Dylan's latest European tour is just drawing to a close. Westrow Cooper, secretly hoping for 'Visions of Johanna', caught up with him in Bournemouth, and reflects on Dylan past and present. The "Spokesman (still) denies he’s a spokesman," but in the end it's the songs that really count.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart
Ezra Pound, ‘Exile’s Letter’
‘Dear Bob Dylan,
You don’t know me, but I know you. At least I think I do. That’s why I’m writing you this letter …’
Ok,ok, hold on to your hats. I didn’t actually send it, but I did catch up with him again recently in Bournemouth.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of promise of the ‘60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ‘70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus, only to lose him again [..] please welcome Columbia recording artist Mr Bob Dylan’
Which we duly did, and the band laid straight into a thunderous ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,’ still fresh after all these years. But the showman’s patter remains entirely off-stage. The only time Dylan speaks (to us) is to introduce the band just before the last song. The upside of this is that there is no ladeez and gennelmen, please give it up for Mr Mark Knopfler, on guitar after Knopfler (who was also the support act) had joined the band to play on ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’. Knopfler just came onstage, did his bit, then off again.
Dylan has always maintained that he is not some kind of prophet or revolutionary, but an entertainer in the American tradition. Which, of course, is both true and not true. The retro-styled hokum of the intro both maintains this stance and acknowledges that it can never quite be the case. There’s just too much baggage. As he puts it in Chronicles: Volume 1 – ‘Spokesman denies he’s a spokesman.’
Being of recent vintage, songs like ‘Beyond here Lies Nothin’ and ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ did not need re-working to take account of his now severely limited vocal range and are delivered with verve. The good news is that the band (with Dylan playing as part of the unit) is now tight and well-rehearsed and, unlike a notorious period in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Dylan now feels ready to share the set list with his band. ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ (a real surprise) work brilliantly and are genuinely thrilling. As is, though not quite so straightforwardly, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.’
Here the lyrics are delivered in staccato rasps and the music heavier; nevertheless a refrain on the guitar does just enough to transport you, older now but no wiser, to where that ‘big fat moon [is] gonna shine like a spoon/But we’re gonna let it..’ and evokes the easy-going beauty and sexiness of the original. But it’s no good clinging to the past (as any good Dylan song will tell you).
If you want to hear the classic songs as they were, better to get a classic live recording. There is a fantastic live recording of ‘Visions of Johanna’ on the 3 CD Biograph set. This was recorded live in London in the solo acoustic set that formed the first half of the shows on the 1966 (Dylan goes electric! “Judas!!”) tour – so, played acoustic just a few days after he had released the electric version on Blonde on Blonde. When you hear this performance, the audience’s later dismay is perhaps a bit more understandable; the acoustic set was simply more electric than the, er, electric set.
I had hoped (a massive understatement lurks in that ‘hoped’) he would play ‘Visions of Johanna’ – and, please, ‘To Ramona.’ Internet ‘research’ (the kind of research that sucks you in and threatens to turn you into a crazed fact-hound) had told me that both songs were being played on the current tour. And that, for example, he’s played ‘To Ramona’ live 352 times, the first on 26th July 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival, and most recently (at least, at the time of writing), on 4th November 2011 in Stockholm, straight after the opener, ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.’ But of course you knew that.
Over the years Dylan has explored every avenue of disappointment, but the ’66 tour is undoubtedly a landmark. [It almost stands comparison with riots at the early performances of Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’, at ‘The Rites of Spring’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’] Is the ’66 tour not the last time an artist has managed to truly dismay their audience? Such manifestations are unthinkable now: can anything raise more than a shrug?
Some years back my daughter was having trouble with an essay on J B Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and came looking for some assistance. My response was to play ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’ over and over, each time more loudly. Less than 20 years separate these two powerful dramatisations enquiring into the limits (or otherwise) of personal responsibility, but in that time the world had turned; and Dylan was part of the turning.
(Incidentally – no lasting damage. Though her schoolteacher did express some surprise as to why, in the middle of a perfectly good essay on J B Priestley, she suddenly launched into a diatribe on Bob Dylan. One unintended consequence was that my son became a fan).
In ‘Chronicles’ Dylan writes: ‘I really was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.’ Managing to be both as precise and as elliptical as in his best songs.
Over the years, in concert halls across the world, infinity has been put on trial (to borrow a phrase) and his back catalogue tested to the limit. It is a testament to the brilliance of many of the songs that they stand up no matter what he (or indeed anyone else) has visited on them. And it’s the songs that – still – matter.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue
Photograph courtesy of FoggyPunk