Rhymes for modern times
IHAVE been lucky enough to see Bob Dylan perform on about 20 occasions — I wish it had been many more — on three continents. Oddly, the strongest of the many strong memories I have from these concerts, which stretch back to 1978, comes from a largely unheralded tour of Australia in 1992. It was the third show of a three- night stand at the State Theatre in Sydney, and naturally I’d attended all three shows.
Suddenly, towards the end of a set that had been good but not outstanding, Dylan let loose with a version of Idiot Wind from Blood on the Tracks that came from nowhere, wound its way to the upper balcony where I was sitting and seemed, to quote another song from the album, ‘‘ like a corkscrew to my heart’’.
When I learned last month that Dylan would be touring in August, I was even more excited than usual because this will be the first time I get to see him with my 14- year- old daughter, who has loved Dylan’s music almost since she was a toddler.
Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing Dylan, who turned 66 last month, at the State Theatre or any similar venues in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth. As we learn from his recent memoir, Chronicles, Dylan decided in the late 1980s to reconfigure his relationship to his own songs and audiences by playing smaller venues and revisiting towns year after year.
The resulting exercise, known as the Never Ending Tour, is still rolling along, but unfortunately the commitment to small venues has given way to economic reality as Dylan’s popularity has experienced yet another resurgence following a series of successful albums. On this tour, like the past couple of times, he’ll perform in soulless music barns across the nation.
As my daughter and I approach the Sydney Entertainment Centre on August 15, I will warn her not expect the concert to sound anything like Dylan’s studio albums.
Of course, having watched documentaries such as Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorsese’s recent No Direction Home, she is already aware Dylan is a performing artist who does not use his concerts to indulge in a two- hour- long Bob Dylan impersonation.
Time, it must be said, has been kind to us Bobcats. We have been ridiculed at dinner parties and reviled in sections of the music press, but as other stars and styles have come and gone, Dylan has not faded into the greatest hits and golden memories twilight. He once said that but for the young people who come to his concerts, he’d have turned into a greeter at some Hard Rock Cafe years ago. It’s a tough scenario to imagine, but certainly the evidence of successive generations discovering Dylan will be on display at the Australian concerts.
It is important for my daughter and other lucky young people who will see Dylan for the first time in August to understand that, while the history of rock ’ n’ roll since the early ’ 60s provides one context in which to view him, it should not be a limiting context.
Dylan is the most significant American artist in any genre to emerge since World War II. What’s more, he emerges straight out of the romantic, or transcendental, tradition of Amer- ican art, the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
What does that mean, I can almost hear my daughter and her Dylan- loving friends ask. There can be no better way for intelligent young readers and music lovers to find out than by returning to Dylan’s remarkable book, Chronicles, published in 2004.
The book was marketed as a memoir, but Dylan makes it clear from the beginning that it is something else. Not even Dylan can plausibly remember what he saw when he looked down into the street from a Manhattan window 43 years ago:
‘‘ Across the way a guy in a leather jacket scooped frost off the windshield of a snow- packed black Mercury Montclair. Behind him, a priest in a purple cloak was slipping through the courtyard of the church through an opened gate on his way to perform some sacred duty. Nearby, a bareheaded woman in boots tried to manage a laundry bag up the street.’’
These are typical, not remembered, scenes and are there to remind us that Dylan’s artistic method is not realistic or personal but archetypal, concerned with the types of things that happen rather than with things that have actually happened. Repeated readings of Chronicles have inclined me to regard it as a parable of what the artistic process and the spiritual quest — identical undertakings in the transcendentalist tradition — mean for Dylan.
This is achieved largely through a series of setpieces designed to illuminate the character of Dylan’s artistic project via contrast. When he arrives in Greenwich village, there are the commercial folk groups, with names like the Four Kinsmen, and then there are folk purists such as Pete Seeger who sneer at them. Dylan makes it clear that he belongs to neither group. As far as folk was concerned, he freely admits he could be out- sung and outplayed by any number of performers of the time, but unlike them he understood ‘‘ the inner working of the thing’’.
What this means is that Dylan can be the master of genre rather than becoming mastered by it. It takes artists of the stature of William Shakespeare or Jane Austen to refashion or rejuvenate entire genres, but Dylan has performed the trick on three or four occasions.
In a long and hilarious episode from 1971, Dylan describes his unsuccessful collaboration with the most famous American poet of the time, Archibald MacLeish, on a play for which MacLeish was to provide the text and Dylan would provide the songs. Ostensibly, it is a pairing of a serious with a popular artist. But by poking gentle fun at MacLeish’s bombast and conceit, Dylan undercuts the distinction. Like so much of Chronicles, what the episode illuminates is the peculiar fix of the serious artist who finds himself at the pinnacle of a popular genre. Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens ever experienced this to the extent Dylan has.
The most explicit description of what it means to be that kind of artist comes in a passage where Dylan perceives that Daniel Lanois, producer of his 1989 album Oh Mercy, wants him to produce some new archetypal classics such as Hard Rain:
‘‘ I couldn’t get to those kinds of songs for him or anyone else. To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough. Someone would come along eventually who would have it again — someone who could see into things, the truth of things — not metaphorically either — but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight.’’
review@ theaustralian. com. au