The Lord Bob
Despite the fact that Bob Dylan has been continuously on tour for what feels like decades and everyone in the world has had several opportunities to see him play, I’ve only ever seen him play once.
It was a birthday present. In addition to acquiring the ticket, my wife was generous enough to go with me, and even more generous enough not to go one about quite what a sacrifice this represented. She remained calm and understanding throughout the waiting and queueing, The level of security was quite intense. I surveyed the throngs of calm looking greying people standing in line and wondered precisely what sort of violent outrage these troops thought we were capable of perpetrating. Even the oldest and angriest of us has, by now, reconciled themselves to Bob’s going electric at this point, surely?
As we found our seats, I started to become quite strange in the full and certain knowledge that Bob Dylan was by now somewhere in the building and that I would soon be in the same room as Bob Dylan. A big room for sure, and not a room that encourages conversation but still, undeniably, a room. Paradoxically, I was looking forward to disappointment, I knew that Bob Dylan was going to take some of the songs I love most in the world, and do unmentionable things to them. To deflower them on stage. I was not disappointed. Or rather, I was – beautifully.
Bob Dylan walked on stage with his band. He was wearing what looked like a Confederate army hat, Union pants, and a jacket of indeterminate origin. He looked like a deserter from a great American Civil War battle who had picked up replacement scraps of clothing from washing lines on his escape route. Whether he was a rebel fleeing south or a yankee fleeing north seemed very difficult to say.
Bob Dylan did not say anything all evening. Not “Hello”, not “this is my band”. not “I’m Bob Dylan”. He played and sang for two and a half hours and then bowed and disappeared. I explained to my wife that this was nothing to complain and that if Bob Dylan had bounded on stage and shouted “Hellooooo Dublin! Are you ready to Rock?!” then we’d all know we were dealing with an imposter. His attitude was simple. He and his band were going to do perform some songs and we were welcome to listen.
When it came to the song mangling, the effect was selective and oddly reassuring. Songs like “Just Like a Woman” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” were exquisitely rendered. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was an unmentionable tangle of melodic infelicities just designed to keep us awake and annoyed. And there has long been a serious point to this.
Dylan has never shown and interest in record production – in creating the definitive version of any of his songs. He could never have made an album like Pet Sounds or Sergeant Pepper – sitting up all night with engineers twiddling knobs. For Dylan, the song rather than the recording has always been key, and the writing of a song is about the creation of something that demands to be different with every rendition. And a Bob Dylan concert involves a kind of struggle with the people who are lip-synching along – expecting a performance to conform to a pre-existing ideal version.
Fans are Platonists. Bob Dylan is Aristotelian.
In some ways, the deliberate vandalism of certain songs makes Dylan cognate with Andy Kauffman. Just as Kauffman would rather die on stage than give people the laughs they’ve been expecting, so Dylan would, on occasion rather offend his audience than have them be able to look to far ahead. Dylan, unlike Kauffman, has carefully measured and contained the extent to which he does this in a way that does not do too much long term damage to his ticket sales.
Live performance needs disappointment. A performance that “delivers” represents a hollow and a sterile contract. Without bum notes nothing is really live and we might as well be watching a hologram. Of course, this will soon be a choice for so-called live entertainment venues – whether to risk booking aging, angry and unpredictable stars, or just make do with holograms who can offer predictively reliable versions of stars “in their prime”…