PLAY A SONG FOR ME
His live performances range from desultory to incandescent. As Bob Dylan heads once more for Australia, Iain Shedden recalls a sublime experience in a small Melbourne club
IT’S the evening of August 19, 1998, and I’m locked in one of the cubicles of a Melbourne nightclub toilet with a man I hardly know. Drugs would be your first guess, perhaps, but you’d be wrong; nor is it male bonding. The two of us, The Australian’s photographer Simon Schluter and me, are hastily removing pieces of camera and accessories from our coats, pants, shirts and socks. These items we loaded carefully into our clothing an hour or so earlier at a nearby pub.
The subject of our attention and the reason for such subterfuge is Bob Dylan. The famous troubadour isn’t fond of cameras and we have heard none will be allowed on to the premises for the extraordinary show we are about to witness. Dylan is playing in front of just 800 people at the Mercury Lounge, a club inside Melbourne’s Crown Casino complex, and the opportunity to capture the great man in such intimate surroundings, however forbidden, is too good to pass up.
The gig is a warm- up for Dylan’s first Australian tour in six years. Most of the crowd queued for tickets a few days before and are basking in their good fortune just before the star arrives on stage.
Given Dylan’s reputation, however, the mood of anticipation is tinged with uncertainty. Will it be great or will Bob be insufferable?
That’s the kind of anxiety Dylan fans all across the world — even the tragics — have had to put up with for the best part of 45 years. It will be no different for some of them when he gets here for his eighth Australian tour, which begins in Brisbane on August 13. For all that he is one of the most revered songwriters and performers in history, when His Bobness plays live, history tells us that the experience does not always live up to his recorded output. At best, his shows can transcend anything he has committed to vinyl, tape or CD. At worst, a cantankerous frog on Valium croaking into a paper cup would garner better reviews.
Those are the thoughts going through my mind as the trademark ‘‘ Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan’’ ushers him on to the Mercury Lounge stage.
Dressed in a pale blue suit, he gives the nod to his dapper four- piece band and swings into Leopard- Skin Pill- Box Hat, the swaggering, bluesy ode to fashion victims from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde.
That moment in Melbourne is, for me, a revelation, like everything else that follows during the next two hours.
For years Dylan’s words and music have been familiar, some of the songs ingrained, but to see him performing in such close proximity, just metres away, with a band clearly enjoying the club atmosphere as much as the audience, is to suddenly understand what his proclamations of being purely a working musician are all about. To this day I cannot hear that opening song ( I have the bootleg CD of the show, allegedly) without a ridiculous grin spreading across my face. The first few bars are spine- tingling.
Such moments in rock are rare and precious, its lifeblood in fact, particularly when they are inspired by an artist who back in 1998 had been flogging his wares around the traps for 35 years. But aside from being in the presence of rock royalty, what was so special and revelatory about that show was being able to study Dylan the musician. To watch him pluck, strum and whine within spitting distance was almost like snooping — like taking a picture when it’s not wanted — but it explained a lot. Through the decades forests of paper have been lost to academics and music critics who have felt compelled to digest, dissect and share with us their thoughts on the intricacies and literary conundrums of Dylan’s poetry. Reams of critique, theory, speculative prose and simple nerdiness abound across several continents. Much less has been mentioned about Dylan the working musician, the sobriquet under which he has conducted most of his career and that has driven his Never- ending Tour for the past 20 years.
No matter what style he has performed in, however, there have been duds to match the awe- inspiring performances. Australia has endured significant landmarks in that long, difficult journey.
* * * FROM the days when Dylan began plying his trade in the bars of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, his unorthodox guitar playing, never mind his original singing and harmonica techniques, has inspired as many furrowed brows as it has religious fervour. He is an obstinate, often frustrating guitar player.
It’s no secret that he takes his lead from early American blues and folk pioneers such as Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, musi- cians whose rhythm and technique were crude in terms of musical prowess while being rich in expression and empathy with the lyrics. Such stylings suited Dylan down to the ground when he was the rookie, righteous folk renegade. If not quite killing fascists with his acoustic guitar — as Guthrie’s instrument famously declared — he at least made people listen to the words that came over the top of his unorthodox playing.
Twenty years ago, however, just before launching the Never- ending Tour, Dylan had a pivotal moment. He changed the way he played guitar. It had been taught to him by an old blues and jazz musician, Lonnie Johnson, at the start of Dylan’s career, but the pupil had neither understood it nor thought it important.
In the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles ( 2004), Dylan explained the kind of asymmetric yet mathematical sequences of notes and chord progressions that have come to influence his playing ever since.
‘‘ You probably wouldn’t pay any attention to this method if you weren’t a singer,’’ he wrote. ‘‘ It was easy for me to pick this up. It would be up to me now to expel everything that wasn’t natural to it.’’
It’s that cyclical style of running melodies through chords rather than matching them that has made Dylan’s guitar playing on the money or extremely annoying, no matter how developed your musical ear. It makes sense to him, but it can sound like keys down a blackboard.
‘‘ Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians,’’ he rightly observed.
