Music

Never again, I told myself last time Bob Dylan was in town

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

We were like four hapless contestants on University Challenge. None of us knew the answer. But just like they do on the telly, I leaned learnedly across towards my 28-year-old son, who in turn looked despairingly towards one of my stepsons, before my other stepson made his contribution with a shrug of the shoulders. So, it was up to me as captain of the team to take a guess as the first few bars wafted through the Royal Albert Hall.

‘“Tangled Up in Blue”?’ I proffered with as much enthusiasm as Jeremy Corbyn at a white-tie dinner.

But, fingers on the buzzer, there were far bigger questions to be answered. Such as, what on earth were we doing turning up yet again for a Bob Dylan concert when not only did we fail to hear most of the words last time but didn’t even recognise many of the tunes?

Ah, but to paraphrase one of my favourite Dylan lines, we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now. Never again, I had told myself two years ago, when Bob was last in town rasping like a rusting Vespa. And I felt so good about that decision. Hold on to the memories, walk away now, nothing lasts for ever. But, then, a buy-tickets-to-anything-you-want email landed in my inbox in early June, a time of year when the promise of better things to come is in full bloom, and before you could say ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, my credit card was being debited for just short of £400.


So, there we were, an assorted bunch ranging in age from 14 to 84, packing the famous hall to the rafters, all part of the same tribe. And despite the voice, and the refusal of the star man to utter a ‘thank you’ or even to introduce members of his band, we had a wonderful evening, brimming with hope and forgiveness — and I was back home in bed before the start of Newsnight.

The first time I saw Dylan live was in 1974 at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and I still have the stub. He was 33; I was 20. He could sing then and he can sing now — it’s just different from how it was. He’ll be 75 next May and I’d like to say he looks good on it but when you’re sitting in the gods and he’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat and the lighting is so subdued that we could be in a blacked-out New Orleans speakeasy, it’s impossible to say.

His movement around the stage was interesting. He seemed to be having trouble bending his legs, as if walking on stilts. Seated at the piano there was the occasional wiggle, a gentle stomping of his cowboy boots.

‘“All Along the Watchtower”!’ shouted a man from the upper tier. No chance. ‘“Desolation Row”!,’ called a woman clearly in some pain. Forget it. Bob’s not even angry any more. He’s just bemused and resigned to whatever might be blowing in the wind as he gets closer to knocking on heaven’s door. And we go along with it, indulging his current fad for Frank Sinatra covers (‘Why Try To Change Me Now’ was superb) just like we did during his pious Christian evangelical phase in the late 1970s.

Many in the audience would have been in this very auditorium in May 1966 when Dylan ‘went electric’, when the ‘spokesman for a generation’ abandoned his Woody Guthrie roots, when the ‘protest singer’ plugged in and sold out. Now there is not much in the way of judgment, not from the audience and certainly not from Bob.

With his excellent five-piece band picking up the pieces, Dylan put together a gentle, free-flowing set. He doesn’t play guitar any more (arthritis, but we don’t know for sure) and the evening included a 20-minute interval during which there seemed to be more of a run on vanilla sundaes than Jack Daniel’s.

The songs washed over us, warmly. Veterans like me could look back and reflect, sprinkling some sweetener on bitter times. Then, almost abruptly, Bob sloped off, before returning for a two-song encore. One more would have been nice, an acoustic version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, perhaps, or, even better, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, from the Blonde on Blonde album, which lasts 11 glorious minutes.

Of course not. The lights came up and out we shuffled. Never again? Every time, actually.

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Show comments
  • Sunset66

    At this stage of his career you have to be a true believer. If not don’t go.
    I remember a whole series of albums that were crap. I used to listen in my car and if they were crap throw them out of the M25
    Funnily enough I like some of them now.
    Dylan tours for himself I believe. If you want him to be like the old days stay away
    He has his fanatic fans I remember being asked how many times I had seen him. I replied four.
    She retorted know I mean this tour.

    • liverpoodlian

      is this a dinner show?

      • Sue Smith

        Pass the soda bi-carb.

    • Jenki

      I still have a couple of Dylan CDs made up of some of my favourite tracks in my car, which I play occasionally. I still marvel at the poetry of some of the lyrics …Whilst wondering what on earth they mean (some of them.)

  • Kolchak

    I really liked Dylan back when I was about 19 years old. I think the real explanation why his songs always seem to change every time he performs is simply that he can’t remember how he did it the last time.

