08 January 2011

Bob Dylan, Performance Artist

By Kirk Woodward

[By now, introducing my friend and contributor Kirk Woodward to you has become redundant. His writing has appeared numerous times on ROT, and he’s been able to contribute thoughts on topics I’d never be able to cover. In this case, Kirk’s background in music and his long-time interest in Bob Dylan’s work has led him—at my request, I admit—to write a report on the recent Dylan concert he attended. I’ve liked Bob Dylan’s songs for most of five decades myself, but I don’t have the musical knowledge to explain why I think he’s so terrific. Kirk does, and I’m grateful that he’s taken this opportunity to help me understand what it is I’ve felt about this unique talent’s singing and composition. (Kirk recently also published “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October on ROT, another report on a pop phenomenon he and I both love.) I’m pleased to share Kirk’s opinions with ROT readers. ~Rick]

Bob Dylan’s position in popular music is secure. He’s universally recognized as one of the great lyricists, and he’s not exactly a slouch where melody is concerned. What’s more, he has revolutionized the craft of lyric writing by bringing the inside outside, so to speak – by writing songs that are not just about personal but about individual feelings.

By doing this he has opened the gate for an entirely new way of writing songs. When Irving Berlin writes, “I’ll be loving you always,” the feelings expressed in the song may or may not be personal to him, but they’re not individual – millions of people have felt exactly the same way. In a Dylan song the individuality of the lyric is unmistakable – no one else has had exactly the same experiences or felt them in exactly the same way. Armed with the tools of poetry – in particular, the poetry of the Beats like Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – he expresses his experiences so intensely that the rest of us are able to share them.

I write these thoughts because I saw Bob Dylan perform in New York City last November 23, 2010. Surely people have written more about Dylan than about any other songwriter, but not for this blog, so I am taking this opportunity to report on the concert for its readers, and in the process to address the slippery question of why I enjoy Dylan’s music so much.

Oddly enough, there was little about the appearance of Dylan in the New York press. The only account I’ve been able to find is a rather patronizing review by Jim Farber on the New York Daily News website (“Bob Dylan Keeps Old Classics Fresh and Edgy With Reinterpretation Of Hits On His Never Ending Tour,” www.nydailynews.com, November 23, 2010). In part this media indifference is due to Dylan’s longevity (he first performed in New York about fifty years ago), in part to his fame (why bother to remind people of what they already know?), and in part to Dylan’s years of often confusing or uninspired concert performances (why bother at all?).

From the perspective of several decades, what's astonishing isn't that Dylan had a fallow period but that he's given as many outstanding shows as he has. According to one estimate, he has given over three thousand shows. That's eight years’ worth of performing every day.

Why does Dylan do so many shows, particularly now, when he's nearly seventy years old? Everyone is entitled to a Dylan theory, and here's mine. A few years ago Dylan wrote his autobiography, an American literary classic called Chronicles Part 1. It's clear from the book that from the time he was young he always thought he would be great; he just never thought anyone would notice or care, and he was severely shaken when he found out that people not only cared but cared passionately.

The reason, I believe, that Dylan thought the greatness he assumed he had would go unnoticed is that he wanted to make his mark in what today we call American Roots Music. He knew perfectly well that most of America knew little about so many of the people he idolized, and probably never would. (This expectation was overly pessimistic, due in significant part to Dylan's efforts.) So the response he received frightened him, and to this day onstage he resembles a man who would jump at loud noises.

Nevertheless, he has a mission, the same one he always had: to bring the values of American roots music to larger audiences. He has carried out this mission in astonishing ways, as we know, and he remains true to it, to the point of eccentricity. From the beginning he adopted the voice of a backwoods blues singer. He modeled his music on folk music, even as he moved into rock. He played the guitar. His fondness for Woody Guthrie is well known.

Another note or two about Dylan’s singing voice may be in order. From the beginning he tried to sound like an old bluesman, and he succeeded. Decades of normal wear and tear, plus, apparently, smoking and drinking, have taken their toll on his voice, and one frequently sees the opinion expressed that he has ruined it.

In fact, Dylan has plenty of voice left for a man almost in his seventies who perhaps hasn't taken the best care of it. As far as I can tell, his vocal range extends from about middle C to C below middle C – a typical male range. Basically, he sings the way he wants to. When he wants to growl, he growls; when he wants to sing, he sings.

