ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE
a column of observations on Bob Dylan
Having lived on a subsistence of tapes, and not having seen Bob
Dylan in person for longer than I care to remember, I finally caught up
with two concerts on the current leg of the tour, at Augusta and Atlanta in
One of the first things that struck me about the stage set-up was the glass screen installed behind Dylan, separating him from Winston Watson's drums. At first I thought that perhaps its function was to protect Bob from flying fragments of drumstick when Winston got more than usually carried away; later I was told that the idea, borrowed from the Rolling Stones, was to cut down on the amount of sound from the drums that was bleeding into the vocal mike and disturbing the sound mix. But from where I was sitting in Augusta (second row of the balcony), there was another effect as well: the glass screen provided a mirror reflection of Dylan's back. In that reflection, the image was a bit darker (so Bob's hair looked darker), and a little blurred (so the harsh lines of age on his face were smoothed out). When he turned in profile, and the profile of his face showed in the glass screen, it looked uncannily like a much younger Bob: Bob of 20 or even 30 years ago. All through the concert, it was as if a ghost of his younger self was looking over his shoulder. This is, of course, an apt metaphor for any Dylan concert. Ghosts of his past selves are always looking over his shoulder, and each performance of any of his great songs carries with it the accumulated echoes of every other performance. That's part of what makes it so fascinating to keep on listening to Dylan: as the years go by, layer upon layer is added to each song.
And it's not just the past of 30 or 20 years ago that resonates with today's performances: it's the much more recent past as well. In Augusta, at the moment when the acoustic set started, and I recognised the familiar chords of "Mr Tambourine Man," what I had in my mind, as a base of expectation, was not just 1965, or 1981, or 1993 (all prime years for this song), but also early 1995: the way he had been performing the song in May and June, with these long, achingly beautiful duets between his guitar and Bucky Baxter's mandolin. To my surprise, and initial disappointment, that delicacy had gone; what we had instead was a hard-driving guitar which insisted on the rhythms of the song, and which put it over with much more force (and much less subtlety) than the version he had been singing even three months earlier.
Indeed, that hard-driving quality characterised the totality of both the performances I saw. This was not an understated Bob. This was all-out rock and roll, playing to the crowd -- which responded, both nights, with wild enthusiasm. (It was the first time in his career he had ever played Augusta, which is a sleepy southern town which once used to be a major cotton-trading centre but now seems to exist only for one very famous golf course.) Seeing the show two nights in a row, I was able to recognise the tricks he used to urge the crowd on: for example, in the encore of "It Ain't Me Babe," when he set down his guitar and picked up the hand-held harmonica, he waited at least a minute before he began playing it, stretching out the crowd's anticipation. What used to be one 3-song encore has now become three 1-song encores, with Dylan going off stage each time and waiting for the applause. It now seems established ritual for security to allow one woman to jump up on stage and embrace him. At the end of the show, he struts across the stage, with his hands held at chest-level in a curious gesture, half pointing at the audience, half shooting imaginary pistols at them. After the Augusta show, my new friend Duncan was exulting in the fact that he'd made contact with one of Bob's high-fives.
So, it was not quite what I'd expected. I love the early '95 shows (especially that Glasgow concert which Paul Williams so accurately raved about in the last issue of On the Tracks); I love the softer, more reflective singing that I hear on those tapes. But of course I should have known better than to expect Bob Dylan to stay in the same mode for long. These fall '95 shows are different, that's all: not better, or worse, just different. At the show in Tampa, Dylan had been joined on stage for six songs by Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, and that kind of southern-inflected rock is clearly an influence on this leg of the tour. And so, of course, is the memory of Jerry Garcia. The Fort Lauderdale rehearsal included several Grateful Dead songs, but the standard choice seems to have settled on "Alabama Getaway," which was the first encore in both the shows I saw. At this moment, for this time, that's what Bob wants to do: hard-driving rock and roll, even on the acoustic songs. And the band is right with him -- with the possible exception of J.J. Jackson, who seems to stray farther and farther towards the edge of the stage as his role as "lead" guitarist becomes more and more problematical. The key to this band, I now believe, is Bucky Baxter (who was wearing a long red jacket which I absolutely covet): it is his all-out attack on slide-guitar which defines the brilliant arrangement of "Silvio." Still, this is a band which does not depend on outstanding individual players (like G.E. Smith): it is a unit. And it is, absolutely, Dylan's band: more than any other grouping he's ever played with, it reflects, embodies, and projects what he wants done with his music. The entire band is like an instrument he plays.
