Live 1964 – Bob Dylan
"I'm not hearing any lyrical content these days besides 'baby, baby,'" grouses recently deposed Dead keyboardist Rob Barraco in the current issue of Relix, "and it’s time to move on from ‘baby, baby.’ We have a lot of issues and music is a great forum for that. People want to hear music they can relate to, that’s going to make them dance, and lyrics that have some spiritual value to them, or uplifting or just have meaning." It’s a prevalent attitude, in some variation or another, declared or implicit, in just about any musician actively working against the mainstream. Not to single out Barraco, necessarily, but the opposition he sets up is a dangerous one: pop music is bad because it is "meaningless," other music is good because it has "meaning." Just as the former has led to countless unutterably bad songs, though, so has the latter. What makes music good isn’t that it means anything, but that it does something, creates some kind of active emotional chain reaction in the listener.
This is precisely what Bob Dylan was in the process of discovering in late 1964. He had just recorded an album of political numbers and sly love songs called Another Side of Bob Dylan, and – in another three months – would be recording the epochal electric blues weirdness of Bringing It All Back Home. The sixth installment in his ongoing Bootleg Series captures, in stunning fidelity, a two-set solo performance that mixes all of the different kinds of songs he had been experimenting with up until that night. The performance begins with what was then his keynote number, "The Times They Are A-Changin’." Much will be made of how relevant the song still is in 2004, blah, blah, blah. Sure. It is. But if that’s all we take from it, then it’s a useless piece of pop – no better than any of the "baby, baby" songs Barraco derided – because it didn’t simply articulate one isolated moment that seems to be repeating itself today. There was much that followed. The times were changing, chaotically and violently, and it’s naive to think that the song is exactly the same now as it was then. Bob Dylan reacted to that with his music as well, and was beginning to do so by 1964.
Lester Bangs provocatively accused Dylan of being an opportunistic sloganeer, latching onto The Movement, as it were, as they were looking for somebody to be their voice. And maybe he was, but it was also a rich vein of source material. It's to Dylan's credit that "Times" does sound as fresh as it does — far more than pretty much any other political balladeer who has come since, if only because 1964, just following John F. Kennedy’s assassination but before the United States was fully entangled in Vietnam, might have been the very last moment in the United States’ history that unapologetic, literal protest songs made sense culturally. But they made a lot of sense then. They were a contemporary form, no different than electro-clash or garage rock or jamgrass or whatever is current now. Oddly, the way that Dylan eventually found his way to what might widely be considered the most "meaningful" music of his career – "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Visions of Johanna" and all that – was precisely by adopting the love song and filtering it through his own sensibility
Nearly half of Dylan's show is made up of love (or anti-love) tunes that – besides dealing abstractly with the morals of the day – don't concern themselves a damn bit with social ills. And some of them are just lovely – especially "Spanish Harlem Incident" and "To Ramona" – just sweetly crooned plain-as-day love songs (albeit delivered with a deft intelligence). It is also these songs that Dylan feels most comfortable singing at this performance (listen to him practically shout on "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright"). He seems a little bored by the older topical numbers like "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" (though not yet so disillusioned that he would rearrange them to keep them alive) and not yet in command of the surrealistic masterpieces like "Gates of Eden" and "It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" he was uncoiling for almost the first time. As performances, the love songs are gorgeous. In a way, they allow Dylan access to the kind of ecstatic, surreal space he would exploit over the next few years on songs such as "Like A Rolling Stone" precisely because he was liberated from having to actually "mean" anything.
They're all just songwriting techniques, and it's hard to say if one is more virtuous than another, except to judge by the results. What the hell does "pointed threats they bluff with scorn / suicide remarks are torn" mean, anyway? I dunno, but I know what it feels like to hear it sung, and have a surrealistic image burst into form in my brain. Regardless of whether or not he was sincere in singing "The Times They Are A-Changin’," one can at least give Dylan credit for earnestly playing with the effects of different kinds of songwriting. For Dylan, his latest creations, like "Mr. Tambourine Man," are alive and current, and one can hear them not only causing emotional chain reactions in the absurdly attentive audience but hearing them seemingly cause emotional chain reactions in the singer himself as Dylan stumbles over the new work as if he was over-thinking it. Whatever the new music is doing, it sounds as if it’s doing just as much to Dylan as it is to the audience.
Perhaps Rob Barraco is stuck in the '60s for setting up an opposition between pop music and "good" music, and perhaps I'm stuck in the '60s for paying so much attention to a Bob Dylan performance recorded nearly 40 years ago, but it does seem vital in 2004. These are fucking surreal times, and darn if Dylan’s lyrics don’t begin to make more sense. As Greil Marcus has pointed out, the now infamous line from "It’s Alright, Ma" – "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" – didn’t earn the round of cheers it now heartily (and easily) receives at pretty much every performance Dylan has sung it at since 1974. It didn’t make (as much) sense then. We understand now, and not because it has a particular meaning in the context of the song. The lyric isn’t housed in any particular set of arguments or even narrative. It’s just a particularly well-crafted piece of tongue-pleasing whimsy.
In fact, it's this charismatic whimsy that ties together all of the material — from the political numbers ("Talkin' John Bitch Paranoid Blues") to the love songs ("If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)") to the surreal epics ("It's Alright, Ma") to the banter that Dylan tossed back and forth with the audience. It's the same kind of whimsy, really, that drives even the most clever of love songs, the best-written pop tunes. "Got a light-skinned friend looks just like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks just like Michael Jackson," "rhymes" Kenye West hilariously on Twista's recent Top 5 hit "Slow Jamz." The intent of the humor in "Slow Jamz" is exactly the same as it is in "It's Alright Ma"'s lines about "flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark" — to make the audience laugh, precisely to make them stop thinking for a second while the music can deliver its emotional payload. It’s a technique, and it’s a great one, and it’s "baby baby" and "four-legged forest clouds" at the same time. Bob Dylan was almost there, and that’s really exciting to listen to.