Dylan was booed in every city and villi fled in most music circles as a sell-out to rock and roll.
A triumph of renewal
- Here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.
- — Bob Dylan from “The Memphis Blues Again” (1966)
I expected a good, if sloppy, concert. What I got was a hit of fan fever I thought I was much too old (jaded? sour?) for.
Bob Dylan opened his long awaited national tour last week at The Chicago Stadium in an atmosphere that resembled a rally more than a concert. It was as if we had been granted a reprieve, if only for one night, from the rampant cynicism and alienation of the 1970’s. For a few hours there was none of the senseless noise, glitter, and downs, that usually grace the shadowy underside of the rock experience. There was only a man in a white shirt, spotlighted in an eerie blue-white light at stage right, who looked more like an apparition than an emergent musical exile.
The crowd seemed to sense how elusive Dylan’s presence was. A rather excited fellow a few rows back in the box seats couldn't believe that Dylan was really there in the flesh. He shouted. “It’s him, it’s really him!” Finally he settled into a rhythmic Howard Cosell type announcement. “Bob Dylan!’’, he intoned. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Dylan!” My neighbor spilled most of his seaweed dinner trying to catch a glimpse of the show. The crowd seemed so afraid Dylan would disappear that they gave him a standing ovation every time he moved.
Dylan did eventually disappear, but only after 2 hours of music, an intermission, an encore, and one spoken sentence. “We're going to take a 15 minute break, so don’t go away.” Except for a short, post-intermission acoustic set, he played rock and roll. The Band alternated between backing up Dylan and playing sets of their own material.
In stark contrast to their tour of seven years ago, The Band, and particularly Dylan, looked healthy and self-assured. A couch had been installed at one end of the stage for Dylan to relax in during The Band's set. but he rarely used it. His nervous energy propelled him around the stage. You could usually spot him crouching in the dark corners or pacing behind the amplifiers.
The Band's sets were, as usual, both predictable and phenomenal. They didn't perform any new songs and yet their act sounded far from repetitious. Numbers like “Cripple Creek", “The Weight", and “Stagefright" convey such finely etched subtleties that repeated listenings only enhance their appeal. The Band’s music captures a special depth of affirmation that other American groups rarely approach. They are of course not perfect. They occasionally forgot lyrics, botched an old country standard, “Long Black Veil", and were unable to reproduce the musical textures and vocal harmonies of their studio recordings. But their musicianship was flawless, especially Robbie Robertson’s driving guitar solos. As a collection of consummate artists, they have certainly earned their name.
Dylan, like The Band, generally limited his performance to familiar songs. He did play what appeared to be three or four new or previously unrecorded tunes, none of which were anything to get very excited about. Dylan’s present stable, settled lifestyle seems to preclude creativity as well as craziness. The rest of the show though was spectacular.
It ranged from songs as old as “It Ain’t Me Babe" to as recent as “Lay Lady Lay”. Many of the numbers like “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat”, “Maggie’s Farm”, and “Like A Rolling Stone" I can remember Dylan and The Band performing seven years ago.
What was so eerie and disconcerting about their renditions was that the songs had not aged at all. They seemed trapped in a time warp, just as alive and immediate as when they were first written. It’s not often that an audience has a chance to re-evaluate an artist's work in its own lifetime, but Dylan’s concert was a triumph of exactly that type of re-appraisal.
Almost a decade ago, Dylan was booed in every city and vilified in most music circles as a sell-out to rock and roll. His audience thought he had given up protest for profiteering. A song like “It’s Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding”, seemed to ignore social conscience for a more personal consciousness. Now in the cynical, dispirited first days of post-Watergate 1974, Dylan’s words have taken on a new meaning. They have become unsettlingly prophetic. Ten years ago it seemed self-indulgent for Dylan to sing, “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” Today it is chillingly accurate.
That seems the true function and definition of art: its timelessness and applicability to the different consciousness of each new generation. “It’s Alright Ma" ’s final words proclaim this: “Although the masters make the rules, of the wise men and the fools, I got nothing ma. to live up to." We feel these sentiments today just as we did in 60’s and as we will in the coming decade. Only each time it is from a different perspective.
