Over the years, I have learned to resist the urge to defend Bob.
Why should I? Of course, now, after nearly 30 concerts, dozens of books, listening to countless official and unofficial recordings, it has become very clear to me that Dylan cares nothing for anyone else’s expectations. He follows his own trajectory and it is still surprising to me that many people who attend his shows still don’t get that.
Mostly, they complain about the voice (I didn’t understand a word!). The thing that matters though, to me at least, is what he does with his voice despite its limitations.
I’m writing this in a café that sits beside the building which used to house the music store where the 15-year-old me purchased the 3-disk box set Biograph many, many years ago. To say that that collection changed my life is perhaps an understatement. It changed my entire view of the world and where I fit into it. Tonight, I’ll be seeing Bob play again, perhaps for the last time. Three nights ago, his performance in Calgary was highly entertaining and moving. At 76 he is still restless, still exploring new musical worlds, these days standards from the songbook of Frank Sinatra.
Of course, everyone knows that when it comes to Bob there are three types of people in the world. Those who kind of like Dylan (maybe know some of the songs), those who are obsessed with the minutiae of his creative output (admittedly a small minority), and those who don’t get him at all and could care less.
But if you can get past your own expectations (no he doesn’t sound like he did on Freewheelin, no he’s not going to play Hurricane), you can witness something compelling. As he performs these songs, many of which are far older than me, shift as vocal emphasis changes, words transform, alter and create new meaning.
My favorite memory from seeing Bob: November 13, 2004 in Rochester, New York. Dylan played what was probably one the best shows I’ve ever seen. What stays with me from that show was one moment. He’s playing Visions of Johanna, a rare choice (as of this date only having been performed live 215 times over the last 50 years according to bobdylan.com). When he gets to the line “In this room the heat pipes just cough “his voice sounds like he is coughing out the word “cough.” I was stunned. Maybe no one else even noticed or cared, but it was instantly clear to me that in that moment, word and voice had merged into one. Form and meaning had unified. The goal of countless artists, especially those that work with language, is to make their art not merely reflect life but to have and sustain a life of its own. In that moment Dylan’s work had achieved that goal and then charged ahead. To me it was like a witnessing a flash of lightening, bold and powerful one instant, seconds later gone as if it never occurred.
Was it intentional? Who knows. But like the work of other great writers, there is much more going on then is apparent on the surface. Those who dismiss his Nobel peace prize award are just as likely to miss the jokes imbedded in Pynchon or to believe that Moby Dick is just a book about whales (if they ever actually read either). Which is fine. It doesn’t make the accomplishment any less significant to those who do notice.
Tonight I’ll be seeing Bob again here in Edmonton, where I first saw him nearly 30 years ago. At 76 years, old, its hard to tell how many more times he’ll be through these parts. This visit feels like a homecoming and a return to the beginning and maybe even a little bit like a goodbye.