    • Sue Smith

      …or whether there’s basically no musicological merit to it worth salvaging? On the other hand, if you want a GREAT musical evening, especially in Berlin, you cannot get better than this in cabaret:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yT4oA24hE9Y

  • Spenglersdog

    ;;

    • mountolive

      Very nice. Particularly his harmonica playing. Thanks

  • Gilbert White

    For 400 you could have flown to the Khaoson Rd introduced your son to a smiling lady bought all of his back catalogue and have a good feed.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      That would be Khao San Road, Bangkok.

      • Gilbert White

        Thanks Jack!

      • UncleTits

        The most despicable place in Thailand.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Never been to Hat Yai?
          Hot and cold running hookers catering to the south of the border trade.

    • franzdavis

      If she is smiling at YOU it would be decidedly insincere. So are you saying that the lady would be bought? Says more about you than anyone else and more about flatulent Brits than courteous Thai people. Despicable comment on your part- you sound more like a pimp than a punter

  • jimmynixon

    dylan has never abandoned his ‘Woody Guthrie roots.’

    • Sue Smith

      A pity. In any case he was always far far better with lyrics than he was with music IMO.

      • jimmynixon

        tone deaf, are you?

        • Sue Smith

          That’s right, and trained as a musicologist.

  • franzdavis

    Yup YOU failed to hear the lyrics or recognise the songs. Yes you failed and failed to write an interesting article too

  • Sue Smith

    This is just nostalgia. Music doesn’t survive because of nostalgia (as in the case of Gershwin and his songs), but because it is good. The music of the burnt out husk of Bob Dylan is entrenched in an ugly culture that is very YESTERDAY. May it rest in peace.

    Oh, I forgot his one masterpiece, “Like a Rolling Stone”. The rest is ephemeral. A teaching colleague went to one of Dylan’s concerts in 2004 and vowed “never again”.

  • thetrashheap

    The emperor has no clothes on.

    The worst thing about the Bob Dylan concert I made the mistake of going to was not the fact he had no interaction with audience, it wasn’t the fact he is such a bad singer it was nearly impossible to make out the song let alone the actual words from his voice, It wasn’t the fact he was worse than any karaoke singer I ever heard.

    It was listening to the people walking out saying what a great concert it was, because while his terrible “performance” was enough for me to hate Bod Dylan for stealing 60 pounds from me and wasting 2 hours of my life, listening to people praise the concert damaged my faith in humanity.

    • liverpoodlian

      If listening to people express what pleases them is what damages a persons faith in humanity well truly this world is messed up…
      Live and let live.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Not a fan, I can tell.

  • Idowu Omoyele

    Bob Dylan, the all-American musical hero, is one of a kind. In addition to being an outstanding songwriter, he has shown, over the years, that he could play a number of instruments such as guitar, piano and, of course, the harmonica. His voice has never had the seductive purity of Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but his musicianship and the profundity of his often historically acute, socio-politically aware lyrics more than make up for what he may lack in the way of a distinctive singing voice. Although his voice may sound pretty rough around the edges, Dylan manages to maintain its vitality by enriching it with a certain pathos and plaintiveness.

    That pathos, that plaintiveness, owes a good deal to the extraordinary empathy with which he has sung songs of protest to indict forces oppressing, repressing or suppressing the disinherited, the dispossessed, the downtrodden of (American) society – not the least among these, African-Americans. His music, especially during the 1960s, is a veritable social commentary on the iniquities and injustices perpetrated by assorted powers that be within the United States, like the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy, who was murdered in Mississippi, in America’s Deep South, in 1955 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman. Or the case of Hattie Carroll, the 51-year-old African-American barmaid, who, in 1963, was struck with a cane by a young white man of 24, with tragic consequences. He also sang, of course, about other subjects like love and heartbreak, but this compelling conscience of the counterculture ought to be acknowledged as the artist who brought modern poetic sophistication to folk music, infusing it not only with a contemporary pop idiom but also with blues, with country.

    Together with Nina Simone, Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Dylan is one of the four greatest modern performing/recording artistes of conscience – master musicians who, bravely and candidly, address man’s inhumanity to man in music of the highest pedigree. Of this special Fab Four, only Bob Dylan is still with us. And that’s a mercy! The world of popular music should savour and appreciate him while it can. He’s a rare and remarkable talent.

    • logdon

      Although appearing on the same stage as ‘King’ during the I have a dream speech, Dylan grew tired of the communist habit of controlling all within it’s aegis.

