Genius, Guitars, and Goodbyes

My previous post caused more reactions than any post on this blog so far, and I should probably not be surprised. At first I intended to comment on the things that were said in the thread, but it has been growing too long. Here’s an opportunity to continue in a new thread, where comments won’t be lost at #59. :-)

Things I was not intending to do:

To disrespect Dylan’s integrity.
To take away the enjoyment of anyone who goes to a show and enjoys it.
To claim that Dylan is too old to be good.
To profit economically from his work.
To say that anyone who like what they hear are stupid and ignorant.
To say that all Dylan does now is to go through the motions an profit economically from his past work.

What I did intend was to urge people to think about what they do, and what that does to the performance situation. This was not based solely on one show. Rather, I was taking that one show as a point of departure for formulating views that I’ve had for some time.

Genius is not inherent but something that’s constantly in the making. If an artist produces something of inherent beauty, profound expression, coming from a sharp eye on the human condition, a gaze which transcends everyday thoughts, that expression might be called genius, but to call the artist himself a genius would be to subscribe to a concept of divine inspiration which Dylan may or may not embrace, but I don’t. Genius isn’t what you are, but what you do.
OK, Dylan’s an icon, OK, he has a charisma which pours off the stage in gallons, even today, but still? It is amazing that he can still do it. But how can he ever get anything like a clear perception of when what he’s doing is good — how can he possibly develop criteria for judging this — when the feedback he gets is uncritical adoration? When stepping over the amp next to his piano and moving slightly closer to the centre-stage and blowing some “tut-tut-tut” on the same note in his harp, will harvest the same ovations every night, and when saying “thank you” — once — brings down the house?
Part of Dylan’s greatness lies in his integrity, his unwavering confidence that what he’s doing is right. Take the ’65/66 tour: night after night with catcalls, Judas!, the English leftists’ organized clapping (“If you only wouldn’t clap so hard”), the boos, the reviews — enough to break anyone’s back, but Dylan sucked energy out of it and produced classic performance art. Or the gospel tours. Again: boos, ridicule, and audiences numbering 2000 rather than 20,000 or 200,000 — and again: brilliant shows filled with fire and brimstone, and not only coming from the texts. Even the self-inflicted nadir around 1990 could be seen in this light: perhaps the ultimate act of artistic integrity: to self-destruct in order to rebuild.
But when was the last time Dylan was booed? Even when he put out a bad performance? When was he last given the opportunity of the reality check that an honest audience reaction is? If an artist puts out a performance which is sub-par, he should be greeted with boos, regardless of what he has done in the past, or will do the following night. He should not be deprieved of the chance of a reaction to what he does, and not to what he has done or has been (which is in effect the same thing as treating him as a has-been).
It’s not necessarily the booing I’m after (although that would probably bring out some long-lost fire and brimstone in mr. D), but a nuanced response from the audience, where the audience is able to see beyond the god-like iconicity of the man up there, and hear what they hear, instead of first passing it through the “he’s a genius, so this must be good”-filter.
I think this would do us, the audience, good, but it is also our responsibility towards the artist: he’s engaging in an act of communication, but if the answer is the same, no matter what he says, what good does it do him — what kind of respect towards him is that?
One of the most puzzling — perhaps saddest, but I’m not really sure about this — moments in my Dylan carreer was the first time I was up front and was able to see him at ten feet distance. The show was great, but the look on his face… It seemed to lie somewhere between complete unemotionality and some kind of bemused superiority. Whatever it was, it looked like a mask. At the time I thought: He is not taking us, this, himself, seriously. He doesn’t have to, of course, and again: that he does not succumb to that kind of emotional interaction with the audience which is so commonly seen, is a sign of his integrity. But how can it be otherwise, when he is greeted with hoorays whatever he’s doing? Mustn’t he be thinking, either: “Why on earth are they cheering — that solo wasn’t very successful, was it?” or “Hey, that must have been a great solo — look at how they’re cheering!” In any case, it might be time for another “If you just wouldn’t clap so hard.”

