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.”