Once the sun’s set and the city streets have grown cold, long after I’ve burrowed deep under the covers and enshrouded myself within the shadows of online anonymity, I can maybe, just barely, muster the courage to admit the following: I saw Bob Dylan play the Beacon Theatre in 2005 and couldn’t place his final encore. At least, not until he moved into the second chorus. This in itself doesn’t seem so outrageous, as nobody can understand what the hell he’s been saying for a couple of decades now, but for the fact his final encore was ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ — which not only features one of the most famous couplets to kick off a song in the history of rock and roll, but also repeatedly showcases one of the most distinctive and confrontational refrains ever in the chorus. Rolling Stone ranked the song as the #1 greatest song ever, and rock historian Greil Marcus spent an entire book extolling the song’s significance. Yet at this particular show, Bob Dylan performed it, and I couldn’t recognize it until a couple of minutes in. For the first few minutes I gamely played along, as if I did, but once the realization hit, I felt like a big fat phony… a fake… a tourist amongst tourists (which is saying a lot if you’ve been to a Bob Dylan concert over the last decade). I had to remind myself that Bob Dylan live is a very different animal from the Bob Dylan I listen to at home. The reason why is one of the most misunderstood, yet respectable things I know about Bob Dylan today.
A lot of people over the years have said that Bob Dylan has contempt for his fans as much as he does the press. Popular logic draws from the following: 1) He doesn’t speak to the crowd. 2) He’s spent entire tours hiding behind an electric organ — at the back of the stage. 3) He plays set-lists that heavily feature newer material and otherwise favor deep cuts. 4) When he does play the classics, he renders them so unrecognizable that he practically nullifies their cultural importance or whatever personal significance the audience brings to bear. But complaint #4 is kind of the point. In terms of his aim or purpose onstage, he’s clearly stated “songs don’t come alive in a recording studio. You try your best, but there’s always something missing. What’s missing is a live audience.” So aside from a simple affirmation that music requires an audience, Dylan’s also saying that what helps his art endure, is something that exists not in the original work but rather in the space between (the artist and the listener). Which is pretty modest coming from a man who’s consistently a lock for any list that presents the most influential people of the 20th century. After reading his surprisingly accessible autobiography, Chronicles, I got the sense that Bob Dylan’s actually the most modest performer ever. Below are some great quotes from chapter 4 (‘Oh Mercy’):
It’s nice to be known as a legend, and people will pay to see one, but for most people, once is enough. You have to deliver the goods, not waste your time and everybody else’s. I hadn’t actually disappeared from the scene, but the road had narrowed, almost shut down and was supposed to be wide open.
It had become monotonous. My performances were an act, and the rituals were boring me. I’d see the people in the crowd and they’d look like cutouts from a shooting gallery, there was no connection to them – just subjects at random… My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore. There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent.
I had no feelings for any of those songs and didn’t know how I could sing them with any intent. A lot of them might have been only sung once anyway, the time that they’d been recorded. There were so many that I couldn’t tell which was which – I might even get the words to some mixed up with others. I needed sets of lyrics to understand what they were talking about, and when I saw the lyrics, especially to the older, more obscure songs, I couldn’t see how I could get this stuff off emotionally.
A few pages deeper in that chapter, Dylan describes a spiritual and musical awakening, that came in the form of a pair of epiphanies: one while watching an anonymous jazz trio perform in a small club, and one on stage, in Locarno, Switzerland, 1987, when for a brief moment he completely lost his voice. In these closely quartered experiences he discovered a new means of performing that helped him avoid “the repetition that makes even esteemed artists feel like frauds.” He describes the mathematics of his performances as such:
Something out of the ordinary had occurred and I became aware of a certain set of dynamic principles by which my performances could be transformed. By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm which would give my songs a brighter countenance, call them up from the grave – stretch out the stiffness in their bodies and straighten them out.
In a Sept. 7, 2006 Rolling Stone cover story, he explained to Jonathan Lethem more specifically what’s happening onstage, which seems to infuriate so much of the audience:
We do keep the structures intact to some degree. But the dynamics of the song itself might change from one given night to another because the mathematical process we use allows that. As far as I know, no one else out there plays like this. Today, yesterday and probably tomorrow. I don’t think you’ll hear what I do ever again. It took a while to find this thing. But then again, I believe that things are handed to you when you’re ready to make use of them. You wouldn’t recognize them unless you’d come through certain experiences. I’m a strong believer that each man has a destiny.”
I’ve heard it said, you’ve probably heard it said, that all the arrangements change night after night. Well, that’s a bunch of bullshit, they don’t know what they’re talkin’ about. The arrangements don’t change night after night. The rhythmic structures are different, that’s all. You can’t change the arrangement night after night – it’s impossible.”
I find this to be the most interesting thing about Bob Dylan today. While the quotes in ‘Chronicles’ clearly explain that he’s challenging his audience out of respect, in addition to his need to maintain relevance, it’s the explanation in Rolling Stone that describes exactly how he does this. There’s a difference between rhythm, meter, and the arrangement of the song itself. What we miss in these songs, as performed live, is the rhythmic structures that he’s changed, we miss what we’d otherwise call melody (vocal or instrumental). Melodies are what we latch onto in pop music, but that’s where the logic breaks down: Bob Dylan’s never been a pop artist. The Beatles were pop, and so their melodies are infectiously indelible. But Dylan’s music is steeped in folk and R&B, neither of which aspires to be especially hummable, and throughout his career he’s incorporated strong elements of Country Blues and Bluegrass, Gospel, Rockabilly, British Beat, etc. Sometimes music reviewers go even further, citing long-lost dialects like Appalacian Folk and Western Swing, which he’s definitely mined of late. In this regard Bob Dylan’s become the preeminent archivist of musical Americana, incorporating the regional accents that existed long before cheap travel, urban migration and mass media homogenized the country (this also explains why his last few albums sound like they could be played on a Victrola).
It’s been said that Bob Dylan writes songs that are meant to be covered by other artists. Bands like The Byrds rode his coattails into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton found some of their biggest and most enduring hits within Dylan’s catalogue. There’ve been plenty of compilations strictly devoted to Bob Dylan covers, from the 2007 soundtrack to ‘I’m Not There’, Todd Haynes’ series of ruminations on Dylan’s many incarnations, to last year’s ‘Chimes Of Freedom’, a massive compilation released to raise money for Amnesty International, which featured 75 artists covering and interpreting his music. On stage, Bob Dylan is essentially doing to his own songs what other artists have been doing for 45 years: covering them. Reinterpreting them. Giving them new context, so as to keep their meaning fresh and relevant. The point is that it’s always fun to hear your favorite songs with fresh ears, and any time another artist interprets those songs, you’re drawn closer to the music. For whatever reason, Dylan fans clamor over the covers but don’t want to give Bob himself that same leniency to present a new vision of old text. That’s ironic, and a bit unfortunate. I’m a pretty sentimental guy, and spend plenty of time and money on nostalgia. But the music of Bob Dylan is not where you go to find that nostalgia. Some day he’ll be gone, and all we’ll have is a deep catalogue of (35 studio albums and 458 songs and counting). There’ll be plenty of studio work to pore over, but what we’ll regret the most is that we didn’t appreciate the live performances. And we’ll come back to what he said in that Rolling Stone interview:
“No one else out there plays like this. Today, yesterday and probably tomorrow. I don’t think you’ll hear what I do ever again”
Bob Dylan: Respect.