Text by Bret Gladstone
I’m Not There Concert
November 8th, 2007
“You know, nobody’s mentioned Bob Dylan yet,” said X man John Doe. This was approximately one hour and forty-eight minutes into the I’m Not There concert— a tribute to Todd Haynes’ new Dylan biopic, and thus a tribute, however meta, to Bob Dylan. “I just want to thank him. He’s not here. He’s probably out there somewhere tonight playing in some club or arena, and I’m glad he is.” Again: This man’s name is John Doe, and the film he was there to celebrate is called I’m Not There. You can’t make this stuff up. Anyway, he was completely right. Nobody had mentioned Dylan. And after that, I could swear no one did again. The idea that this was a conscious, aesthetic choice collectively made by the artists is pretty dubious. Still, it was a completely appropriate way to honor this particular musician. The only way, really. The most essential requirement of a Dylan homage is always that he’s not there. He’s out there.
I haven’t seen Todd Haynes film yet, but even if it’s terrible, the concept—an inevitably hagiographic Dylan study which nonetheless eschews the conventional approach of nailing down his ESSENCE—makes it more keen than 90% of the Dylan criticism out there. Ultimately, one of the best examples of Dylan’s GENIUS—and the greatest testament to how carefully he constructed his artistic smoke-screen—is that the closer he’s studied, the more fragmented and innocuous that ESSENCE becomes. This is a gift.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Last year, I asked Emily Haines what her fantasy musical collaboration was. This is what she said:
A recording of “The Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, produced by Jim O’Rourke and featuring Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young, both on guitars and vocals, singing the verses in unison and harmonizing throughout with Chan Marshall ,Thorunn Antonia (from Fields) and… Me! It’s my fantasy, I want to be there for it. Chan can play the piano chords off the top but I wanna be the one who gets to go, “Look out!”. Maureen Tucker will be on drums, Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene will be on bass. Howling Pele from The Hives & Jarvis Cocker will be in the control room directing our vocal performances on the talk back mic. Once we have the basic track down Pele & Jarvis will go outside to record the motorcycle sound effects in the back alley with an emotional Bob Dylan consulting for authenticity. Jim will send the engineer out to get everybody sparkling water and record the motorcycle overdubs himself……The recording will take place at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, and when we’re all finished we’ll hop on the tram and ride home together through the orange grove.
This pretty neatly sums up the central problem of Dylan-related dialogues: this man is caught in a cross-generational fracture. The new youth culture uses him as a trope for its confused idea of what’s real . And people of Dylan’s generation are so obsessed with using him as an example of what made their generation pure and good, they’re only too eager to accept that argument. Thus, they almost always fail to point out how incredibly reductive it is.
In reality, Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman, lest we forget) is probably the best—maybe even the last– example we have of the beauty of artifice. The innocence of entertainment. Living in a world of simulated reality is creating anxiety about authenticity, and we hurl that anxiety against the “artificial” world of pop culture. But never at Dylan. No, never that. This is funny. It’s funny because everything about his music that was “pure” or “authentic” derived from the fact that he was an incredible LIAR, and the greatest idea he ever learned from his folk icons was the idea that popular music is a storytelling medium which is neither lesser nor greater than the roadside medicine show. Having grasped that concept, Dylan basically just became the best character actor in the business. The creation of not one, but multiple meticulously-crafted personas, didn’t just protect Dylan’s life from his art and his art from his life. By proxy, it also meant that he was bringing less baggage to his music, and he could be whoever a particular song demanded him to be.
This is also why we don’t have any classic-type film stars anymore. The gravitas is gone, because we know too much about them before we’re introduced to the person they happen to be playing. No sense of wonder, no sense of the power and demand and mystery that distance creates.The intangible qualities which made Dylan who he was as an artist were always the subtext of the song, not the foreground material. The manifest content was who he was choosing to be in that song. This is a gift. So there was something great about the fact that last night, Dylan’s songs did more in expressing the personalities of each artist than they did about Dylan. And oh yeah, know what? There are some not half-bad songs in this catalogue.
It’s refreshing to hear Dylan’s songs sung by people that religiously revere them. Mainly because those people tend to respect their original melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical forms– something that Dylan has absolutely, positively refused to do for years, quite possibly for the same reasons listed above (not getting bogged down creatively by steadfastly keeping his identity in flux). Or maybe just because he’s bored.
