t walk away. They thought they were standing next to you, and then they weren’t. You’re a phantom, and you possess something they eventually need to get their hands on, their minds on.

It’s the most delightful kind of demagoguery. It’s harmless, because it’s not inciting political violence, it’s inciting logical violence — the triumph of the wit over the intellect. The intellect serves the wit, not the other way around. It’s a worldview: The intellect eventually reaches a place of world-dismemberment when it can’t dismember anything else, but it also hasn’t reached the final element. The atom is something, it’s something you can divide with your divine poetic scepter, but it’s not it. Some people reach that place and become Alex Jones, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton — not just politicians, CEOs and such, people who rise to the top by meting out approval at a pace that keeps their dependents both hungry and grateful, makes the world around them parched ash. That’s rueful demagoguery. Dylan’s is delightful, because all it does is make him wealthy, and us wealthy, life is stupid and his songs make stupid sound like a good damn deal.

He played for an hour and a half. I got out of there at 9:30 feeling very even, not swollen with the ghost of the prophet, not barren in its absence. I felt like I’d seen a man with a defensible thesis statement prove it without logic. Prove it, in a way that took no effort, because its source was the same as the one that determines the way he reaches for a doorknob. No amount of vocal degradation could tarnish the thing that he is. Tarnishing and being tarnished were both always part of the deal. The world will slowly tarnish you and you can either pump silicon into your face and titanium into your neck or keep tap-dancing while the tornado starts to lift your skin.

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