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Bob Dylan: Shock Rocker

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They say Bob Dylan gets a special kick out of shattering expectations, which would explain a lot about his concert Halloween night.

Everything about it was wrong, starting with the venue: a gigantic arena with locker room acoustics, half full of big empty–a place no sound can enter gracefully, made clear by the announcements: “Pleasssindindyourseatss!sshowwwssstar!sssoonoo. Thankhankooyooooo!”

Then the crowd: how polite they were, how respectful and old. Even the young people were old and slumpy, like history majors, there to sniff authenticity, get a whiff of genius, dispel a myth, make a new one.

Waiting only gave the crowd more time to look around and bum themselves out, for there were old people everywhere, and it was shocking because everybody looked so much older than everybody else and nobody wanted anybody to notice they’d noticed, so everybody smiled with embarrassment for awhile until eventually everybody read their tickets and the men closed their eyes because it was getting after eight thirty.

Aaron Copeland wasn’t helping. First it was that tweedle-deedle orchestral hoedown, “Appalachian Spring,” which has always been hokey and hard to hear without picturing rosy-cheeked big-skirted women twirling around gay men dressed up as cowboys. I strained to see Dylan’s hand in this. Then they did it again. Blaring from the hockey speakers were the trumpets of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a piece so overused it’s a mockery of itself, the song we hear in our heads as we pitch another beer bottle into the garbage can. Somebody was gradually turning up the sound while somebody else was turning down the lights. And then it was dark, and a voice called out: Laaaeessssmnnn! –but that’s all I got.

The stage lit up and Dylan’s band began to play. They were tight–far tighter than any band he’s ever had. We expect from Dylan a sloppiness that simply was not there. And neither was he.

Was he? Where was he? Which one was him? That one? That skinny guy in the flat black hat? Must be. Don’t ask anybody — they’d never stop laughing at you. But wait. Why was Dylan playing bass?

How, doesitfeel–how?
does. It feeltobeonyour? Own!likeacompleteun
Ro! llingstone.

It was Dylan all right. “Like a Rolling Stone,” only it was nothing like a rolling stone. Dylan had cut it all up, flattened the melody and made it into a bar band’s opening anthem. He changed it!

Changed it? It was cruel. He had an entire audience of cocked heads scanning their banks for some hint of what he was doing, processing emotions, feelings of loss, our shared arrival on the doorstep of the same dumb realization: that they’re his songs and he can do what he wants to them. We accepted, tried to sing along, got pissed because it was not possible. He was was doing it on purpose.

Most unnerving was watching him just stand there — not even moving his lips — while his voice snapped out his familiar lyric in a cadence never imagined by poets or jazzmen, rappers or auctioneers. I determined he was using a phone mike like the girls have been using, a very thin one because I couldn’t see it. Maybe he planned to dance around a bit. That would be good, I thought. It would go with the music.

It was then that I noticed the fifth member of the band, whose back was to me. He was just another musician in a black top coat and a black hat, playing an old electric piano. He turned to get something from an altar behind him, and by the time he returned to the keyboard — in fact, before the first tweet of his goofy harmonica, the entire room seemed to figure out at once that this was Bob Dylan. Huh.

Several people lit their Bics, then put them out because their wives made them.

He played electric piano all night, and he played it like a guitar player, which is to say roughly, like he was strumming, or drumming. As the night wore on, so did his ability to keep time. Suddenly his sloppy signature appeared. It was Bob all along and had been from the beginning. The man cannot keep time.

He never once picked up a guitar, never took a break, never spoke a word, barked for two hours, systematically destroying every beautiful melody he ever wrote, spitting out lyrics like bad pizza in a voice with a range from Moe the Bartender to Krusty the Clown.

Classic after classic papered over with wallpaper rock against which he splattered his lyric in the manner of Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman, then clockwork guitar solos laid down their cliches in well metered doses, with certain licks so good they made their way into every song. Big big tumble down finish to a blop–same ending every time. Might as well end them all with “Shave and a Haircut, Five Cents.”

By the end of it I felt licked myself, because the songs never varied: they were either fast or slow, happy or sad. It was one big loop of remixed readymades constructed of 12-bar blues progressions, the same mind-numbingly dumb foundations that have informed so much bad music, the kind of stuff some elders trail in their meteoric descent to the cheap bins.

Come on, Bob. Not Bob. You’ve still got time, Bob, the tour’s not half over! Bob Dylan invented reinventing yourself, whereas Madonna just gave it a name.

Eventually Bob’ll figure out that what people really want to see is Bob Dylan in maturity, Bob Dylan at peace with Bob Zimmerman, at peace with us, relaxed enough to risk saying a few words, anything, rather than nothing, which is odd and unnecessary. Underkill.

I was 200 feet from the man and he radiated cold. He’ll never pay me for telling him this, so there’s nothing to lose in coughing up the following:

Bobby, come home, we miss you so much. You hate yourself because you think you’re a fraud, and you are but you’re not but you are. But you aren’t. If you can’t hit the notes, why kick the song? Write new ones you can sing, songs in your range. And get a music director, will you? Somebody who can drop a few pounds off your ego and make you listen? And will you lose mustasche? What are you, Bob Zorro? Be yourself now. You’re not Brian Wilson. You’re not manic or depressed–it’s just a little guilt! You know you’re a fake, we know you’re a fake, we’d all be guilty if we were you, but you’re the only one who is–so would you please find yourself innocent, get Zimmerman his meds, and go play Bob Dylan?

By the way, we were entertained. We enjoyed it. We loved it, whatever it was. “All Along the Watchtower” was hilarious: they made it a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, with his classic solo played on a steel pedal guitar. That was pretty funny.

Then he walked off the stage and it was over.

I bet he’s hard to talk to on the phone. It was clear to me that Bob Zimmerman created this character Dylan as a mask that gave him the courage to stand in front of people and sing the way he did — but he lost control of the character the moment it entered people’s minds. They always expected Dylan to be something he wasn’t.

Dylan never knew how to explain this without appearing like a fraud, so he simply kept his mouth shut for 40 years. And nothing tells a legend like a shut mouth.

Neither Zimmerman nor Dylan ever mentioned their painful shyness until quite recently with the publishing of their autobiography, Chronicles, Volume I.

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About CW Fisher

  • wtanderson

    well put and true.
    dylan’s been so sloppy
    (songwriting the last 37,
    playing, always) and
    mean spirited for years,
    (probably the fraud guilt)
    i’m always surprised anyone rarely comments
    upon it.
    (believe me i went through my dylan phase,
    on my 20 year songwriting journey.)

    ask yourself,
    why doesn’t this guy ever smile?

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent Curt, great job, very glad to see you back, thanks!

  • Antfreeze

    Wow! Dude, Great review. I may have been sitting right next to you in DeKalb. I was in section 212, Dylans back to us, 200 ft. away. And if I could write, I would’ve written something very much like this review. Dylan has said he had an epiphany a while back that allowed him to continue touring and playing every night. I suspect it was re-arranging everything so he won’t get bored with playing it, and the audience can still say they heard him do some of his classics. About halfway through a song, you’d finally recognize a word he’s singing and look over at your buddy with a quizzical look and go, “That’s Highway 61???!” The keyboard playing was crappy, that little off-beat hammer thing he does always seeming to leave the band lost for a minute. Although Bob seemed to be having a pretty good time, juking around a bit. Now please turn off the lights when you leave my head.