Monday, October 5, 2009

On Seeing a Bob Dylan Concert

I've never met anyone famous. Nor have I traveled to all places I wish to see. But about a year ago I did get to see Bob Dylan perform. One of my heroes that's actually still alive. It was on a rainy, chilly November night in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A Bob Dylan concert is a unique experience, and one will leave feeling they've just been through something . . .

So along with my sister we made the trek to Kalamazoo to see the aging icon of the 1960s. I've read enough about Dylan to know that he's no saint. Our society demands much of its heroes and Dylan would scoff at the very notion of hero worship. In "Subterranean Homesick Blues" from 1965, a stream of consciousness rant, Dylan proclaimed "don't follow leaders." His music is honest, sometimes panifully so about life. My first memory of his music is hearing "Positively 4th Street" and having a vague idea of the song's meaning. The comforting organ sound juxtaposed with the searing lyrics of either a jilted lover aimed at someone or maybe at the folk community who thought him a sellout for playing rock and roll. It's really hard to pinpoint the exact meaning towards any Dylan song.

The concert opened with a rollicking version of "Maggie's Farm." That was the song Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a rock band that enraged the folk community. Dylan's voice has aged and it's hard to decipher at times. On his first album, Bob Dylan (1962), he was a 21 year old trying to sound like an old man - so things have come full circle for him. But there's a poignancy to the voice . The second song, another 60s classic, Rainy Day Women 12 & 35 had a joyful carefree spirit. Towards the end his band performed 'Ballad of a Thin Man," perhaps the most searing condemnation of the American establishment ever written.

There were many memorable moments. Some of the best material from his recent trilogy Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006) were highlights. These recordings are just as relevant anything Dylan recorded in the 1960s. They are like a history of American music told through emotion rather than fact. The best word to describe them is timeless.

The two encores, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower have now transcended the 1960s. One a sermon on self-reliance, the other a vision of impending doom made famous by another major Dylan fan - Jimi Hendrix. At the end Dylan introduced his band took a bow and left the stage. Many get miffed he rarely recognizes the audience, but his fans realize that's just Dylan.

In all his many guises - scion of Woody Guthrie, Mod Rocker/Romantic poet, Old West outlaw, born again Christian, has been rocker, world weary prophet - all endear us to him. Dylan is a survivor of an America that seems distant to my generation - Cold War, Vietnam, Civil Rights, assassinations, and Watergate - as one who lived up to his early promise. In future ages scholars will look to Dylan's words to unravel the elusive American character. As for myself, that one encounter with greatness will always be with me.