by Kirk Woodward
[Following shortly on “Frankie,” his report on a recent Frankie Valli concert appearance (posted on 16 November), my friend Kirk Woodward is back on Rick On Theater with a new post on a couple of rock ’n’ roll oldies. This time it’s folk-rock icon Bob Dylan and former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. As regular ROTters will know, Kirk is a long-time fan of both Dylan and the Beatles; he’s previously written on both for this blog: “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” posted on 8 January 2011; “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012; “The Beatles And Me,” 7 October 2010; “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012; “The Beatles Diary,” 8 January 2013; “The Beatles’ Influence,” 13 July 2015; and “Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” 27 September 2016. As I’ve frequently said of Kirk’s contributions to ROT, his accounts of these musical experiences are informed both by his personal responses and his background and knowledge of music and performance. I am beyond delighted to share Kirk’s thoughts with ROTters and I know you will find edifying notions here. ~Rick]
Since I recently wrote on this blog about a sterling Frankie Valli concert I saw in November 2017, I may as well report on two other shows I saw in the same month, both involving older performers, although neither are as old as Valli, who is 83 (he was born in 1934). Both are close, though – Bob Dylan is 76 (born in 1941), and Ringo Starr is 77 (born in 1940). Both are known quantities, first making their musical marks in the early 1960s. Both remain remarkable performers today.
Of the two, Bob Dylan is the more mercurial. On the one hand, he is an established figure in the world of music, to the point where he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. On the other hand, he remains unpredictable, as demonstrated by his response to receiving the Nobel Prize: he remained invisible for days, finally released a statement saying the award left him “speechless,” did not travel to Stockholm to receive the award, and delivered his acceptance speech, which the prize rules require in order to receive the cash award, two months after the deadline, in the form of a recorded speech accompanied by music.
His Nobel experience may be taken as a model for nearly everything he does. It is not just that he does not meet expectations; he scorns them, defies them, dares the rest of the world to follow him through any amount of curious behavior.
For some of us who saw one of his five concerts at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan during the week of November 13-17, 2017, the biggest example of Dylan’s unpredictable behavior, among many possible choices, involves his voice.
Beginning around the time of the release of his celebrated album Time Out of Mind (1997), and intensifying by the time the album Modern Times (2006) was released, Dylan’s voice noticeably thickened, contracted in range, and took on a gravelly sound.
Many, including me, assumed that the years had taken their toll on his vocal equipment, and we did our best to enjoy what was worthwhile in Dylan’s new sound. I don’t regard purity of tone as the only standard for a singer.
Years ago I heard the cabaret singer Mabel Mercer (1900-1984) at a period when she literally had lost the ability to sing – she could only speak the lyrics of her songs. (I have read that her singing voice later somewhat returned.) I remember her renditions of songs as among the best I have ever heard, with versions of “Send In the Clowns” and “Being Green” that stick with me to this day – and at that time she couldn’t sing a note.
So I accepted Dylan’s hoarse later voice, and was stunned at the recent Beacon concert to hear him not only sing, but sing as tunefully and clearly as he has in decades, and with greater range – occasionally singing relatively high notes in an easy semi-falsetto.
What in the world? How did he clear up his sound so well? Will he keep singing this way? One never knows with Dylan, but there’s the possibility that his rugged voice of recent years was another of the many constructs out of which he has built his public persona.
Many “stars,” it appears, seem to have a mysterious ability to shape their environments. There is a tape of a Dick Cavett TV interview with the actress Katherine Hepburn (1907-2003), who Cavett says at the beginning of the tape had been uncertain whether she wanted to be on the show at all.
Cavett asked the staff to begin taping as soon as Hepburn arrived in the studio. What we see on the tape is Hepburn immediately taking charge of the show, ordering the cameras into different locations, moving furniture around, and generally dominating the whole scene without concern for who is “in charge.” She was.
Along the same lines, I talked once with a man who had encountered Dylan on a New York street and spoke to him briefly. The man told me that as people began to notice that Bob Dylan was right there among them, and a crowd began to gather, Dylan somehow maneuvered his position so that the man was a shield between the other people and Dylan. Then, he said, he looked around and Dylan had disappeared.
That story, which I have no reason to doubt, is consistent with everything we know about Dylan’s performing life. He “shapes the environment” of both his music and his personality as the public experiences it. (I have no idea what he is like in private life.)
The issue is not what he is communicating – I am not at all doubting the genuineness of his interests and his love for his art – but how he presents it. He so seldom does the expected that some have referred to him as “perverse.”
There is another way to look at what Dylan does, of course, and that is to see him as someone who wants his audience to pay attention – to be alert, to participate in what he’s doing, to share with him the experience of encountering the world the way he sees it. To accomplish this, perhaps, he specializes in doing the unexpected, or, to put it another way, to doing what he wants instead of what people want him to do.
