Before going out tonight, I pondered, for ten minutes or so, the sartorial decorum of a Dylan concert. My immediate thought was a Stetson hat and pencil moustache combined with American Civil War fatigues, mirroring the sage himself. But that might look too much like parody. How about the nostalgic big hair and short-leather jacket? No, don’t look back, man. In the end I settled for what I was wearing, blue jeans, black t-shirt, and denim jacket. Casual, timeless, and fairly cool.
Needless to say, I regretted my decision as soon as I got off the tube: I found, to my horror, a denim nightmare. Everywhere I looked, bald men with glasses were dressed in matching Marks ‘n’ Sparks’ denim shirt and jeans. Women in denim culottes held the hands of children in denim-look t-shirts; German fans with denim trainers spoke to Belgian fans in denim baseball caps. What this projection of the denim-soul tells us about Dylan is this: he is hardwearing, “authentic,” fading gracefully, universal, and unmoved by changes in fashion. All these things are pretty admirable qualities in the average rock star, but the myth says that Dylan is different. He is, we are told, a poet, a genius, and a folk prophet.
On the basis of tonight’s performance this myth is revealed to be inherently flawed. The phrasing that adds so much poetic texture to the lyrics in the album versions has been replaced, with the admirable exception of the Love and Theft material, by a breathless conflation of each line into as small a space as possible. So that, the iambic opening line of ‘All Along The Watchtower’:
x / x / x / x /
There must be some way out of here
becomes the spondaic:
x x x x x x x /
These old songs are not so much mangled as presented in a synoptic form, which evokes in our mind the original, but without the divine details. One direction for our blame must be Dylan’s much-lauded backing band (mainly praised for coping with the whims of their leader). Charlie Sexton (lead guitar) and Co. steamroller each song with a mÃªlee of country bluesy rock, with rhythm and structure undifferentiated throughout. The band look (with their matching suits) and sound far too much like The Eagles for my liking. Their bombast is without depth. There is, for instance, to a severe detriment in impact, none of the coruscating piano or Hammond we know from the album version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’
Those who claim that Dylan is a folk prophet have celebrated the supposedly never-ending tour as a return to the roots of folk performance, unbound by the convention of promoting the latest album. Obsessive Dylan fans go to every performance, noting song variants and additional lyrics. These variations are applauded in themselves as signifiers of Dylan’s constant metamorphosis. However, the fact remains that there are good and bad versions of songs. Obviously, there is no Platonic archetype for any song, but Dylan’s boredom with previous arrangements fails to turn up anything new. Yet it is these songs, in whatever form, that save him, not that he needs to be saved, from my gripes.
In this, the last gig of this year’s 2002 European Tour, Bob Dylan was as inscrutable as ever. When we look to him for some indication of emotional or mental direction we are parried by an amorphous chaos of humanity that refuses classification. Whether you watched this gig by sneaking up to the front, like I did (evading fascistic stewards), or through shaky binoculars from afar, like so many in this vast, lifeless arena, the sheer impossibility to reduce this man to your own pre-conceptions finally renders him great. Flashes of insight, amidst the obscurant din, confirm what we know from the records: to accept Dylan is to accept chaos, though we’re not sure if chaos accepts him.