      It could have been the lying, preposterous Pete Seeger or that fat, hapless woman who announced ‘he’s yours’ at the Newport Festival but I’d guess that any corraling of this unique and brilliant spirit would be by himself, not those lefty numpties.

      After that the ‘protest’ ended to herald the three greatest albums of his career.

      • Idowu Omoyele

        Why do you describe Pete Seeger as “lying” and “preposterous”? Was it necessary to denigrate the woman who, at the Newport Folk Festival, introduced Bob Dylan as “he’s yours” as “fat” and “hapless”? I share your estimation of Dylan as “this unique and brilliant spirit” but, unlike you, I do think that the so-called “protest” albums are among the greatest of his career.

        • logdon

          1/because he was

          2/ because she was

          3/ Dylan’s stream of conscious stuff far surpassed the protest period which for him was a means to an end.

          • Idowu Omoyele

            Your first two non-attempts at answers to the questions posed are unfortunate since they provide no light or illumination whatsoever. It is possible to offer constructive critique of people or events without resorting to easy, unexplained contempt and derision. Yes, Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness stuff – “Like A Rolling Stone,” say, or “Desolation Row” – is truly great, but it seems proper to view both this stuff and the work of the so-called “protest period” as a meaningful continuum or career trajectory; as both formative and foundational to the history and heritage of popular music in general, and the coruscating career of Bob Dylan in particular. Thankfully, we don’t have to revert to either/or; we don’t have to choose one or the other.

          • logdon

            OK.

          • Idowu Omoyele

            No, the “protest” songs are not a means to an end. That’s too neat and cynical. That makes it sound as though Dylan had his whole career all planned or mapped out, rather than taking it a day at a time. Yes, Dylan did experiment with different lyrical/musical genres – not just traditional folksongs and the blues, but also pop, rock, country, R&B, gospel – but the protest tunes do not approximate to your fantasy of a minor pre-arranged means to some major stream-of-consciousness end; rather, both stages intertwine as logical building blocks of a rich and varied career, whose stages of development or shifts in sensibility cannot be lazily reduced or reducible to your “means to an end.” Remember that the spectacular stream-of-consciousness songs, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row,” were released in 1965, and, a decade later, in 1975, Dylan produced the protest song “Hurricane” about the allegedly racially motivated imprisonment of the African-American middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Then, nearly another decade later in 1983, Dylan recorded “Blind Willie McTell” paying tribute to the titular blues singer in a lyrical distillation of American history, slavery and music. First, you blithely fail to explain/justify the gratuitous insults you direct at Pete Seeger and the woman, who at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s, introduced Dylan as “he’s yours” and, then, you offer a simplistic summation of the trajectory of Dylan’s complex and compelling career.

          • logdon

            I know all of this.

            Your hectoring is merely that. Verbal masturbation.

            My insult towards Seeger is also reflected by many who, I can assure you know far more about this idiom than your dry analysis could even approach.

            Even Dylan himself thinks of him as dishonest and a hypocritical fool.

            PS

            I’ve been listening to Dylan since around 1964 so please do not presume.

          • Idowu Omoyele

            simultaneous rather than one ending and another starting. Don’t be too proud to accept that you don’t know it all, and are not always right. Learn to engage in civil and constructive debate; throwing insults around for the fun of it is neither cute nor clever.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Joey.

          • Idowu Omoyele

            What do you think – or how do you feel – about the fact that this otherwise beautiful Dylan song deals compassionately with Joey Gallo despite his violent history – his involvement with mobsters and the mob, the accusations/allegations of murder and the various convictions for various felonies? Do you mind in any way, does it affect your enjoyment of the song, or are you agnostic/ambivalent about the whole thing?

            https://vimeo.com/66952563

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Hurricane.

      • Idowu Omoyele

        Yes, you’re right. I’ve already referred to this Dylan protest song in one of my posts below.

  • UncleTits

    Bob Dylan, the only performer to have had his own songs done better by everyone else who tried them, and the guy who was outdone by every other performer at his own tribute concert. Not saying he’s overrated or anything but surely he must’ve known people!

  • rosebery

    I am of the Dylan generation. I never really got the fuss at all. Some excellent songs, best done by people who could sing, although some were actually suited to his nasal and whining drone. I did like Highway 61, even still have the vinyl, and Blonde On Blonde, but to actually throw away money going to see him? Not for me. My brother did, years ago, when Dylan was in his Blood On The Tracks phase, but that was more of a ‘tick box’ event for him.

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