More important, though, is the quality of his voice. It "cuts the room" – it has presence. And he can do remarkable things with it; he is a peerless interpreter of songs. Essentially singing has two major components, beauty and expression. It's a rare singer who excels in both; at their extremes the two tend to cancel each other out.

For myself, if I have to choose one or the other, I choose expression. So, of course, does Dylan. Many choose otherwise, which makes him a controversial figure.

I have sung some of his songs in public and can testify that he constructs them to give the maximum opportunity for different kinds of singing. With his voice as with everything else, he does basically what he wants.

In his autobiography Life, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones writes of Dylan: “Bob has not got a particularly good voice, but it’s expressive and he knows where to put it, and that’s more important than any technical beauties of voice. It’s almost anti-singing. But at the same time what you’re hearing is real.”

But we should also acknowledge that when a primarily expressive singer loses interest in the meaning of the songs he sings, the result can be pretty awful. In his Wilderness Years Dylan frequently seemed uninterested in his music, and therefore uninteresting as well.

However, beginning around the time of his appearance on MTV’s Unplugged in 1994, Dylan seemed to begin to care about his performances again, and people began to notice the renewed intensity of his performances. He started stirring up his set lists (today he never performs an identical set of songs two nights in a row), programming both famous and unfamiliar songs from his astoundingly deep play list (he’s written well over five hundred songs).

Here are the songs he sang on November 23:

“Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”
“This Wheel’s On Fire”
“Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)”
“Just Like A Woman”
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”
“Simple Twist of Fate”
“Things Have Changed”
“A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall”
“High Water (for Charlie Patton)”
“Masters of War”
“Highway 61 Revisited”
“Workingman Blues #2”
“Thunder on the Mountain”
“Ballad of a Thin Man”


“Like A Rolling Stone”

Even a cursory look at this list reveals its complexity. “Change My Way” is from Dylan's “born again” period, and an excellent opener musically. (Its lyrics, I'd say speaking as a Christian, are pretty harsh.). Half the songs date from the 1960s, including two of the most famous “protest songs” ever written (“Hard Rain” and “Masters of War”), which would seem to give the show a sort of apocalyptic feel. It didn’t, but those are still pretty powerful choices. “High Water” is on the same theme, so that’s a trio of songs in a row about the world going to hell. “Workingman Blues” is about my favorite song from his last decade or so of writing, and I’m glad he features it a lot in concerts.

“Wheel” was used as the theme song for the delirious British TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous. “Mobile” and “Highway 61,” when they were released, marked the emergence of some of the greatest rock music ever written, and “Like A Rolling Stone” is universally considered a masterpiece.

Right alongside the earlier numbers are later ones. Often a musician (Paul McCartney, for example) finds that audiences simply don't want to hear his later work as much as they do his earlier classics. This isn't the case with Dylan, for two reasons. First, his later songs are remarkably good. Second, he doesn't perform his "old" songs the same way they were recorded anyway. Dylan is constantly creating new arrangements for his songs.

I can only think of two or three numbers at the November 23 concert that weren't rearranged, in many cases (for example, "A Simple Twist of Fate") quite drastically ("Simple Twist" now has a pronounced Latin flavor). It’s a fine song no matter what. Interestingly, the two blues-based numbers, “Thunder” and “Rolling” were sung in the closest style to the recorded versions, and he really sang them, too. I think he’s the best white blues singer around.

For people who only want to hear Dylan's "greatest hits," his habit of redoing his classics is at a minimum irritating. Even for fans, it can be baffling when he starts a number and people strain desperately to figure out what the song is. But stasis has never been Dylan's ideal. In his great song "Tangled Up In Blue" he writes,

But me, I'm still on the road,
Headed for another joint.

Truer words were never spoken (or sung). Dylan spends between half and two thirds of each year "on the road," giving concerts in every part of the world, and in practically every kind of performance venue. (A few years ago I saw him perform in the minor league baseball stadium of my home town, Montclair, New Jersey.) The November 23 concert found him giving the second of three shows over three nights at a place called Terminal 5 in Manhattan, on 56th Street at the Hudson River. It’s intimate – I've read that its capacity is about 2300 – and the performance room is structured roughly like an Elizabethan theater, which means that it's almost entirely standing room only.

