Bob Dylan Comes Back From the Edge
February 7, 1974
Wandering through the crowd during intermission at The Concert last Wednesday night, one got a sense of why it must have been an agonizing decision for Bob Dylan to go on tour for the first time in eight years, of why “the Big Apple” has been dreaded as much as looked forward to. Old friends of Dylan were there, and so were many who remember him from basket houses on MacDougal Street and Gerde’s Folk City over 10 years ago.
The things Dylan must like about New York City — he has mentioned it in nearly every interview he has given — were here to haunt him as well as help him. He can walk through the Village without being noticed, and if he is recognized, no one makes a big deal out of it. He can jam with John Prine at the Bitter End without being mobbed or driven crazy by autograph-glommers or teenyboppers. Here he can raise a family in the same old tension and peace and quiet and noise of the city which gave him the images and experiences for songs like “Visions of Johanna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
But the peculiar schizophrenia of stardom has a way of coming back around like a death-dealing boomerang. The city that ignores Bob Dylan on the street is perfectly capable of leaving him equally high and dry on a stage. And though that did not happen on Wednesday night — he had the crowd on its feet, screaming, stomping, and clapping at the end — there were those among his friends and longtime admirers, among those who hold him most dearly, who were, if not disappointed, at least a bit deflated after their first evening in years with Bob Dylan. It was great to see him again, but the years had taken their toll. There was something missing — maybe in us, maybe in Dylan — and no one knew exactly what it was.
Dylan said, “I’m honored to be here,” and sang six classics: “Everybody must get stoned” drew screams and more lighted joints from an already grass-soaked audience. Even the youngest of those present could remember the many weeks “It Ain’t Me Babe,” sung by Cher, was number one on the top 40 charts. And Time and Newsweek have printed that great line. “There’s something happening here/and you don’t know what it is/do you/Mr. Jones?” so many times, it is probably imprinted permanently on the American psyche.
Yet Dylan’s stage fright, as the Band reminded us in its first solo number, was painfully evident. “Lay Lady Lay” which reviews of the Chicago and Philadelphia concerts have described as taking on the old “Dylan Edge,” was simply rushed, hurried through and cast off like the last tune in a long, tedious rehearsal. Dylan was scared. What appeared at first to be new sparkles and flourishes on a laid-back country song was really his nervousness showing through.
Dylan attacked the mike, his brow furrowed, mouth working madly from side to side, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” was coughed out between gritted teeth. On “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Dylan’s insistent, pounding grand piano work rushed the song to the point of impatience. Garth Hudson’s organ fills disappeared in a bad sound mix. Dylan rose up and banged down, running wildly along the keyboard, driving the Band brilliantly, forcefully, but just too goddam fast.
But it was on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that whatever was bothering Dylan came through most clearly. The song is a beautiful one, ablaze with painful autobiographical images and self-exploration. On record, Dylan’s voice searches its way through the lyrics, finding one color here another there. The emotional content of the song is as much in the way Dylan sang it — in the depths of his voice — as in the depth of the words. And listening to the song as I write this, I am reminded that Dylan’s magic was in large part this: the mix of lyrics and vocal coloration. The galaxy of emotions he could plumb between the boundaries or one song was greater than any rock and roll artist who came before him or has come along since. His voice is truly [one] of the great rock and roll instruments.
On Wednesday night, the song was rushed through, along with the others, so much chaff to be brushed aside in search of solitude. Dylan struck a pose — tough, defiant, almost mean in its intensity — and sang without searching. His emphasis — or was it reliance — on highs permeated the song. He would raise a verse to a fever pitch, drop it, then raise another, screaming into the mike, he gazed above the heads or the crowd intent and serious, then he’d back off. It was automatic, studied. Dylan wouldn’t let the song carry him as much as he carried the song. He refused to search back through the lyrics for the experiences and feelings which gave it birth, allowing him to bring it back to life again.
Dylan was afraid, that was for sure. But “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” showed he wasn’t afraid of us, the audience. It was himself he feared — the process or going back over those songs which bore the pain of becoming Bob Dylan, the highs, the lows, all of that life, which was living on the edge. He seemed unwilling to go through it all again in song, dredging up that which was better off left behind. The funny thing was, one could hardly blame him.
The Band played alone to a warm reception, and then Dylan returned to sing “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” He wore a black tuxedo and a silver and black ruffled cowboy shirt. The trousers of the tux hung loosely — almost baggy — giving him the appearance of a young Charlie Chaplin, legs spread wide, elegant in his awkwardness.
After intermission, Dylan returned alone to sing five acoustic numbers. “The Times They Are A-Changin” ran fast, and brilliantly embellished harmonica breaks drew extended applause. “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” and then “Gates of Eden.” Like “Tom Thumb…” the latter was sung with an intensity which bordered on anxiousness: My notes made toward the end of the song read: “What made song great on record — he was calling on something w/in him, bringing it out… in performance he leans on drama… teeth gritted, lips contorting 2-3 times on one vowel, bitten off… overdramatized.”
