Chapter 29
Genius, Guitars, and Goodbyes


SO, I BROKE THE promise-to-self, to let Dylan tour on his own, without my help. I decided, after the last Scandinavian tour, that this was it; the shows were decent enough, but nothing more. I hyped myself up to enjoying them, liking them even, perhaps loving them, and moments like Desolation Row in Karlstad (best D-Row ever? Best D-Row ever!) made it a whole lot easier, but I also knew that I wouldn’t follow another tour again. Enough singsong, enough mumbles, no more days at the office for me. NeverEndingTour-Dylan never got better than 1995.

But things have changed, and for reasons more related to Wedding Song than to Desolation Row I had to give him another chance. Since he decided not to play Copenhagen this time, it had to be Gothenburg, and I was on the road again.

For the first time in a very long time, I was quite unprepared too. I haven’t heard a new show in two years, and I was looking forward to the closest thing to a virginal experience that I would ever get again. I knew there were some new band members, but I didn’t even know their names, let alone their faces. I was ready. C’mon, Bob, surprise me.

And man, was I surprised. It was a time-stopping experience. Two years just vanished, everything was just as I had left it. Given that that was two years ago, and that the man has been out there doing it all that time, that was not a good experience. One would expect that something had happened, but if it had, I don’t know what it was.

Call me Mr. Jones, call me Judas, but honestly, I had hoped for some development.

And the band. . . The band. . . Some years ago, even though I couldn’t always say the shows were great, inspired, etc., at least one could stand proud and claim that Dylan was backed by the best and tightest rock combo in the world, who played Brown Sugar better than the Stones themselves did.

Not anymore.

Tight? Nah.

Exciting? Nope.

Hard? Hardly.

I don’t want to sound negative; the steel guitar player was quite good – at times he made his instrument sound like something Bucky Baxter might have handled. The guitarist behind Dylan – I think it was Stu Kimball – had his moments too. I guess someone likes the new guy’s solos (that must be Denny Freeman, then) but don’t count me among them. Melodic in the bland, cover-band style that you might hear in light entertainment TV shows; and a repertoire of licks so vast that they reappeared every other song.

After a couple of songs, every taste bud in my aesthetic body yelled: ‘We miss Freddy!’ Initially, I just had to agree, and joined the choir. After all, I summed up my last concert experience (at least I believed it would be my last), writing ‘About Guitars and Kissing’, my eulogy to Freddy Koella, the guy who plays in Dylan’s style, but actually knows how to play.

But being the rational academic I am paid to be, I had to pass beyond that kind of populist clamour from the lowly senses – I had to think about it. Why has Dylan let Freddy go (or kicked him out?!) and replaced him with this? Images flash by: Michael Bloomfield – savage (and dead, of course). Robbie Robertson – there is a second-and-a-half scene in Eat the Document, just a soundcheck, where Robbie plays a few tones in E major and proves what a tremendous guitarist he was. Fred Tackett – he may wear glasses (so do I), but don’t let that fool you; he could be mean too. G. E. Smith – not my favorite guitarist, but there certainly was a bite there, some rough edges which we haven’t heard again before the days of Koella, paired with a certain dexterity which could become quite furious. J. J. Jackson – probably my favorite NeverEndingTour guitarist before Koella.

And now . . .! Where in this lineage does the current band belong? Why is it that I suddenly came to think of Hearts of Fire in the middle of the show?

Again: Why does he do it? He used to say, about the mid-eigthies, that he didn’t know what his songs meant any longer. Well, he doesn’t seem to now either. ‘Leledi-laaay’, ‘painting the passports brown’, ‘justlikea woman’ – all sung to the same melody, with the same emotional character. He might as well have sung ‘two litres of milk’, or ‘upmg kfadl ksdfie ewok’ – it wouldn’t have mattered more, or less.

I’m not going to analyse him or his motives – is he just doing it for the money? is it just this pact with the Commander-in-Chief? Is it, perhaps, just another day at the office? – but my impression is that he is no longer hungry, he is no longer nervous, he is tired and content. It may be a very long time since he last went to the beach and danced with one hand waving free, but up until recently he has sounded like he wanted to. Not anymore. He’d be afraid of getting dirt on his boots, he’d be repulsed by the fish, he’d be too tired to walk through the dunes. He was so much younger then. That bothers me, much more than the lack of melodic variety.

That Dylan never sings the same way twice is the most persistent myth about Dylan, but that doesn’t make it more true. Of course, there is a reason why I have all those boxes of concert tapes: because of a nuance here (which wasn’t there the day before, and which adds a whole dimension to the word or the song), and a rearrangement here (which transforms the songs in whays which makes the phrase ‘for better or for worse’ meaningless). But my experience this time – and, with few but honourable exceptions, for the past few years – was that not only does he sing exactly the same way as two years ago, he also sings every single song exactly the same way. (Take ‘exactly’ with a pinch of salt, or take it to mean ‘with exactly the same emotional investment’).

I’m not talking about age here, but about guts and hunger, interest and desire. (Prague, March 10, 1995: Dylan was sick and exhausted, and produced one of my favorite shows.) If he doesn’t know what it’s like on the beach any more and by the way doesn’t want to either, then why on earth does he have to sing about it? Why doesn’t he give us something he’s interested in? He obviously loves old music, the kind of songs he rips off and records with new lyric collages, the kind of stuff he sings when he’s all by himself. That’s what he does amazingly well, so why not do it more? How about ditching the war-horses – they’re as tired as him – and playing a show once in a while, with Doc Boggs, Gene Austin, Johnny and Jack, Charles Aznavour, stuff we know he loves?