Move, move, move.
Like Jon Doe said, he’s out there, moving.
The point, however, is that the main person who’s obscured how lovely and arresting Bob Dylan’s music can be is—of course—Bob Dylan. And maybe that’s another case for his manipulative GENIUS, because it tends to just make you want that music more. You long for his words to be done the justice of being sung clearly, and for those melodies to re-emerge—in short, to sing along, because this is music that pervades the life-fabric that way. One of the great testaments to the Bob Dylan song lies in how little you have to do with it to make it arresting. They pretty much steer themselves.
One person who understands this completely is Jim James, whose bottom-of-the-well howl anchored a lovely “Going to Alcapulco” with Calexico, and whose current band played the best straight-cover of the night (“Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You”) because they can wind and crash like former Dylan crack-squad The Band. It doesn’t hurt having a singer who can make anything sound arresting, but the treatment was mainly great because it was a complete co-becoming of the band’s idiosyncracies and the basic ingredients of Dylan’s music. All the best moments of the night operated that way. Even if they were few and far between (If Dylan really did “suffer for his art,” it stands to reason that at a tribute concert we should have to as well).
For all his non-descriptness, John Doe anchored a stirring “Ballad of a Thin Man”— alternately shouting the exclamatory lines (“It’s his!”) and stretching his phrases waaaay out to get at the song’s slinky, violent sexiness, as well as the uncanny knack for stylized cruelty that binds Dylan to writers like Nabokov and Joyce.
Yo La Tengo unearthed
the Dylan-rips-off-Norwegian Wood-tune Dylan’s “Norwegian Wood” homage/parody “Fourth Time Around” as a gorgeously spiraling lullaby.
Mark Lanegan gave Robert Goulet (R.I.P) a run for his “handsome, big-voiced baritone” money with his take on “Man in the Long Black Coat.”
And the Million Dollar Bashers—a mercenary troupe assembled for the film by Lee Ranaldo which included J. Mascis and Joe Henry—played with the bounding adventuresomeness of a Highway 61-era session band.
But whatever he is, Bob Dylan is a definitively American artist—our great trump card in England’s game of “I look better than you in your own clothes”—so it’s basically unavoidable to point out how appropriately American it is that the best performance of the night was delivered by an all-black band in front of an all-white ( and I mean ALL WHITE) audience. I have to believe even Dylan would appreciate that. It’s a pretty definitive irony in rock and roll culture, but The Roots are essentially the only band who could have executed it this well:
“Quest-luuuv!” someone shouted.
Questlove must hear this ninety times a day. The drummer responded simply with a nigh interminable snare roll.
To summarize: The Roots played “Masters of War.” (Yes, they have done this before, at last year’s Lincoln Center tribute, but so what.) First, they played “Masters of War” set to the melody of the national anthem—with drums, electric guitar, vocals, and tuba. Then they morphed it into prog-rock tune. They punctuated with a few overtly Zeppelin-tinged hot/cold vamps. Then they segued into the doubly appropriate war-time guitar anthem “Machine Gun” by Dylan acolyte James Hendrix. Then Cody Chestnut played a wonderfully gratuitous guitar solo while the tuba player marched around the audience, bopping and strutting, nearly swallowing several heads into his instrument on the way. Then they bowed and got the night’s only full standing ovation. Questlove even looked kind of bored. This was all incredibly awesome.
As a journalist, I’m kind of ashamed that Questlove has essentially been shaped by a minstrelsized critical sub-vernacular into that guy who proves black people know a lot of stuff about music other than hip-hop. The musical incarnation of the guy who speaks so well. First of all, however latently this identity has been shaped, it’s incredibly racist. But it’s also deeply unfortunate because it submerges the fact that he’s one of the best rock drummers in the world—the best, save for maybe Glenn Kotche, at conforming his sounds to suit the demands of the music, and, for that matter, at impressionistically illustrating lyrics: definitively military snare hits sat behind the images of “triggers” and “death-counts,” jazzy, touch-derived lulls buttressed the segues, and he even added some Bonhamesque rolling thunder for those Zep explosions. I…I… Quest-luuuuv!
Anyway, here’s your throat back, Bob. Thanks for the loan.