Introduced as “the poet-laureate of the world,” Bob Dylan came to the stage, a small 62-year-old man, clad entirely in black, with a cowboy hat perched on top of his head. At his concert at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, P.A., last Monday, he seemed to be completely unaware of the eruption that came from the crowd.
Dylan went straight to his piano, pressed against the left side of the stage (he has been almost exclusively playing piano on this tour) without a word. Who was this man who stood before us?
My colleague, Josh Nedelman, stammered in responding to the question, “God . he’s just a song and dance man,” he said. “He’s a grizzled old song and dance man.”
It’s strange the way Dylan’s songs become tied up in your life, how a simple lyric can so perfectly relate to you, can pierce darkness and twist up your insides. I remember the first time it happened to me. It was 1999 and the song was “She Belongs to Me,” a track off the 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home” – “She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique.”
We were heading down Interstate-95 towards Philadelphia, almost late for our date with Dylan, listening to “Visions of Johanna,” a track from the 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.” Zack Linowitz, another colleague of mine, pitched forward from the back seat, sticking his head between Josh and I. “I love this line!” he said, pointing towards the stereo, singing along, “Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles.”
Everybody has one, that Dylan line that becomes you. You could hear people crying out at them all night as he played; the boy two rows ahead of us threw up his hands, drunk, as Dylan sang “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” “Goodbye is too good a word, babe, so I’ll just say fare thee well,” seemed to be the drunk boy’s line.
Poet-laureate of the world indeed. But the songs sounded different now. There was a new rough edge to such songs as “To Be Alone With You” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”; they became rollicking country stomps that rolled behind Dylan’s gruff voice. It has weathered over the years; there’s no point in denying it.
Bob Dylan sounds weary. He has accepted his weariness. I first saw it when he and his band performed “Things Have Changed” at the 2002 Academy Awards, for which he took home the Oscar. He strummed his guitar that night, leering darkly into the camera, a tired troubadour strutting around in his new cynicism. “I used to care, but things have changed,” he sang.
“This man has carried the weight of the world for four decades,” Zack said over the phone Saturday afternoon. I’d called him, sitting outside my residence hall, torturing myself for a way to describe who Bob Dylan has become. “For four decades people have looked to him to be the voice,” Zack said. He is weary, but he will keep going. He seems to have accepted it like preordained fate.
His drive is still there; his last two releases were his strongest in nearly 25 years. “Time Out of Mind,” (1997) an album of dirty, seething blues, took home the Grammy for Album of the Year. “Love and Theft” (2001) was constructed around many of the same roots, but with more of a rockabilly irreverence, an album of jaunty country tunes, swinging percussion, and with Dylan bridging seamlessly the poles of dirty old soothsayer, Tyresius, and the sly southern gentleman.
His harshness gave new edges to familiar songs. “Highway 61 Revisited,” off the 1966 album of the same name, turned into a blistering, acidic song, pure fucking rock and roll helped along by Dylan’s backing musicians, two guitarists, Larry Campbell and Freddy Koella, who traded off on vicious solos, Tony Garnier, the bassist, and George Recile on drums. “All Along the Watchtower,” a gem from the 1967 album “John Wesley Harding,” pulling away from its acoustic roots, blossoming in fire.
It was a standard show from the old god, in this 16th year of what has been dubbed the Never-Ending Tour, 16 songs coming in at just under two hours. The only time he spoke was to introduce the band.
Bob Dylan rolls on in the same way he has since he first galvanized the folk world in the early 60s, since he picked up an electric guitar in 1965, a move Rolling Stone recently hailed as the most influential moment in the history of rock and roll, since his motorcycle accident in 1966, the seclusion and the trio of country albums that followed, since his orchestrated attempt to shed his fan base with 1970s Self Portrait, since his second coming in 1975 with the beautiful Blood on the Tracks, since he found religion as a born again Christian until he renounced it with the 1983 album Infidels, since being popularly passed off as a has-been, since rising again in the late 90s as the last troubadour, an unwitting prophet, struggling as much as the rest of us to understand who he is. There can only be one answer to that question, simple but difficult to grasp: he is Bob Dylan.