* * * DYLAN’S presence in Australia hasn’t always been rewarding. In some instances it has been downright appalling. Just as renowned as his good nights are the clunkers with impenetrable vocals and unrecognisable tunes.
He first arrived in Australia in March 1966, not long after his notorious conversion to electric instruments. Like many of Dylan’s Australian concerts, his ’ 66 show in Melbourne is available in various formats if you are prepared to look in the right places. The recording has him revelling in his acoustic folk roots for half of the show and in the other enjoying the new- found freedom of being an electric rock ’ n’ roller, accompanied in the latter
segment by the Hawks ( minus drummer Levon Helm), who would soon rename themselves the Band. The shows were mainly well- received, except by those who took the Judas option regarding his electric conversion.
In 1978 he returned with a much larger and completely different band, and the gigs again went well.
Reviews of the ’ 86 tour that featured Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band were mixed. But worse was to come.
The sense of foreboding at the Mercury Lounge would have certainly applied to anyone who had seen Dylan on his previous visit. His ’ 92 tour was a particularly low point in his antipodean adventures. Dylan mumbled, ignored the audience and appeared out of sorts. At one of his six Melbourne Palais shows he was reported to be crying during his performance of Desolation Row. Some fans shed tears of their own, albeit for a different reason.
Writer and self- confessed Dylan devotee Stuart Coupe, one of the few Australian journalists to have interviewed Dylan ( twice), recalls the four performances at Sydney’s State Theatre that year.
‘‘ They were among the worst gigs I’ve seen in my entire life,’’ he says.
‘‘ I had tickets for every one of those shows. I’m a fanatic. Last time I had seen him with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, they had been pretty good shows. This time I walked out. When he was halfway through Desolation Row, I realised what song he was singing. He clearly didn’t care about the audience.’’
Since the ’ 98 Mercury Lounge show, Dylan’s two tours to Australia have been devoid of serious disasters. The 2001 tour was as impressive as its predecessor and Dylan reached out by taking the show to places such as Newcastle, Ballina, Tamworth and Cairns, as well as the state capitals. The Sydney performance in Centennial Park revealed the singer at his most comfortable in years. The set was like a greatest hits show; it included Like a Rolling Stone, Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Dylan even appeared to be on the verge of smiling more than once, but you couldn’t be sure.
Things changed in 2003, however, when Dylan entered a prolonged period of playing more keyboards than guitar. If he wasn’t exactly Mr Dynamite on stage before, his presence behind the piano lowered the intensity even further. Raw acoustic versions of Masters of War and Forever Young, among others, offered some compensation. Indications from recent shows overseas suggest that during the upcoming tour he will divide his time equally between electric guitar and keyboards.
What this reveals, and not for the first time in Australia, is Dylan’s contrary nature as well as his desire to keep reinventing his vast catalogue of great songs. The stubborn streak is rarely far away in his music, from his early days apeing Guthrie with that nasal whine through to the recent renaissance that has featured the albums Time Out of Mind ( 1998), Love and Theft ( 2001) and Modern Times ( 2006).
Anyone who has listened to Dylan’s American XM satellite radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, will know that whatever method he chooses to get his songs across, his influences and his musical passions are faultless. More than that, what the radio show and Chronicles and Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home have done is open up Dylan’s personality to his public. Perhaps all those years of saying nothing to his audience had to find a release somewhere. Whatever his motivation for speaking out, we should be grateful.
I’m glad, too, that he chose to get his band fired up by playing in a small Melbourne club nine years ago.
Coupe, however, has reservations about the upcoming tour of five capital cities.
‘‘ As a fan I’m wondering if I want to pay $ 180 to see him at the Entertainment Centre in Sydney this time,’’ he says.
‘‘ There’s that perennial issue of ‘ why does he keep doing it?’ It’s endless touring, so you pay your money and you take your chances. We don’t expect Bob Dylan to come out and say, ‘ Hey Sydney, are you ready to rock?’, but he also doesn’t give anything extra back to an audience. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a show where he has acknowledged that there is an audience. As a critic- observer- fan, of course I have some issues with that. Do I want to pay all that money to see how Bob feels tonight?’’
And that Mercury Lounge photograph for which we went to so much trouble?
We got it. My colleague left the bathroom and mingled for a while, chose his moment, removed the camera from his coat and fired off some shots. Security quickly escorted him from the premises, but, crucially, with his camera and film intact. Our little scoop ran the next morning.
That same day I had a couple of colour 8x10s done of the image that appeared in the newspaper. One I sent to the promoter as a kind of peace offering. The other I have at home, in a frame: a memento of the night when, for me at least, Dylan the working musician lived above and beyond his reputation.
Not much banter: Dylan can be notoriously taciturn on stage
At best, his shows can transcend anything he has committed to vinyl, tape or CD. At worst, a cantankerous frog on Valium croaking into a paper cup would garner better reviews
Wandering minstrel: Clockwise from main picture, Bob Dylan at the Mercury Lounge in Melbourne in 1998; arriving in Sydney for the 1978 tour; and on stage with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986