“Just Like a Woman” followed, and it was sung slower, more confidently. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was done with lovely, hypnotic speed, sung up and out and proud and sane. It seemed that Dylan had hit a stride, that he had found his voice, a way to cope with standing naked before 20,000 pairs of eyes. “It’s Alright Ma” was markedly different from the original, but for the first time all night I had the sense that the song had grown, not shrunk. Dylan’s comfort came through nobly, he dropped his tough front, and even in the clippedy clip way he ran down the words one could feel him feeling his way, wringing the song, and himself, almost dry. He must have felt good, because he swaggered a bit when he took his bows, lifting his hands in a triumphant wave.
The Band came on again for several numbers. They took no chances with the crowd. Every song sounded just like the record, and they sustained the tension of each song right up until the last chord. The tone of Richard Manuel’s voice, I have in my notes, was “precise and coarse, as opposed to Dylan — changing, unpredictable, solitary, weird.”
Dylan returned and ran through a slow version of “Forever Young,” from his new album, as well as “Something There Is About You.” Then he and the Band broke into “Like a Rolling Stone,” the lights came up, and all hell broke loose, kids in the aisles, all the magic and madness of one of the all-time great rock and roll songs. They didn’t rush the song, but didn’t loaf either. It came off perfectly, a real New York song bringing back everything the crowd had come to hear: all about innocence and discovery, self-imposed hardship and coping, a romantic vision or a romantic period in the lives of many in the crowd. Jesus, it was great.
Dylan’s appeal was always, and still is, to the white middle class. The concert crowd came dressed shabbily, elegantly, all the ways that people who can afford the choice turn themselves out. They lit up $40 an ounce grass, snorted coke, flashed gold rings and fancy boots, wore pre-faded jeans and expensive Indian jewelry, snapped pictures with the most expensive photographic equipment money can buy. Any Dylan fan who griped about the $9.50 high ticket, or who called on millionaire Bob for a “free” concert is guilty of not having listened to the songs they were screaming for all night. For the songs of Bob Dylan are thick with all the contradictions, all the weirdness and schizophrenia of growing up middle-class, of looking for romance in poverty, on the highway, or bumming around and returning to from whence he (and they) came.
Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine, “Now it’s the me again.” If there is one thing true about Bob Dylan over the years, it’s that he is in never ending state of flux. There is no new Dylan or old Dylan or country Dylan or Edge Dylan. There is simply Dylan, and listening to him live gives one some idea of the dimensions of his brilliance, fallibility, strength, weakness, pain, and triumphs. He has been constantly growing and expanding, just as he grew in concert from a faulty, uncertain start to an incredible, fiery end. If he at times disappoints his critics, he never has ceased to amaze them.
And finally, watching and listening to Dylan the other night — and on records since then — has made me realize how desperately we want our heroes to be self-destructive, as if only by living recklessly can they show us their essential humanity, their impermanence and mortality. I remember when “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait” were released, how the critics and the fans seized on them to prove that Dylan’s long absence from the scene, his retreat to Woodstock, had mellowed him out, left him without the old edge he showed in “Blonde on Blonde” or “Highway 61 Revisited.” God, how they moaned and groaned, as if Dylan had somehow deserted, never to return. Here was Dylan singing country — which had roots in racism and bigotry, the critics chanted. And here was Dylan on “Self Portrait” rhyming “moon” with “June.” All of it was inexcusable, without redeeming value. Where was the old Dylan, with his moral lefts and protest rights, his haunting images and incisive social criticism?
It’s an old story. We read about Zelda and Fitzgerald now, and shake our heads and say, Christ, what a shame, but what a life they led! And we read about Jackson Pollock, and shake our heads and say, gee, too bad about his drinking and his craziness, but look at all the fantastic art he produced! Now the same sort of head-shaking and tongue-clucking appreciation is being shown for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. One figures everyone would be more happy with Dylan’s extensive, if uneven, body or work if he, too, were dead. Then we couldn’t lean back, turn up the volume, and talk among ourselves about all the speed and acid he must have done, back in the days when he wrote the songs we remember him best for.
Well, life sometimes doesn’t work out that way. Despite the morbidity of hero worship, our expectation is that the great should live up to our worst fantasies and best lies. Bob Dylan has simply settled down with a wife and kids. He eats vegetables. He drinks wine. By all counts, he dotes on the goodness and wholeness of family life. In his most recent songs, he appears to thank his wife for saving his life.
One can hardly blame Dylan for having opted for life, for having quit his life out there on the Edge — all the late night craziness and running around, the terrible manic existence he is said to have before his motorcycle accident. On Wednesday night, he seemed skittish, of the past which stares him in the face every time he runs back through the stark chronicle of his life in song. And so some of those songs were performed, not sung.
“But who can blame him?” said one old friend of his. “At least he took his chances, pushing things, letting it go. The Band just did their records. Dylan wouldn’t settle for that.”
So as usual, Bob Dylan is growing in his own way, at his own speed. The songs on his new album, the laid-back celebrations of being a father, life at home, and his ongoing love ballad to his wife, they all seem so calm, so content and full. The craziness, the pain, the weirdness — all are missing. Perhaps someday we’ll catch up. And maybe then, we too will stop acting forever young, and have it within us to wish it on someone else.