The cryptic crooner has made a career out of demystifying people’s expectations.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Bob Dylan is no stranger to the art – and the absurdity – of critical reflections on his work.
“There’s just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them,” he once said. “And that might be all they have going for them. However, it’s no small thing.”
The inimitable Mr. Zimmerman, who has gone through more transformations in his career than the rest of us mere mortals would in several reincarnations, will be coming to Monterey this Saturday, Aug. 21, for the first time in years (he played Laguna Seca in 1995) in a show that opens with the wryly titled The Dough Rollers.
Of course, in a sense it won’t just be Dylan himself who will be coming to the Fairgrounds. He’s played there long ago, in a galaxy far away, with his then-girlfriend Joan Baez – at the Monterey Folk Festival.
On this year’s visit, inevitably, he will be accompanied by the myth he has spent so much time debunking, the set of expectations brought to his performances by people who once believed, or still want to believe, that he had the answer, poetic or political, to the unanswerable mysteries of life.
In that sense, any Bob Dylan show, including the ambitious West Coast version of the Never Ending Tour the 69-year-old musician has decided for some reason is how he wants to spend his late summer and early fall, is in part a wish fulfillment event defined by his audiences, whether they’re Boomers seeking to re-enact some scenes along the road, new fans attracted by the sheer verisimilitude of his work, or the merely curious, wanting to see what’s up with this geezer they’ve heard so much about.
The planetary waves of nostalgia and appreciation Dylan continues to attract are touching but irrelevant to the sounds and senses he will be creating.
Perhaps his real achievement at this point is the onstage music he creates in the here and now.
As someone who saw him not too long ago in a smaller venue in San Francisco, I can attest that he brings fresh energy, arrangements and fierce attention to each show, each song, regardless of the historical baggage he also lugs along.
“Songwriting is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something,” Arlo Guthrie once said. “And I don’t think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything.”
But to his credit, probably Dylan’s greatest transformation has been his ability to finally turn down the volume on the hype surrounding him.
He’s walked away from the indelible angry images of the snarling leather jacketed hipster turning on journalists in Don’t Look Back, just as he disavowed the folkie labels of his youth, turned away from the electric expectations generated by “Like A Rolling Stone” to the quieter reflections of Nashville Skyline and New Morning, moved on from the defiant self-indulgences of Self-Portrait to the religiosity of Slow Train Coming. In recent years, he has returned to his folkie roots with a series of records that quietly, and frequently playfully, explore the themes of his past, along with reflections about his uncertain personal future. But in person, he still rocks.
It isn’t easy to turn from a troubadour to a journeyman, but it’s been a choice that seems to suit his mellower, seemingly more mature, mood.
Dylan once avowed that he was just a “song-and-dance” man, and his adventures with groups like The Traveling Wilburys has reaffirmed his commitment to that role.
He doesn’t show up on a cherrypicker, like Jagger, or hit the strictly nostalgia trail, like The Eagles. If people want to bring that to his shows, he can’t stop them, but watching him sing and play is akin to seeing Miles Davis, or Segovia. He lets the audience have their space without giving up his own commitment to staying in the moment.
It’s a coincidence that this performance comes after the recent death of the great jazz songstress Abbey Lincoln, whose adaptation of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was irrecoverably original. But the message of Dylan’s work is that there can be no separation (and really, no competition, his caustic comments in the past to the contrary) between great artists.
They’re all links in the chain, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Dylan himself has always retained the requisite distance from his legendary status.
“My audience now doesn’t particular[ly] care what period the songs are from,” he told rock critic Bill Flanagan. “They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed.”
Spoken like the man who put out an absolutely insane klezmer video of “This Must Be Santa” to accompany a Christmas album last year.
Expect the unexpected at the Fairgrounds.
And oh yeah – I guess it must be said: Welcome back, Bob.