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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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