Bob Dylan In The Bardo. The Brooklyn Rail, December 2019 – January 2020
Hard to sum up the Dylan show last week, but in short it was great, for all the reasons big music shows are usually not. It was layer upon layer of weirdness, a sense of dramatics somewhere between kabuki and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. It was definitely a performance, but it was also terribly real.
The show was emotionally exhausting. A lot of the time I had trouble even fathoming what I was seeing: that this is Dylan up there presenting all this amazing material, in 2019, in a manner that makes no concessions to anything other than his impulse in the moment. The way he moves around on stage is fascinating and unsettling; there’s a level of emotional and psychic threat. (I can’t believe he does this every night.)
The audience was great because they were very quiet, although I think 90% of them were quiet because they couldn’t figure out what they were seeing. Basically, 2,700 people are sitting in one place pretending what they are watching is normal, when it is anything but. It’s hard to explain, and if you are only listening to the concert audio you’re not going to get it—it’s entirely a live manifestation and it has practically nothing to do with entertainment, although it has everything to do with the music.
I hadn’t seen a show in two years—I skipped last tour because I’d seen a lot of shows and they are expensive so I took a year off. We are in a whole different place now—this is Dylan in the Bardo. The shows have gotten much more tenuous and ethereal and for the first time I realized that this is a very old person on stage. Bob’s youthfulness and vitality have always covered that up, but no longer. There are moments when he is center stage in the lights where you see a shaky and fragile side one never saw before. For the first time I got the sense that this isn’t going to go on forever.
Earlier in the day I’d been to see Brice Marden’s show of new paintings. At 81, he’s entered a late style, like Guston or de Kooning, where as soon as a gesture or impulse is realized, he moves on. Finesse is replaced with brusqueness and dispatch. It is slightly a dream space, tenuous and vague. Dylan seems to be in that place, urgently.
This is an artist who no matter what expectations you bring to him he will always confound. Now in my 45th year of Bob Dylan concert-going, by now I should have some perspective, but I don’t. All I know is the more you can set aside all opinions, associations, received ideas, etc., the better. This is no small task, since he is one of those artists, like William Burroughs, where you are not just encountering the person, but all of your projections of him. And like Burroughs he is very much a part of our collective consciousness (much of which he legitimately created), so it is hard to know where this artist ends and reality begins. Only by radically destroying what he has created does Dylan exist in the moment: It’s now or never, more than ever.
The show began with a Bernard Herrmann-style Hollywood soundtrack. Six musicians ambled on stage in no hurry. The stage was set with plush drapery, vintage spot lights, and a few department store mannequins set far in back, which, despite being obviously inanimate, somehow seemed quite real every time they caught one’s gaze. A few Plaster of Paris ancient Greek statues sat atop the banks of speakers on stage left and right, likewise silent witnesses, recalling the bust of Pallas in Poe’s Raven. Only this and nothing more.
A no-cell-phone policy is strictly enforced. At a lot of shows these days (Radiohead for instance) you simply cannot see the band because of the sea of recording devices. Even the fact of people quietly checking emails and messages is a big distraction in a dark theater, and it is a pleasure to be free of this nuisance for two hours. On the night I went most of the people around me seemed to be there for entertainment in the conventional sense, which I don’t blame them for, but it was marvelous watching the slow realization dawn on most of them that what was unfolding was not a product, and they were not permitted to escape from this realization. In this way Dylan met his audience on his own terms, and by the end of the evening won them over.
For me, going to see Dylan has always been like consulting the oracle. The set lists always seemed designed to tell you something about where you are in your life at the moment. It’s wise counsel, inspired. The rest is up to you. The set lists no longer vary wildly as they used to, they remain the same every night for much of the tour. This has made for much tighter shows, as Dylan and his band are now on the same page more often than not. Strangely this has not resulted in routine. The manner of a Dylan show seen over repeated evenings changes significantly in mood and character, depending on the artist, the crowd, and oneself. Compare Dylan’s shows to those of Paul McCartney’s and you’ll see two artists at the opposite poles of live performance, and you’ll understand the difference between enactment and entertainment.
