Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bob Dylan delivers "All the Truth in the World"

By Peter Rodman

Three Bob Dylan fans walk into a bar. First one says, “I’ll have a beer. Import, please…” Second one says, “No imports here; gimme a Bud Light!” 

Third one says, “Nothing here is of any import.”  

Bob Dylan at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville ~ April 27, 2015
 Photograph Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.
The most common kind of Bob Dylan fan still finds it charming to declare him inscrutable, mock his churlish ways, and happily say, “I’ll never figure him out, but I love him anyway!” 
A rarer kind thinks it’s much more simple to picture him as a human. What if the man just wants to live his life, entertain the people (if they’re entertained by what he does), get away from all the myth-making, and tell the truth, wherever practical?
These days, he often begins his sets with “Things Have Changed”:

“I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much…”

Bob himself seems like that second kind of 'Dylan fan.'
He’s laid it all out there for everyone to see, but they still don’t see it. Or they don't want to.
And hey, that’s okay with him…you can only give so much.

“People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, but I’m out of range
I used to care…
But things have changed.”

No wonder either, that his only early-period blockbuster in this whole concert (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) finally showed up second-to-last as a piano-based saloon song, bookended by standards. 

Personal Confession #1:
With every bone in my body (and I am serious here), I had to resist the urge to shout out “BALTIMORE!”  during a lull in "Blowin' in the Wind." (Referring to the week's unrest there...

...because things haven’t changed all that much, it sometimes seems.)

ut Bob has, and quite frankly I’m happy I didn't succomb to the urge to make him be what he used to be, and no longer can be.  Besides, I hate people who shout out things at concerts. (Recent Jackson Browne tours have become so unbearable, I won't be back--no matter how good Jackson is.)

Think about this for a second:  Had he wanted to, Bob Dylan could have built his later years into a sports-arena farce, full of grandiosity, aided by audio tricks, and gilded with carefully ginned-up adulation.  In short, he could easily make a far better living,  pretending to be ‘Rope Line Bob, of Olde.’
But the truth is, that Bob never survived 1966.
This one did.
For many years during the ‘80s, he seemed to straddle the fence between his own image, flopping around like a freshly caught fish...and his growing personal reality.  Watch, as Stevie Wonder famously coaches him in How to Sing like the OLD Bob Dylan, on 1985’s “We Are the World”:

Probably the last glimpse of Ye Olde Bob was the Traveling Wilburys, done partly to appease his pal (and lifelong devotee) George Harrison, and partly just to see if he could dig a true collaboration.
Even then, the so-called 'Never Ending Tour' had already begun…and somehow, the carny-like lure of medium-sized halls, state fairs, county roads and classic diners ultimately won out.

Long Live Ye Olde Bob!  
Ye Olde Bob is dead.
The above is a National Lampoon radio parody, from the mid '70s.
And so it is, that 'Mr. Dylan' has enjoyed a steady rollin’ road life ever since. 
Nashville has venues galore.
Bob could play any of ‘em he wants. He’s done the Ryman, but no longer even does that.
Instead, he’s played every dump from Greer Stadium (former home of minor league baseball's Nashville Sounds) to the impossibly cavernous and outdated ‘Auditorium Theatre,’ one of those concrete cow palaces that would be better off razed.
So TPAC (The Tennessee Performing Arts Center) was this year’s (perfectly hoary) compromise between upscale comfort and neo parking garage ambiance. It normally hosts kitschy road companies performing Broadway shows, like Phantom or (good heavens!) Kinky Boots, and its decidedly churchy crowds don't seem to mind feeling dwarfed inside what feels like a carpeted Bundt-cake mold.
Audiences here are used to having their patience tested.
Besides, it’s virtually across the street from the last classic American hotel in town, The Hermitage.
Bingo. Bob's here!
If there’s one thing Bob knows, it’s classic Americana--and I'm not talking about some lately-concocted musical genre.
After spending the first five years of his career deifying the Dust Bowl (and then leavin' it, to rock a little), Dylan disappeared behind the Rolling Thunder Pancake & Folk Circus, which began a curious left-turn toward life as Repertory Bob, only to circle back later.