Why not? Well, because if he did, he probably wouldn’t fill the halls he plays in now. The popular response, which he finally seems to embrace and enjoy after years of resisting it an trying to destroy it, has become too pleasant, it seems.1

I don’t have the time for that: I have boxes upon boxes of old tapes full of flame and nervous energy that I have to listen through again.

If this is it, then: Bye, Bob.

*   *   *

Those were my initial reactions. After some more time to think,2 I found there was more to say, because the issue has wider implications, encompassing culture, communication, and art.

There are some things I’m not intending to do:

What I did intend was to urge people to think about what they do, and what that does to the performance situation.

OK, Dylan’s an icon, OK, he has a charisma which pours off the stage in gallons, even today, but still?

It is amazing that he can still do it. And I can understand that people want it to be good – because it’s Dylan, because there’s a legend up there, because they’ve waited for this for twenty years, because they’ve paid (un-)fairly large amounts of money for those two hours. But how can he ever get anything like a clear perception of when what he’s doing is good – how can he possibly develop criteria for judging this – when the feedback he gets is uncritical adoration? When stepping over the amp next to his piano and moving slightly closer to the centre-stage and blowing some ‘tut-tut-tut’ thing on the same note in his harp, will harvest the same ovations every night, and when saying ‘thank you’ – once, at best – brings down the house?

Part of Dylan’s greatness lies in his integrity, his unwavering confidence that what he’s doing is right. Take the ’65/66 tour: night after night with catcalls, Judas!, the English leftists’ organized clapping (‘If you only wouldn’t clap so hard’), the boos, the reviews – enough to break anyone’s back, but Dylan sucked energy out of it and produced classic performance art. Or the gospel tours. Again: boos, ridicule, and audiences numbering 2,000 rather than 20,000 or 200,000 – and again: brilliant shows filled with fire and brimstone, and not only coming from the texts. Even the self-inflicted nadir around 1990 could be seen in this light: perhaps the ultimate act of artistic integrity: to self-destruct in order to rebuild.

But when was the last time Dylan was booed? Even when he put out a bad performance? When was he last given that opportunity for a reality check which an honest audience reaction is?

If an artist puts out a performance which is sub-par, he should be greeted with boos, regardless of what he has done in the past, or will do the following night. He should not be deprieved of the chance of a reaction which is based on what he does, now, and not to what he has done or has been, which is in effect the same thing as treating him as a has-been.

It’s not necessarily the booing I’m after (although that would probably bring out some long-lost fire and brimstone in mr. D), but a nuanced response from the audience, where the audience is able to see beyond the god-like iconicity of the man up there, and hear what they hear, instead of first passing it through the ‘he’s a genius, so this must be good’-filter.3

I think this would do us, the audience, good, but it is also our responsibility towards the artist: if what he is doing is to engage in an act of communication (and not just sound production), and if the response is the same no matter what he communicates, what good does that response do him – what kind of respect towards him is that?

One of the most puzzling – perhaps saddest, but I’m not really sure about this – moments in my Dylan carreer was the first time I was up front and was able to see him at ten feet’s distance. The show was great, but the look on his face . . . It seemed to lie somewhere between complete unemotionality and some kind of bemused superiority. Whatever it was, it looked like a mask. At the time I thought: He is not taking us, this, himself, seriously. He doesn’t have to, of course, and again: that he does not succumb to that kind of emotional interaction with the audience which is so commonly seen, is to me the strongest sign of his integrity. But on the other hand: how can it be otherwise, when he is greeted with hoorays whatever he’s doing? Mustn’t he be thinking, either: ‘Why on earth are they cheering – that solo wasn’t really that successful, was it?’ or ‘Hey, that must really have been a great solo I played there – look at how they’re cheering!’ In any case, it might be time for another ‘If you just wouldn’t clap so hard.’

A fundamental premise for what I’m saying is that art does not and cannot live in a vacuum in the artist’s oh so brilliant head: it is an act of communication, which involves two actors, with a shared responsibility for making it work: the artist and the audience. If the audience is content with ‘intensity gone’, ‘not exactly half bad’, and ‘Merle was better’, but still make it sound like it was the best show ever – every time – that’s not taking that responsibility. And if Dylan is content with playing not half bad, perhaps because that’s all it takes to fill the venues with enthusiasm – every time – that’s not taking his.

Being a ‘genius’ is no excuse. Genius is not an inherent quality of an artist, but something that’s constantly in the making. If an artist produces something of inherent beauty, profound expression, coming from a sharp eye on the human condition, a gaze which transcends everyday thoughts, then that expression might be called genius, but to call the artist himself a genius would be to subscribe to a concept of divine inspiration which Dylan may or may not embrace, but I don’t. Genius isn’t what you are, but what you do.

I take ‘Art’ to be a label we have put upon a particular kind of communication, and whereas communication, just as any other human activity, as a matter of course comes from the subject, which thus is the beginning and end of the act of communication, the tools with which the subject is able to make sense of this communication, are available to the subject only through the rules for correct use (and interpretation) that a language community constitutes (or an art-reception community in this case).4

Thus, if one sees art as a system for conveying a certain gaze on existence (whether in its entirety or in the tiniest aspect of it, such as a stone or a car passing by on the street while one is on one’s way to work or to meet a lover whose current partner is blissfully unaware of the liaison, but murderously [in the literal sense] jealous, and who also happens to be your own best childhood friend at that – small things like that), the gaze itself may (or may not) be completely subjective, but the communication of it is (1) meaningless as a completely subjective exercise, even in the cases where the artist counts himself as his main or only audience, and (2) inconceivable without the patterns for generation and organization of meaning which can never be entirely subjective – on the contrary. Even when the artist communicates primarily with himself, the communication will take place in this channel, as an exchange between the self and the other.

This is, in the end, why it bothers me so much when the communication seems to be broken. I know he is capable of it. This book is my attempt to take my part of the responsibility.