Before you comment on this post, please read the follow-up post “Genius, Guitars, and Goodbyes” — what you wanted to say may already be said there.
So, I broke the promise-to-self, to let Dylan tour on his own, without my help. I decided, after the last Scandinavian tour, that this was it; the shows were decent enough, but nothing more. I hyped myself up to enjoying them, liking them even, perhaps loving them, and moments like Desolation Row in Karlstad (best D-Row ever? Best D-Row ever!) made it a whole lot easier, but I also knew that I wouldn’t follow another tour again. Enough singsong, enough mumbles, no more days at the office for me. NeverEndingTour-Dylan never got better than 1995.
But things have changed, and for reasons more related to Wedding Song than to Desolation Row I had to give him another chance. Since he decided not to play Copenhagen this time, it had to be Gothenburg, and I was on the road again.
For the first time in a very long time, I was quite unprepared too. I haven’t heard a new show in two years, and I was looking forward to the closest thing to a virginal experience that I would ever get again. I knew there were some new band members, but I didn’t even know their names, let alone their faces. I was ready. C’mon, Bob, surprise me.
And man, was I surprised. It was a time-stopping experience. Two years just vanished, everything was just as I had left it. Given that that was two years ago, and that the man has been out there doing it all that time, that was not a good experience. One would expect that something had happened, but if it had, I don’t know what it was.
Call me Mr. Jones, call me Judas, but honestly, I had hoped for some development.
And the band… The band… Some years ago, even though I couldn’t always say the shows were great, inspired, etc., at least one could stand proud and claim that Dylan was backed by the best and tightest rock combo in the world, who played Brown Sugar better than the Stones themselves did.
I don’t want to sound negative; the steel guitar player was quite good — at times, he made his instrument sound like something Bucky Baxter might have handled. The guitarist behind Dylan — I think it was Stu Kimball — had his moments too. I guess someone likes the new guy’s solos (that must be Denny Freeman, then) but don’t count me among them. Melodic in the bland, cover-band style that you might hear in light entertainment TV shows; and a repertoire of licks so vast that they reappeared every other song.
After a couple of songs, every taste bud in my aesthetic body yelled: “We miss Freddy!” Initially, I just had to agree, and joined the choir. After all, I summed up my last concert experience (at least I believed it would be my last), writing “About Guitars and Kissing”, my eulogy to Freddy Koella, the guy who plays in Dylan’s style, but actually knows how to play.
But being the rational academic I am paid to be, I had to pass beyond that kind of populist clamour from the lowly senses — I had to think about it. Why has Dylan let Freddy go (or kicked him out?!) and replaced him with this? Images flash by: Michael Bloomfield — savage (and dead, of course). Robbie Robertson — there is a second-and-a-half scene in Eat the Document, just a soundcheck, where Robbie plays a few tones in E major and proves what a tremendous guitarist he was. Fred Tackett — he may wear glasses (so do I), but don’t let that fool you; he could be mean too. G. E. Smith — not my favorite guitarist, but there certainly was a bite there, some rough edges which we haven’t heard again before the days of Koella, paired with a certain dexterity which could become quite furious. J. J. Jackson — probably my favorite NeverEndingTour guitarist before Koella…
And now…! Where in this lineage does the current band belong?! Why is it that I suddenly came to think of Hearts of Fire in the middle of the show?
Again: Why does he do it? He used to say, about the mid-eigthies, that he didn’t know what his songs meant any longer. Well, he doesn’t seem to now either. “Leledi-laaay“, “painting the passports brown“, “justlikea woman” — all sung to the same melody, with the same emotional character. He might as well have sung “two litres of milk“, or “upmg kfadl ksdfie ewok” — it wouldn’t have mattered more, or less.
I’m not going to analyse him or his motives — is he just doing it for the money? is it just this pact with the Commander-in-Chief? Is it, perhaps, just another day at the office? — but my impression is that he is no longer hungry, he is no longer nervous, he is tired and content. It may be a very long time since he last went to the beach and danced with one hand waving free, but up until recently he has sounded like he wanted to. Not anymore. He’d be afraid of getting dirt on his boots, he’d be repulsed by the fish, he’d be too tired to walk through the dunes. He was so much younger then. That bothers me, much more than the lack of melodic variety.
I’m not talking about age here, but about guts and hunger, interest and desire. If he doesn’t know what it’s like on the beach any more and by the way doesn’t want to either, then why on earth does he have to sing about it? Why doesn’t he give us something he’s interested in? He obviously loves old music, the kind of songs he rips off and records with new lyric collages, the kind of stuff he sings when he’s all by himself. That’s what he does amazingly well, so why not do it more? How about ditching the war-horses — they’re as tired as him — and playing a show once in a while, with Doc Boggs, Gene Austin, Johnny and Jack, Charles Aznavour, stuff we know he loves?
Why not? Well, because if he did, he probably wouldn’t fill the halls he plays in now. The popular response, which he finally seems to embrace and enjoy after years of resisting it an trying to destroy it, has become too pleasant, it seems.
I expect to be flamed for this. I don’t mind. I don’t either want to convince anyone who truly thinks his current shows are better than ever. I don’t have the time for that: I have boxes upon boxes of old tapes full of flame and nervous energy that I have to listen through again.