As a result when I saw the show I was about twenty-five feet from Dylan. Being up close is a different experience from being at the other end of a hall or stadium. I did a LOT of standing – two hours before the show, two hours of the show, and then running to the subway so I didn’t have to take a late train. The ticket said the show was at 7. Wouldn’t you think that meant the music started at 7? Nope, it meant the doors opened at 7. The next day my legs were so sore I could barely walk.

One of the compensatory pleasures of the wait for the concert was the quality of people who attended. Dylan fans are like nobody else’s. They span all ages; they're not all old fogies like myself. Also, they talk to each other (about Dylan concerts they’ve seen, usually), and they’re bright. Next to me was a New York University law professor who’s delivering a paper at a Fordham symposium next spring about – wait for it – "The Law in Bob Dylan’s Music."

At the November concert Dylan was energized and so was his band. He was in excellent voice. Also, I’ve never seen him so musically involved before. I’ve always felt he didn’t really care about the little points of playing a song – he’d finish early or slide off a phrase or just basically seem like the details weren’t all that important. In November I could see how closely he worked with the band – whose members watch him like hawks – giving little signals and cues, and playing the fancy stuff, like off-tempo endings, very precisely.

And instrumentally he’s at the top of his craft. At the concert I even enjoyed his electric guitar playing, which has always been my least favorite part of his act. His harmonica playing is incisive and often dramatic.

If I had to pick high points out of so many great numbers, I’d pick his Oscar-winning song “Things Have Changed,” which was so good I noticed my jaw was literally hanging open, and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Dylan's usual closer for the regular set these days, which he sang down at the microphone, cabaret style. For those of us accustomed to his ordinary withdrawn stage persona, it’s hard to believe, but he almost acts the song out, for all the world as though he were the later Sinatra (whom Dylan knew and admires) singing "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)."

These days Dylan communicates with his audiences so much more than he used to, particularly when he’s singing front and center and not playing an instrument. “Thin Man” has become a major performance piece for him – unsettling and creepy and dramatic. On the other hand, he planned for the audience to sing along – sing along! – in two songs, on the phrases “Just like a woman” and “Like a rolling stone.”

As a sometimes musician who plays in a band, I was fascinated by spontaneous moments in the show. On "Highway 61," the steel guitar stopped working. A technician came out and frantically tried to fix it, but without effect, so the musician grabbed his fiddle and started to play his part on that. The bass guitarist started laughing, and when Dylan saw what was happening he looked incredulous.

The wheels fell off the number a little at that point, so to speak, and when it was concluded the audience, which didn’t seem to care about the problems, cheered and stomped, but Dylan had a definite look on his face of “What’s going on here?” Then “Workingman Blues” started and Dylan was caught over at the keyboard, instead of at the center microphone where he usually sings the song. He didn’t really let on, but just sang the first couple of verses there, then hustled over to center to finish the song at the microphone. The band was amused. Dylan didn’t seem upset, only baffled. It was a delight to see that the same kind of things happen in performances at any level of proficiency and fame.

"Performance" – it may make the most sense to think of Dylan as a Performance Artist. Each of his actions is calculated to make a deliberate point. People have always asked, "What's Bob Dylan really like?" For the most part he doesn't want us to know the minute details of his day. He wants us to look, not at him, but at his art. He turns himself into an exemplar of what he wants us to experience.

For a man almost 70 years old – for anyone, actually – the concert I saw was a whale of an artistic feat. (A physical feat, too – sweat was pouring off him.) The audience was delirious with pleasure. The evening was (among other things) the Bob Dylan Dance Party. If you decide to go along with Dylan, you enter Bobby World, and it’s quite a place to spend some time. In his music and in his concerts, it's Bob Dylan's world – we're just living in it.

1 comment:

  1. On the morning of 13 October 2016, the Nobel Committee announced that the 108th winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is Rock 'n' Roll singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The former folkie, 75, is the first musician to win the prize and the first American since Toni Morrison in 1993, 23 years ago.

    The citation for the award states that Dylan won for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." The Swedish Academy released a statement that the composer-lyricist "is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition," drawing parallels between Dylan's songs and the poetry of classical Greece.