The Nashville show was no surprise to never-left-him Bob watchers, which made it a disappointment to others.

And it was a huge surprise to the tuned-out-but-still-curious Bob Watchers, who forgot that he hasn't played guitar on stage for years, thus their (slightly outdated) disappointment.
Still more folks can't understand why Bob won't adhere to his own melodies as originally written, choosing instead to rewrite them every single time he sings them.
I fall somewhere in between, but wasn’t too disappointed at all--other than not being able to take pictures…which has admittedly become my main hobby now, as a full time hobby horse (retiree).  

he 'show' was more than adequate, by classic American standards. (All puns intended.)
If you're still happy merely attending a show, as are most TPAC patrons on most nights, presumably you weren’t  obsessing on cell phone pictures or making YouTube videos, selfies and texts. 
If, however, you are among the millions who now demand such self-generated amenities from your paid-seat universe, join the disappointed.
Over all, it cannot be denied: 
Bob aimed to please.
There was a nifty version of  “She Belongs to Me,” which always reminds me of a sexy trumpet player I briefly dated, in the ‘90s. 

(I don't care if it was written 30 years earlier...I choose to believe it was about her.  I also like imagining that Bob was talking about the 'Madonna,' when he sang "and Madonna, she still has not showed..." in 1965. Not possible?  You say. See? Myths are fun!) 
Another plus was his articulation, far more accommodating and discernable than it has been in years.
The point is, it may not look like it to a spoiled forever, I-want-it-all crowd, but he's really trying up there, the band is quite good, and for cryin' out loud...he'll turn 74 in a couple weeks!
If you’re pleased enough with a sit-there-and-listen atmosphere, this'll do.
Bob provides other accommodations, too. 
Ya want t-shirts and trinkets?  We got ’em! 
Dylan swag was reasonably priced, as were the show tickets (top price, under $150) and not much time or money was wasted on designing those shirts, because Bob clearly believes they’ll end up in your son’s dresser drawer anyway.
Is he wrong? I don't think so. 
Same for the $20 posters that say
“IN SHOW~ IN CONCERT” with a “your city here” spot filled in at the bottom, to (sort of) personalize them.
The top of the poster said
but that part is cut off, here...

This is the kind of traveling show that dates back to 19th century America …and Bob Dylan knows that.  He knows just where he stands.
He is "in concert," for some.
He is in “show,” (or on display, not unlike Buffalo Bill was) for others.
Bob wants you all to know, he knows all that. 

Whatever ya like, people…Bob’s here to please.
That the merch resembles tossed-off ephemera is no accident. It's good enough, for what it is.
Heck, even Steven Tyler lined up to buy some.

Let nothing distract from the here and now, right?
And right here, right now, Bob's gonna play us some songs.
So please…once again, if we may…no photographs, no movies, no cameras, no texting…just ignore the extra burly ‘help’ TPAC has hired for this occasion, to watch over you. (Lucky for me, on the few occasions when he parked himself directly in front of the blinding floor emergency light beside my seat, I could almost make out Bob Dylan onstage!)

