it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there …

17 July, 2005 at 8:45 pm 6 comments

Did anyone else see Amazon's 10th Anniversary Concert online yesterday, or catch the last chance to see it today? If you get this in time (today only!) go to www.amazon.com (ie the US site) and navigate from the ad on the RHS of the page. It featured Bob and Norah Jones – their two highest selling singers.

I felt profoundly sad, watching it. Dylan's getting old. He still makes music – wonderfully and generously – but his voice is going. Of course, there are those who maintain that he never had a voice, but that's to misunderstand what he does. There have always been three vital elements to Dylan – the lyrics, the music and the voice. Dylan uses his voice as an instrument to interpret his songs. He plays with his voice as others play a guitar or piano. If you've ever admired what Clapton can make a guitar do, and how he can change the mood or feel of something, then you'll undertand how Dylan does the same thing with his voice. He can snarl, sneer, beg, mock, woo, entrance, and terrify. Or he could. That's what makes the man so astoundingly versatile and infuriating. Dylan is probably the one perfomer who has always maintained absolute rights to his own music. He will change the tune, the lyrics, or reinterpret the songs radically. You never know what Dylan in concert is going to do with his songs. One of the audience's favourite games is "Guess the song" from the instrumental introduction. It beats "Who wants to be a millionaire?" for unpredictability!

This is part of what makes his music truly great – but not as others count greatness. Bob has never pandered to fans' demands to hear the songs again and again "just like on the record" (Lawrence, you're showing your age here, mate!) His songs endure because they mean constantly new things to Bob. Listen to "Just like a woman". The young Dylan howls and sneers. The older Dylan makes it drip with irony. My desert island disc selection would include at least two versions of "Like a Rolling Stone" – cos they're two different songs!

[I'm not going to miss the chance to observe that the enduring newness of his songs and the open-endedness and polyvalence of the lyrics – the ability to say something new and fresh in a different time and context – is pretty much how I think the Bible functions as Living Word. Nor am I going to miss the chance to invite you folk to come to Rock & Redemption at the Windermere Centre to come and do some serious theology through the music of Dylan, Cohen and Springsteen! But this is by way of parenthesis.]

So Bob getting old and losing his voice is much, much more than just an issue about what the singing sounds like. It means he's losing control over his own creations. His versatility gave him the means to reinterpret his work; to remould the songs; to say something new with old words. So it was heartbreaking to watch him limited by his voice. The spark was gone. The songs were singing Bob. I could hardly bear to listen to "Maggie's Farm", not because it was bad (it was!) but because he was powerless to do it differently. It might be ok to listen to Sir Paul struggling – and failing – to hit the notes in the classic numbers he did for Live8, cos it's wonderfully nostalgic. Audience memory does what the voice fails to do, and we hear "The Long and Winding Road" filtered through years of sameness. Not so with Bob. You can't sit there and smile indulgently, or wash away on a wave of nostalgia seeing His Bobness do the good ol' numbers, cos he's never done that and they've never been old! Always forever young!

It was all the more poignant because when he hit the harp, you could see the gawky young singer of 45 years ago. Dylan's always looked awkward and anally retentive when he moves to music on stage. As though there's an Elvis inside a wooden puppet trying to get out. But that just made it all the harder to watch.

His voice warmed up and gained in strength. "Blind Willie McTell" still gave me goosebumps. He dripped vintage bob-sarc at the pretensions of Mr Jones. "Lay Lady Lay" was great – I found myself wondering (as in full of wonder) at how an old man could sing a young man's song and make it mean something absolutely different but relevant. But then, I guess it isn't difficult to sing that particular number if you have a libido and a score card like Dylan maintains. When he donned his cowboy hat, he was in Love & Theft territory and completely at home there. He made that music for and with his voice as it is today.

He was generous with the harmonica. Now, I've always maintained that Bob uses the harmonica on songs that are really important to him. It's a cue for what matters. And he also uses it as a gift to audiences (Dylan's notoriously ungenerous to audiences, getting positively surly, curt and churlish with them as he's got older). So I rate his perfomance as generous. He gave what he had to give. He'd obviously refused to allow the cameras to zoom in on him. Oh, and he ought to have sacked his band – or rehearsed more! But he was generous. And none more so when he called Norah Jones onstage to do a duet with him – "I Shall be Released" (gives me a fresh set of goosebumps just remembering that!). Who can forget Bob Dylan and Joan Baez doing that one together? It was an anthem for a generation. They were its voice. And he gave it to Norah. He really did give it to her, because his singing was quite deliberately instrumental. You could see that Norah knew it, too. She didn't take it and try to own it – she did it beautifully, with just the right amount of deference and awe in the face of the gift's significance.

It's getting dark. And it's shaken me. Dylan is part of the fabric of my universe. Just as my world is constituted by the fact that my parents are still alive, and I don't have ultimately to stop the buck just yet, so it is with Dylan. I go to Dylan to be awed, and puzzled, and challenged. I go to hear Dylan articulate my thoughts and values, my dreams for the world and my anger at what's wrong. He says them far better than I ever could. His conscience has been a guide. And he's never rested – he's always pressing on, experimenting. His grasp of literature and the Bible and poetry is astounding and his range is monumental. So is his musical knowledge. He's like Mandela. He can't die – mustn't die – because memories aren't enough. Dylan's power is never only in what he's done, but in the vitality of what he's doing now and will do tomorrow. His tomorrow's are running out. Like those of my parents. And Mandela. And where then will be the voices that we desperately need to hear?

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Entry filed under: bob dylan, music.

just chillin’ i’m church, therefore I blog

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dave Faulkner  |  17 July, 2005 at 10:54 pm

    Hi Lawrence,

    Just discovered this post after a hard day’s preaching. A bit too late to log onto that Amazon gig now! On the changes that Dylan rings over the years am I just in a ridiculous tasteless minority who actually thinks his reworking of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ with sax etc. on the much-maligned ‘At Budokan’ album is far better than it’s often given credit?

    Oh, and thanks for adding the ‘feed’ icon: I’ve fed it into my FeedReader.

    Reply
  • 2. Nick  |  20 July, 2005 at 4:13 pm

    Dave – no, it’s actually not a bad reading of the song at all, imho. For a truly whacky version get hold of Bettina Jonic’s ‘Songs By Dylan & Brecht’ (c. 1976)

    Reply
  • 3. Wol  |  21 July, 2005 at 9:28 am

    I’m with nick. But then, I happen to think the Budokan concert series is one of his best. His “Forever Young” there is breathtaking.

    Reply
  • 4. Nick  |  21 July, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    Wol – I was lucky enough to see Dyland a few times in 78 – later in the tour that ‘Budokan’ recorded live: by that point in the tour his band were really on top form & (from memory, admittedly) the versions were much fuller, more passionate & fully realised. The later stages of that tour are recorded on an . . . ahem . . . unofficial recording called ‘Manchester Prayer’. Dodgy sound quality, fabulous music.

    Reply
  • 5. Wol  |  22 July, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    Nick – This is an unoffical request for guidance as to the whereabouts of “Manchester Prayer”. I feel the need to worship! I envy you! How about putting up some of what you consider to be the definitve versions of Dylan’s defining songs?

    Reply
  • 6. Nick  |  24 July, 2005 at 8:54 pm

    Wol – a definitive list would be far too great a labour, even with the help of fellow ‘News From Beyond . . . ‘ bloggists. I’ve just listened again to ‘Manchester Prayer’ for the first time in ages & the sound quality is complete pants. However, if you look at my blog, you’ll find an email address in the sidebar. Drop me a line & I’ll be happy to discuss arranging a copy.

    Reply

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