Rhymes for mod­ern times

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - IMRE SALUSIN­SZKY

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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