Dylan began the show, as he has for many years now, with the song “Things Have Changed,” and its refrain: “I used to care but things have changed.” This is a pointed opener whose irony is not lost on those who recall Dylan’s folk concerts of the 1960s, which always opened with the ringing optimism of “The Times They Are a Changin’.” I’m not a particular fan of “Things Have Changed”—I’ve always thought it was the kind of song Dylan could write in his sleep, and the fact that it won an Academy Award for Best Song seems like one more case of Dylan being recognized for his legend, rather than for the work he has actually done. Consider that he did not even receive a nomination in 1973 for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” clearly one of the ten greatest songs ever written for the movies (especially considering where, when, and how it occurs in the film), and you’ll see my point.
The second song of the night was another anti-anthem “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” played in a stop/start rhythm that turned the song inside out, with stunning use of rubato in his vocal phrasing—borrowing time from one bar while giving it back in the next, without disrupting the overall rhythmic flow. It is in moments like this the listener is right there with the singer in the moment of creation. Not long before he died Robert Hunter said to me, “I don’t listen to Dylan for the words any more, I listen for the phrasing.” I’m still digesting that remark, but this performance brought me a little closer to it. But the words are what this is all about, and those who don’t have them memorized are at a disadvantage (so get to work folks). On the most basic level he is a poet delivering his writing, with music, on a public stage. My grandfather used to tell me about the thousands who would gather to hear poets like Edgar Guest, Robert Service, or Vachel Lindsay recite their works. Dylan continues that tradition.
This band is the best he’s had in many years and the change of drummer is a real good thing. Charlie Sexton’s playing is first rate, and I felt Bob was playing off him much of the night, the eye contact was pretty constant. If there are two things Dylan doesn’t get enough credit for in my view, it’s as melodist, and as bandleader. He’s created another remarkable band. The set list focuses heavily on Dylan’s work since Time Out of Mind (1997) which I consider the beginning of his late period, a place where lovers in the park are watched from afar, and a lot of people are having a good time but Dylan isn’t one of them. “Can’t Wait”—a magnificent song and always a tremendous performance with slowed down verses, stops, and echo thrown on the voice here and there—was delivered in a true funk groove, something we’ve never quite gotten from him before. A radically different arrangement of “Masterpiece” turned the song inside out. “Early Roman Kings” seems like it was written last week based on what’s happening in Washington DC. Straight out of Seutonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars, I honestly think Dylan is the only one who is meaningfully writing about the current predicament we are in.
When Dylan sings “My sense of humanity has gone down the drain” in “Not Dark Yet” one does not doubt him, and it’s a bleak admission coming from a poet who once so deeply touched humanity and the everyman. “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” added to the darkness and pathos. Yet there are still glimmers of redemption, albeit highly personal ones, such as “Pay in Blood,” a song no one else could have written: “The more I take the more I give / The more I die the more I live.” Dylan’s harp playing is now the one place where you get his energy undiminished so all the solos were exceptional.
Ending the show with “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” was brilliant, because it’s not remotely a show-ender, like “Watchtower” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” I got the sense that Bob was aware he might be winding down. It had a quality of valediction about it; “I came to tell everybody, but I could not get across.” (And yet on a subsequent evening I felt completely differently: all I saw was the fourteen-year-old at Hibbing High, wanting to be Little Richard, gleefully pounding it out on the piano.) When I left the theater at 10pm there was a vast caravan of trucks pulling the giant floats and deflated balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, a good two miles long, with full police escort. All the dragons and dinosaurs and Uncle Sam and Snoopy and the Jolly Green Giant, lay in pieces on flat bed trucks. It was quite a sight, like something out of Masked and Anonymous. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, when your train gets lost.