Chinese Dylan Album~ Photograph Copyright 2008 by Peter Rodman.
I no longer ascribe 'evasion' to Dylan as a motive, at all. 
In fact, I think the opposite: He’s been trying to be himself for a lot of years now, but we still won’t let him. 
Though as smart and as thoughtful as any man on the planet, he’s a simple guy at heart.
Or at least he longs to be...I think.
At this point, Bob knows history doesn’t matter as much as it used to, including his own. (I wish I knew that, so I could avoid writing, now that I'm not getting paid for it anymore!)
But that's just it.
To illustrate just how much time has changed our perspective...
Back in 1977, famed 'Beat poet' and Dylan confidante Allen Ginsberg visited my radio show, and said modern day poets should never assume Dylan hadn't studied all that came before him.  "I mean, they shouldn't be too dumb," he said, half-jokingly. "It's like saying, 'Do you think Dylan should have heard some folk songs, before he started writing his own?' Well, naturally! 
Your intrepid writer, at the opening
of the Country Music Hall of Fame's
'Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats'
exhibit. ~ March, 2015
He started by adapting (very old) folk songs. And nowadays, what he's got on his book shelf is A Child's Ballads, which is a collection of classic English ballads, put together in the 18th or 19th century. What Dylan knows, is that everybody should know as much as they can.  They should certainly not be dumb."
I sometimes wonder what Ginsberg might say about that today, in our post-historic, glorify-the-dumb society--giddily riding out its descent, without a concern in the world...or for it.
"Nowadays," as Allen once called it, we live day by idiotic day.
Bob knows this. 
And unlike Ginsberg, he has lived to see it all.
Back when the above National Lampoon parody was done, it was literally unimaginable to think Bob Dylan might "go commercial," which is what made it so funny. To hear it today, you can almost believe it's real. 
By today's standards, Bob hasn't sold out at all--though there were those TV ads for Greek yogurt, Victoria's Secret, Chrysler, and Cadillac. 
So why not a Christmas album?

Why not an album of Sinatra covers, even if his voice croaks more than croons these days, making even Leonard Cohen seem melodic?

Can't a man have any fun anymore?
As John Mellencamp once put it (in the world’s greatest-ever album title):  Nothin’ Matters…and What if it Did?

This is where we are in America, circa 2015.
Unlearning lessons that took 200 hard years to learn, about everything from vaccines to unions, and gun control to governance itself.  If that's not the "decline and fall of," I don't know what is. All I know is, there seems little need to learn anything anymore, in a country that would rather cave in to stupidity and bigotry than open up to the world around them.  The idiocracy values selfies more than science, and web page construction more than sentence construction, giving every nut with a so-called smartphone the chance to chime in like they've suddenly got a better idea. 
Yes, I am 'a walking antique.'
But even taken in that context, Bob saw all this coming way before I did. 

“All the truth in the world," he sings......
".......................adds up to one big lie.”

He knew interviews no longer mattered by the late ‘60s, long before I'd ever done my first one, and two full decades before the one above. He already knew images would fade, and should fade--including his own.  He knew that success is a temporary gift, usually given (and taken away) way too soon before the last breath is drawn--and carelessly wasted, unless you truly are more careful than you used to be.

They say he’s inscrutable.  Elusive.
Mysterious, and all that.
I no longer believe that for a minute.
It’s all right there in front of us. 
In fact, the guy’s pouring his heart out, right there on stage, and it’s ours for the taking...until the show’s over.

This is a Big Picture guy.  He’s thinking in terms of the universe, knowing his own (universe) is small, consisting only of what can actually be seen and heard and touched, in a single day.  These days Bob goes for walks, unrecognized in almost every city he plays. More than once, however, he's been mistaken for a vagabond. (Could that be more perfect?) Once, he was picked up outside Bruce Springsteen's boyhood home, staring into the yard, late at night.  

Just after finishing his reinvented version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (which I somehow identified, in less than a minute!) he closed the show with a straightforward plea to the audience, lifted right off an old Frank Sinatra record:

“Should my heart not be humble

Should my eyes fail to see
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way,
Stay with me.”
It very much recalled his own song, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” which had shown up earlier in the night:

“Just as long as you stay with me
The world is my throne
Beyond here lies nothin’~
Nothin’ we can call our own.

See?  Bob’s soul was right there all along, for the taking.
His warts 'n all mortality freely admitted, but no longer of special concern. Better to wear out your welcome than to flame out, as per Neil Young's instruction.
We've been mighty lucky to have heroes like Bob--as self-aware and unimpressed with his own hype as possible, given the fun-house mirror we insist he use. In his last years, he seems eager to rejoin and physically touch the world around him, dutifully lowering expectations, decades after serving his time in the Stuperstar Army.
Though it does not sit well with souvenir seekers, I like this approach just fine. 

"Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall..."

If you enjoyed spending some idle time in a dimly lit room  with Bob the other night, you probably loved the show.  If you were looking for idol time, well...maybe not so much.

This Opinion Column is Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.