And this in turn illustrates what I have more and more come to understand in these past few years, as Dylan has turned his creative energy away from song-writing and into performance. For Bob Dylan, there has never been a clear distinction between words and music. Each has always been an extension of the other. The protracted instrumental jams that characterise his recent performances should not be seen as purely musical: they are the extension of the words into another medium. And vice versa. Consider the ways in which he stretches the music out: not just these instrumental jams, but the way in which he will end a song by slowing the tempo, and then going into an extended finale with a dozen drum flourishes from Winston before eventually reaching a final tumultuous chord. Yes, these are ways of milking the audience applause; yes, they are extravagant displays of showmanship. But they are also concrete embodiments of one of the major themes of Dylan's lyrics: the defiance of time. "We all want to stop time," Dylan once told Allen Ginsberg; he was talking about Renaldo and Clara, but he might as well have been talking about his own musical practice. I want to suggest that Dylan's music reaches always towards the spatial, not the temporal. People complain about his lead guitar playing, describing it as "noodling," as repeating over and over again small patterns of three or four notes, rather than developing into sweeping melodic lines. But that's the whole point. Dylan isn't interested in "melody," in that sense, since melody depends upon temporal progression. Every Dylan solo wants to stop time. Bizarrely, improbably, Dylan challenges the basic condition of music (the temporal succession of one note after another), and attempts to find spatial equivalents. No wonder he's always been interested in painting, the art which, above all others, stops time.
You can see this in the harmonica solos. One feature of the 1995 concerts is that he seems to have abandoned altogether the neck-brace harmonica holder which enabled him to continue playing guitar at the same time. Now it is all harmonica. I have always contended that the harmonica is an instrument uniquely connected to the human body and breath. It is the only wind instrument which sounds on the in-drawn breath as well as the out. The harmonica is not just an extension of Dylan's voice: it is an extension of his breath, of his body, of his whole being. In the concerts I saw in October, it was only during the harmonica solos that his whole body became involved in the performance. (His guitar-playing stance is still stiff, legs spread.) He holds the harmonica, and the microphone, in his left hand. If he still wears the guitar, slung across his shoulder, the right hand rests on its body; if he has taken off the guitar, the right hand holds the microphone cord in an expressive loop, and rises as if conducting the music. The knees bend; the whole body leans into the music. And for me (with my literary bent) this is poetry. This is not separate from the words, but simply the words in another form. All the great modern poets, from Ezra Pound to Charles Olson, have said that poetry is about the breath. To understand what they mean, you just have to look at Bob Dylan playing harmonica.
On the plane down to Atlanta, I was reading Peter Guralnick's
splendid biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. As I did so, I
was struck by both the similarities and the differences between Bob and
In their teenage, high-school years, both of them were loners, misfits, set apart from their classmates by very much the same qualities: an obsessive interest in popular music; an encyclopaedic knowledge of that music (gathered from the tremendous variety of American radio stations at that time, a variety long since lost in the homogenization of commercial mass media); a burning ambition to pursue a musical career for themselves; and an awareness that, in order to do so, they would have to recreate themselves into totally new images of themselves. (Of course, some of this is hindsight: there must have been many other American youngsters filled with ambition and music who never managed to realise these ideals.) Both of them had the good fortune, combined with the good judgement, to arrive at the precise historical moment when their particular talents most exactly corresponded to the as-yet-unformulated needs of the age -- Presley by combining the black and white traditions of popular music, singing country as if it were blues, blues as if it were country; and Dylan performing a similar conjuring trick on folk music and rock. Both of them were seized by that moment in which they intervened, and were transformed into something larger than themselves, more vital than they had ever conceived. But they came to this transcendence by very different routes. Guralnick's biography returns again and again to Presley's politeness; to his respect for his parents, his fans, and his fellow musicians; to his charm and willingness to please; to his instinctive ability to relate to other people, and a desire to please them which goes much deeper than mere opportunism. Presley genuinely defined himself in terms of his relations to the people around him. Dylan, by contrast, defined himself in opposition to those around him. Dylan was never "polite," in Presley's sense. He exploited his friends and confounded his fans. Presley wore ruffled shirts; Dylan wore leather jackets. Elvis drove a battered old Lincoln, and collected Cadillacs; Bob rode motor cycles. (Both of them, however, idolised James Dean.) Most obviously, Presley sang other people's songs; Dylan wrote his own.
Yet there are further paradoxes here. Dylan, despite his ruthless egotism (or perhaps because of it), was able to make and re-make himself over and over, to the point that his motto became the famous statement of Rimbaud: "Je est an autre; I is another." Presley, obsessed with pleasing others, was unable to change himself -- perhaps because he had lost any "self" there to change -- and his later years became a tragic decline into self-destruction. Dylan, whatever else he is, has always been a survivor. So, immersed in Guralnick's book, I was prepared to see a lot of Presley in the Bob Dylan who stepped onto stage in Augusta and Atlanta (not least in the pink and gold lamé shirts he was wearing, or the shiny white-topped boots). But I also saw, even in his most passionate moments, a certain detachment or reserve which, equally, has always defined Bob Dylan -- and, perhaps, preserved him.
And I remembered that, at the front of the paperback edition of Guralnick's book, there is this blurb:
"Unrivaled account of Elvis as he walks the path between heaven and nature in an America that was wide open, when anything was possible, not the whitewashed golden calf but the incendiary musical firebrand loner who conquered the western world, he steps from the pages, you can feel him breathe, this book cancels out all others. -- Bob Dylan."