In his remarkable autobiography Chronicles Volume One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), Dylan drops hints that he consciously engineers his persona. For example, he writes, “If you didn’t have some kind of trick, you’d come off with an invisible presence, which wasn’t good.” He’s specifically talking about what he learned from watching the singer Richie Havens, but the comment certainly seems to have larger implications.
In Chronicles (a book well worth anyone’s time to read) Dylan also talks about his exposure to the famous off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera (which opened in 1954, and then returned in 1955 for 2,707 performances), with music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), translated by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).
Dylan devotes five pages of his book to the effect the work had on him, especially the song “Pirate Jenny.” It is tempting to link Dylan with Brecht’s famous theories about drama as an instrument for shaking an audience out of its usual expectations and making it think (often referred to in English, somewhat inaccurately, as the “alienation effect”). Dylan’s many personae and his varied approaches to his music certainly seem to call Brecht’s approach to mind.
Dylan is notorious, in particular, for recasting his songs into rhythms, melody lines, and even harmonies, that barely resemble those of the original recordings. My friend at the Beacon concert said, “I wish that he’d sing just one line of “Blowing In the Wind” the way he wrote it! That’s all I want – just one line!”
I understand that request, but I think I also understand that Dylan seems to be saying, “Why should I sing a song in the way it sounded on its recording? I’ve already done that!” Another friend of mine feels that Dylan shows disrespect for his own songs. I see that situation in exactly the opposite way – it seems to me that Dylan respects his songs so much that he believes they can exist in many forms different from their original style. That approach is also part of the folk song tradition that (among other traditions) has influenced his writing.
In any case, the effect is to make a Dylan admirer approach each of his concerts wondering what kind of Dylan we’ll get this time – in other words, an alert, interested audience, an active rather than a passive audience.
Having said all that, as a matter of fact there may be a simpler reason that Dylan is singing better than we’ve heard him in a long time: in the last few years he has released three albums of music from what is often called “the great American songbook,” “standards” of popular music, many of them most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra (whom Dylan knew slightly, and greatly admired).
When you hear Dylan sing these songs (for example, at the Beacon, “Once Upon and Time” and “Autumn Leaves,” among others), you certainly know it’s Bob Dylan singing them; but he sings the songs simply and with feeling. He sings them. Perhaps that activity has spilled over into the way he performs his own songs.
In any case, the concert I saw was a huge success, with one high point followed by another. In recent years Dylan has completely stopped playing the guitar, and at the Beacon he didn’t play the harmonica either. Instead he either sang the standards while holding a microphone stand like Sinatra or Elvis might have done, or he sang from the piano, often standing up while playing, pounding on it like Jerry Lee Lewis. When he first started playing piano in his concerts, his playing was unobtrusive and tentative. Now it’s boisterous – a vigorous lead instrument.
Dylan, of course, caused a huge musical upheaval in the 1960s: he opened a new world of lyric writing by showing that words to songs could be personal to an individual, a window into a specific person’s mind. (He was helped in this by the fact that he is in many ways not just a lyricist but a poet, a fact that his Nobel Prize surely acknowledges.) Everyone who has written popular music since then, including the Beatles, rappers, and everyone else, has benefited from the revolution he caused.
Revolutions don’t come along that often, so Dylan has replaced revolution with revelation. Each appearance is a revelation of what a singer/instrumentalist/songwriter can accomplish, and a look at the possibilities of the human spirit as well – a spirit that may well at times be cranky, individualistic, even, well, perverse.
Ringo Starr also participated in a revolution, the revolution that happened musically, culturally, and perhaps even politically as the Beatles – hugely influenced by Dylan – transformed popular music, in some ways taking Dylan’s insights and presenting them in a more accessible way than Dylan has.
Since 1989, Ringo, long past his Beatle days, and his All-Starr Band have toured widely, with Ringo showcasing a changing series of outstanding musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, and recently of the 1980s. The round-robin format of his shows gives each musician a chance to be showcased, and allows all of them to stretch out musically.
The current band has been together for five years, and includes singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren, keyboardist Gregg Rolie (from the bands Santana and Journey), guitarist Steve Lukather (from Toto), bassist Richard Page (from Mr. Mister), woodwind player Warren Ham (from Bloodrock and Kansas) and drummer Gregg Bissonette, plus of course Ringo, also on drums.
I saw the last show of their 2017 tour at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. It is not revolutionary, but it is definitely a revelation of how well a rock group can work together. The members seem to genuinely enjoy playing together (and I have heard anecdotally as well that that is so).
Ringo continues to be a splendid host on stage, relaxed and funny, singing well, drumming (as I read someone say) impeccably, and reminding us of some points we ought to remember: that older folks can accomplish great things; that music can inspire, excite, stimulate, enliven; and that happiness is not only worthwhile but sometimes achievable. Perhaps those things are revolutionary after all.