Bob Dylan, dapper in a charming suit and hat, consents to paint great poetry in the ears, mind, memory, pulse, heart, bones, eyelids, hair, of anyone hospitable enough to recognize what he's hawking as he tours from joint to joint performing some of the greatest songs ever written by an American.
Blue curtains emblazoned with a graphic eye design drop down before your eyes. I note the kinship with the blue eye backdrop recently used by The Dead Weather live. Incense overtakes you, adding the olfactory to the other senses Bob Dylan incites. (I landed a seat in Row 13 and the scent of Nag Champa stayed in my hair for days after the concert, giving me good old 19th century synesthesia, where the mind makes one sense do the job of another and you smell sound, hear what you taste, feel what you see. Good times.) This durable derangement of the senses, combined with other stellar features of the set, make an evening with Dylan one of the great bargains of these bad times. He brought a brilliant band, a set list that started with Rainy Day Women, included Just Like A Woman, Like A Rolling Stone, Highway 61 Revisited, Memphis Blues, Ballad of A Thin Man, Tangled Up in Blue, and concluded with All Along the Watchtower. He brought the magical ability of his poetic songs to transport you through the last five decades of world history. The same songs also ameliorate something blue in your own past or present human dilemmas. Dylan is rock music as Picasso, as Lorca, as Dickens, as Kerouac, as Catullus. (Square or cube that Catullus, the great Latin lyricist of eros and anger.) Mr. Dylan owned or feigned a generous mood and was a joy to watch moving from keyboards to guitar to harmonica. But to do his artistry justice, I've got to devote my words here to to his words.
|"This machine kills fascists."|
Dylan's brassy recorded intro that identifies him as "The Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll" confirms the rightness of attention to words. Dylan's song craft is very much word craft. On the back of Mojo's book, Dylan: Visions, Portraits, and Back Pages, he admits, " I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I'll die like a poet." Of all the arts, poetry is the cheapest date: no tutus, no paint tubes, no bronze, no Valkyries. Just the language you use all day every day. Words, so like thought itself, are arranged in a poem to produce an effect like having Les Demoiselles d'Avignon stare you down. Except there's no canvas. Poetry's repetitions put you in a hypnotizing Kingdom of the Shades as in La Bayadere, without any corps de ballet. Cheapness is all.
Everything and more has been written about Bob Dylan. But all that matters as you consider his poetry are your ears, your heartbeat, your mind, your associations, as you encounter him recorded or live. Dylan's poetry unfolds itself in several hallmark formats. Attention to how these operate helps listeners savor his sense. When his poetry is plaintive and direct as it is in Love Sick (from 1997's Time Out of Mind), you know your task as listener is simply to understand and withstand his ruthless truthtelling about love and attraction: agitation and utter helplessness are inevitable features of desire. You spend the whole song nodding as he complains about these and asks to be set free from the whole sordid business. Then the take-down of the final line: I'd give anything to be with you. Poetry is the shudder of revelation. Desire owns us. Dylan has proceeded as a sonneteer would and made the last lines turn the preceding ones upside down, inside out, and sideways. (You now understand why his editorializing title is two four-letter words instead of one eight-letter word: it's sicker this way. He's written "love" and "sick" as stand-ins for each other and given them all the dignity of other four-letter expletives you know: none.)
Other lyrics associate rhyming lists of extravagant imagery (the guilty undertaker sighs/the lonesome organ grinder cries/the silver saxophones say I should refuse you . . . ) with an antagonistic outer world and contrast this in the same song with a simpler cry from the self: I want you soooooo baaaaad. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted "hell is other people." Dylan represents this hell in poetry as piles of complications, obstacles, absurdities. It's a canny, hilarious was of describing what you live. Everyday folks routinely use escalating lists to describe absurd heights reached by boss/spouse/traffic/government on a given day. Our litany of complaints gets delivered with rhythm and repetition we don't consciously recognize. ("And then he . . ., And then he . . . , And then . . .") We puncture this list with a yelp from the self. (Such as Cee-Lo Green's deeply satisfying "FU" or other choice phrases.) Dylan raises your tendency to great art, his indelible voice now breath itself.
Bob Dylan's Tour continues. John Mellencamp opens on some dates. CLICK HERE for dates/tickets/setlists 8/27 Bend, OR; 8/28 Troutdale, OR; 8/31 Missoula, MT; 9/1 Post Falls, ID; 9/3 Yakima, WA; 9/4 Bumbershoot Fest Seattle
CLICK to see Dylan's Brazilian Series