Friday, July 8, 2016

A Dylan-esque Evening

"Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
But I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now."
            --Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

Back in my freshman year in college—when I was so much younger then—I decided not to take the time or spend the money to attend two concerts in downtown New Haven. One featured a young singer with an ethereal high-pitched voice named Joni Mitchell performing with an old veteran with a gravelly voice named Tom Rush. I’ll bet they were great that night. I can’t be sure because I wasn’t there. The second concert gained a certain amount of fame or infamy when singer Jim Morrison of The Doors went on a cursing binge and threatened to throw a microphone from the stage into the audience, leading to his becoming the first rock star to be arrested onstage. I missed that one too, and I still have regrets. Many years later, I did visit Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but that didn’t do much to ease my regrets about missing the concert.
Jim Morrison made history, and I missed it.
Flash forward a lot of years to last weekend when Audrey and I and our friends Helaine and Ken went to see our first Bob Dylan concert, even though Dylan has been around a lot of years. This time, my regret is that I WAS there.

Now, some people love Bob Dylan, and some people hate him, or at least his singing voice. I am in the former group. I have really liked Dylan the songwriter AND the singer over the years and have appreciated most of his many incarnations, with the possible exception of his “born again Christian” period (think” “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). Until now. The aging, rather than ageless, Dylan has decided to record parts of what music historians call, “the Great American Songbook.” On his latest album, he does Dylan-esque versions of some terrific standards such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Young at Heart.” But he also throws in a real zinger in “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” Yep, Bob Dylan, the rebellious folk-rock pioneer is singing about polka dots and moonbeams! It’s not as charming as it sounds.

Which brings me to last week’s concert at Tanglewood in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Before Dylan came on stage, we were entertained by Mavis Staples, who is around the same age as Dylan but a lot less cranky. Mavis charmed the audience and even got us all singing along in a 10-minuite version of “I’ll Take You There.” We sang only the same four words over and over, but we did it enthusiastically, and she seemed to really enjoy singing with us.

Mavis takes us there.
Then Mavis walked offstage to a rousing ovation, and Dylan came on just a few minutes later to an even louder welcome. He said nothing to the audience. Literally, nothing. Not “hello”, not “hi there,” not “hello Tanglewood,” He immediately broke into song. Now, we were on the lawn at Tanglewood a long way from the stage, but Dylan didn’t seem to be making eye contact even with those in the front rows. The only non-song words he spoke to the audience the whole evening came just before intermission, when he said, “We’ll be back in a few minutes.” Audrey turned to me and said, “The man is 75, he probably has to pee and figures he has to say something.”

Dylan performing in his own world
The second half of the program featured mostly Great American Songbook numbers sung in a strained voice, though Dylan did deliver almost unrecognizable versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Those songs upset me most of all. They were sung with little emotion and didn’t echo any of the bite or the irony of the originals. Even the amazing Dylan rhymes seemed to get lost. I felt that Dylan was saying, “These are my songs, not yours, and I’ll deliver them however I want.” Of course, he has the right to think that way, but we in the audience deserve a little more recognition. The concert ended soon afterward, without any comment from the performer. The lights simply came on, and we got up to leave. I’m not sure just what I expected from my evening with Bob Dylan, but it was more than I got.

The Dylan concert was our third live performance this year with an American icon in his or her 70s. A few months ago, we helped celebrate Joan Baez’s 75th birthday at the Beacon Theater in New York and attended one of the final performances of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” at City Center in New York. Joan and Garrison developed a warm rapport with the audience and seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. And we loved being there with them. No true Dylan fan would expect him to be as upbeat as Joan Baez or as amusing as Garrison Keillor. But we have walked down a lot of roads with him since the mid-1960s and lived through a lot of changing times and styles with him. I wish he had just acknowledged that we were there then and now.
Garrison Keillor weaving a story
Joan and Judy together on Joan's birthday

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