58 thoughts on “Genius, Guitars, and Goodbyes

  1. I’m seventeen years old and I come from the midwest. I’ve been listening to dylan for as long as I can remember. I remember being a small child and wanting to turn off that raquet. It sounded like somone was strangling a sheep on “Love and Theft” (whatever that meant, I thought)

    My love and adoration of Dylan grows every year. I’ve seen him in concert about ten times now, going as far as 500 miles from my home to see a show. Every time I’ve been astounded. Yes, he messes up sometimes. I mess up all the time (I started playing guitar because he inspired me to do so.) Honestly, Dylan has nothing to prove to anyone. Why should he? He’s already accomplished more in his life than (arguably) any of those fans who booed him, or who now question his judgement today.

    I see where you’re coming from. I too am disappointed he doesn’t play guitar anymore. He’s old, and tired. The road is where he belongs. He doesn’t put on shows for us. He puts them on for himself.

  2. Eyolf might really be saying goodbye, and the day may be close at hand:

    Song sites face legal crackdown:
    The music industry is to extend its copyright war by taking legal action against websites offering unlicensed song scores and lyrics.

    The Music Publishers’ Association (MPA), which represents US sheet music companies, will launch its first campaign against such sites in 2006.

    MPA president Lauren Keiser said he wanted site owners to be jailed.

    He said unlicensed guitar tabs and song scores were widely available on the internet but were “completely illegal”.

    Mr Keiser said he did not just want to shut websites and impose fines, saying if authorities can “throw in some jail time I think we’ll be a little more effective”.

    Bitter battles

    The MPA would target “very big sites that people would think are legitimate and very, very popular”, Mr Keiser said.

    Music publishers and songwriters will consider all tools under the law to stop this illegal behaviour

    David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers’ Association, added his concerns.

    “Unauthorised use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing,” he said.

    Grab the entire site while you can, fellas.

  3. Well, with the news that Dylan will be hosting a weekly radio show on XM satellite radio, I have to wonder if the point is moot.

    Is he going to keep playing 200-odd dates a year while he does this weekly radio show?

  4. I read that the contract says he can do the show from anywhere in the world. I would be it would be pre-recorded as well. All it takes these days to run a show is a Microphone and a PC.

  5. hey, im 17 and started listening to bob about a year ago. started off with the greatest hits and then it took off from there. it took a while for me to get used to Love and Theft, but now i love it. i went to see him in dublin for the 1st time, and, yes i did find him hard to make out on any songs i didnt know, but…i had a few tears in my eye, just because i looked on that stage and heard wonderful music, and bob, just a normal human being, producing what he can, he cant always be perfect.ive been playing classical piano for 10 yrs and some days it just HAPPENS and its class and then the next day i play mediocrely, but somehow, miracously, it HAPPENS for piano exams. things cant be perfect all of the time, hes just doing what he does, and u can appreciate it and see the beauty of that, or not. i would never boo him, u can never tell what is going on in a persons life, u should never do anything to make anyone feel like crap. …the end. lol.

  6. one of the best lessons i have learnt was to ‘keep things simple.’ that doesnt mean laze about, but it does mean do what u can with what uve been given, and dont fret and get urself worried sick if u cant be the best there is..on guitar, or whatever. as long as u play to enjoy, or to entertain. bob isnt a machine, hes just trying his best. liking bob isnt an obligation, u like bob or u dont like bob lol, or u like certain songs, and u might not like other songs, its not life and death, its music…lol, its supposed to be enjoyed!

  7. Boo or cheer, it’s up to you. Just make sure you ask yourself why you’re doing it.

    Unquestioning adulation seems to me hardly different from the stubborn boos of yesteryear – how can a performing artist interact, let alone respect an audience that made it’s mind up before it left the house?

    The minute you stop questioning you become that middle aged lady who is the first to get up to dance during the main act, but who talked all through the support act. And NOBODY wants to be that woman.

    Oh, and LM “It’s not life or death…it’s way more important than that”.

    Great site by the way – keep up the good work.

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