BRAIN TUBA: Notes on a Miscellaneous Bob Dylan Show
When Bob Dylan came into Madison Square Garden last week, he wasn’t just
arriving at the big modern rock and roll and sports arena. He was arriving
at the place where the circus has played for the past 60 years and change, a
place where there are still revival meetings by strange ministers, political
conventions, giant Christmas pageants, and Vaudeville-like comedy acts —
and Dylan played it as such. It’s what he’s been presenting himself as, in
varying degrees, for the past 40 years: a song and dance man. And, at this
point, he’s exactly right. He’s just another in a long line of American
My friends and I bought the cheap seats – the $50 cheap seats – and made our
way up into the rafters with the other groundlings. The expensive seats (and
there were still plenty of those left in the two-thirds full Garden) fetched
upwards of $120. In other words: there was a simply enforced class structure
in the arena. I don’t go to arena shows that often, so I’d basically
forgotten that such things exist, but they’re still a completely routine
thing: cheap seats versus quality seats.
As such, the New York crowd was no different than a crowd would be in 1975,
when Dylan hit the Garden with the Rolling Thunder Revue; no different than
1960, when Dylan arrived in town; no different than any boxing match or
anything that came before it. It was no different than a crowd at PT
Barnum’s spectacular American Museum in lower Manhattan, which burned down
in 1865. We like to think we’re better, more informed, a little less stiff
— but shit, man, we’re just as archaic, and every single culture ‘til the
last epoch before the demise of man will be just as backwards and just as
old-fashioned. Soda vendors wandered about, hawking their goods and
announcing their presence with yells, the cry of the human voice just the
same as it ever was.
There are plenty of authors – Paul Williams and Michael Gray to name two – who have critically engaged with Dylan over the course of their careers,
their lives, and I think there’s something nice about that. Dylan has a
power about him that sort of attracts these things. As a showman, Dylan is
one of those guys who’s always been a lot of things to a lot of people —
not only that, but there’s a quality to his music that allows wildly
different kinds of listening experiences for different kinds of listeners.
Dylan’s own relationship with his music – that is, endless touring and his
staunch refusal to be anything but himself – has allowed those relationships
to sustain themselves.
The show we caught was on Veteran’s Day. Dylan played different kinds of
songs. He played his "personal" songs, like "Shelter From The Storm" from
Blood On The Tracks; broader social songs, like "It’s Alright Ma (I’m
Only Bleeding)"; and ones that seemed to hover between the two, like "All
Along The Watchtower". Dylan, of course, applied his infamous rearrangements
to all of them, which kept the audience from singing along with them. It
kept the songs dancing in a liminal space that belonged to nobody except
Dylan, and maybe not even him.
Nonetheless, it felt Important that I got to hear Bob Dylan sing "Masters of
War" on Veteran’s Day, with America about to enter another oil-crazed
conflict with Iraq and the Homeland Security Department about to be created.
There was a cocksure quality to his voice. Watching him, it was quite easy
to presume anything I darned well wanted about him. He was a twig of a
shadow in the distance, a dumb show and Shakespearean play all in one with
neither able to validate the other. If Dylan is anything, he’s a mirror
ball, sending out a thousand glittering reflections in all directions. There
is a ridiculous amount of Dylan scholarship out there, detailed in Mark
Jacobson’s "Tangled Up In Bob", recently anthologized in Da Capo’s Best
Music Writing 2002 volume.
I’ve been going through a bit of Dylan period lately, in terms of listening,
viewing, reading. I saw the show. I watched drummer Mickey Jones’ recently
released home movies of the 1966 world tour, read Richie Unterberger’s
account of the folk-rock explosion, listened to the new Live 1975
double set, and tried to assimilate it all. It didn’t actually become too
much ‘til I stopped to think about it, which – not coincidentally – when I
started working on this column. Writing in a recent Real Life
Top 10 column about Dylan’s first electric set, Greil Marcus referred to
"the  Newport Folk Festival, where, as the current revisionist line
has it, nothing actually happened." It sure seems like that.
The solution? Stop listening to Dylan for a little bit? Don’t be ridiculous,
bubba. That would be giving into the confusion. I feel a remarkable
compulsion to yes-and Dylan. The answer, of course, can only be found further and deeper in
the Dylan catalogue. I spent a lot of time listening to the Live 1975
discs, music that came at a chaotic juncture in Dylan’s career — one of
those moments, like the early ’60s, where dozens of characters intersected
with politics and public life. Especially given Larry Sloman’s exhaustive
liner notes, it was a lot to assimilate.
By God, what did it all mean? I had a hard time deriving pleasure
from those discs, at least in the way that I derived pleasure in the roughly
contemporary Blood On The Tracks, which I routinely rank as my
favorite album of all-time. It was the same guy and all, but… but…
The solution? World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You, the
two albums of weary solo acoustic folk tunes Dylan recorded in the early
’90s, between Oh Mercy! and 1997’s revitalizing Time Out Of
Mind. They’re Dylan alone, still unmistakably himself, but also without
the burning spotlight. Like anything else in the Dylan catalogue, it’s easy
to over interpret them, but there’s something in them that resists.
Sometimes, it’s just nice to listen to a dude with an acoustic guitar.
Jesse Jarnow does believe he’s had