Seeing Dylan renew himself and his songs on stage gave his audience a powerful sense of community that one rarely experiences at rock concerts anymore. As the crowd roared for an encore and held lit matches high in the air, there was an enchanting awareness of all our generation shares and an equally melancholy awareness of what we lack. “The price you have to nay to get out of going through all these things twice” has been a high one for Dylan and for us as well. But to witness a performance like Dylan’s, it seemed a price well worth paying.
– Patrick Goldstein
The folkie outlaw as rock ‘n’ roll gangster
Bob Dylan slunk onto the stage of the Chicago Stadium like a kid sneaking through an open exit door in a movie theater, surrounded (but not obscured by) his gang. Two and a half hours later, the audience went insane and the critics went “huh?"
What actually happened was, from a strictly musical view, a fine rock and roll concert. But. as though the music were a Beef Wellington, there was a pastry crust of historical import, philosophic meaning and contemporary trend-spotting that had to be pierced before the meat could be tasted.
Delicious meat, though. Not having been a rabid Dylan fan the first few times around. I didn't go to see a Legend. I went to see, hear and participate in a rock concert and I wasn't in the least disappointed. What I saw was a punk kid and his gang, the toughest kids on the street. The kid in his leather jacket did his bowlegged twitch, seemingly uncaring and unruffled by the mob that had turned out for his first concert since 1971 and his first Chicago appearance since 1965.
It wasn't a squeaky-tight set. but much more together than any band on an opening night usually is. The order of the songs was worked out on stage, the Band glanced around for Dylan when they were playing and he was off stage. See the man with stage fright...
What did we hear? “Hattie Carroll”, cries of “sellout", a few “boogies”, “It Aim Me Babe” and some new, incomprehensible tunes. Dylan sang raw (or maybe it was a scratchy sound system), the Band percolated. and nobody walked out of the hall to promenade during Dylan's set. Enough matches were held aloft to fire up 50,000 joints. The quietest audience response was a roar.
Dylan did old, new, and middle tunes. This wasn’t a protest Dylan, an electric Dylan, a folk Dylan, a country Dylan, or an unexpected Dylan. It was simply. Bob Dylan, pulling out songs because.... why? Because they knew all the words to this one, or because that one was a good uptempo or, hey, let’s see how this one works. Even an unplanned encore.
Well, what were you looking for? A new direction in life for the Seventies? Not from the man who told us “don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” A spiritual rejuvenation? From one who knows too much to argue or to judge?
Nobody booed, like they did at Newport when the folk hero came out with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band behind him and started rocking. Those people thought he was selling out.
So thought people during every stage of Dylan’s career, even now. Now he has a major tour and a private plane (never the grounds for complaint about sixth-rate yahoos like Alice Cooper), a record company and Bill Graham.
Is that selling out? Buying in? Or just expediency? We still don’t see Dylan with a press agent or fan club, teeshirts or multi-fold records, endorsing Tang or Muscular Dystrophy.
Bob Dylan was always a rock and roller, from the time in his youth when he was turned on to Little Richard, through his first rock single (‘‘Mixed Up Confusion "/“Corrina Corrina" released in 1962 right after the first album and a stone stiff) to the current tour. Of all the dozens of labels people have tried to glue to him. that’s the only one that stands.
When Dylan did his acoustic set, a strange thing happened. He wasn’t looking in my direction, of course, and there were 19,999 other people in the room, but I felt he was singing directly to me. Never in my hundreds of concerts has that happened: only rarely does that one-to-one take place in a club. And, as I noted, I’d never been much of a Dylan fan.
Look, I don’t know what anyone expected from Dylan. I expected a good, if sloppy, concert. What I got was a hit of fan fever I thought I was much too old (jaded? sour?) for. I saw the folkie outlaw become the Rock and Roll Gangster and blast right through the ceiling.
Three bars into the first song all the high-powered manipulation behind the scenes, all the offishness to the press, all the talk of big names and big money became irrelevant. All that mattered was Dylan and the Band and the Crowd.
It’s a new morning.
– David Witz