From the time Bob Dylan first started performing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses, there was something discombobulating about his performances. He would fiddle with his guitar tuning and look nervous. Halfway through, the song might begin to go off the rails, but people noticed that he always pulled it back together in the end, and the song was richer for this tumult.
People have been telling Bob Dylan what to do since shortly after that: first he wasn’t supposed to plug in an electric guitar, and once that grew on folks, they wanted him to be the “voice of the counter-culture of the 60s”, which he ended up being anyway, despite not being as political as Joan Baez at the time. By the time Self-Portrait came out in 1970 the first calls for his head were being issued, Rolling Stone famously opened their review, “What is this shit?”
People have been calling for Bob Dylan’s retirement since at least the early 80s, and I’m sure some were calling for it before that. Had these admonitions been heeded, let me hit you with it, there would be no: Not Dark Yet; Highlands; Ring Them Bells; Things Have Changed; Shooting Star; Workingman’s Blues #2; Nettie Moore; Make You Feel My Love; Most of the Time; Mississippi….and I could go on this way. There also never would have been the wonderful concerts between roughly 1997 and 2003 when Bob, backed for much of that period by the dynamic duo of Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, lit houses on fire night after night.
So, it’s with great sadness that I see the Wall Street Journal’s latest discussion of whether Bob should retire, and the subsequent media discussion. People tend to think of Bob as some eccentric ghost who would never lower himself to something so simplistic as reading a newspaper, but history has taught us that Bob Dylan is nothing if not sensitive. In Things Have Changed he wrote:
I hurt easy, I just don’t show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it
And the WSJ aren’t alone; The National Post, a paper I once had the privilege to write for, sent their very intelligent music critic Mike Doherty to a Bob Dylan show at London’s Roundhouse. Doherty concluded his long piece wondering if it would be too much “to ask Bob Dylan to go gently into that good night.”
Yes, Mike, it would be very inappropriate for you to ask that. If Johnny Cash came back from the grave and made the same request, I still wouldn’t give it much credence. And I’ll tell you why.
I’d like to say I probably listen to more Bob Dylan bootlegs than anyone, but I’ve been on the message board of ExpectingRain.com, and I know there are people refreshing their browsers waiting for the latest show to be uploaded. (At the moment, it’s not illegal to download a taped recording of a Dylan concert, so long as it hasn’t been, or won’t be released by Sony.)
I acknowledge that Bob’s voice has become quite croaky, and it’s fair to admit he’s come a long way from being the glorious Bob Dylan of 1999. But that doesn’t mean he’s no longer an interesting Bob Dylan. In fact, I think he’s a fascinating Bob Dylan and that when people look back in 20 or 30 years, this late-period Dylan will be one of the most frequently discussed.
Sure, I get annoyed when I hear Highway 61 (or HI61 as aficionados label it) for the zillionth time. But if I were a casual fan, I’d find it a most satisfying blues-rocker. Same for a tune like Cold Irons Bound.
Then there’s the up-singing, or the croaking, or as one hack phrased it during Bob’s summer ballpark tour of 2009, “the baseballs in his mouth.” Personally, I find it most amusing, and it’s a rare Dylan concert from the last few years that doesn’t cause me to laugh or smile at least a few times.
Sometimes Bob even reverts to his old Charlie Chaplin self, doing a comical duck-walk and then dropping into a conversational sing-song with “You ever seen a ghost, (then shouting) NAHHH, but you have heard of them,” the humour of which can’t be conveyed in words. (So grab a bootleg or two while you still can why don’t ya?)
That’s another thing that bugs me about Bob Dylan criticism. Most of these small-town scribes, but even writers in New York, LA and other major league markets, act like they haven’t heard or thought about Bob Dylan since 1991. Can’t they listen to a few shows in advance? Oh I forgot, full-time journalists are notoriously lazy. (I’m lazy too, but I expect more when it comes to BD.) They always comment on his hat for some reason. They warn that he doesn’t sound the same. They claim he comes out with new arrangements every night. (Which is ludicrous, as Dylan told Jonathan Lethem after the release of Love and Theft, the arrangements are almost always the same, it’s just the rhythmic structure that changes.)
So the concerns about the voice aren’t going over with me. It’s lucky that some of these critics weren’t around to hear Tom Waits first sing The Piano has been Drinking; similarly, they might have put the nix on Louis Armstrong’s vocals, saying, “Stick to the horn Louis, think about your legacy.”
The WSJ article is actually far less incendiary than I would have expected given the number of publications that followed up on it, especially since the retirement-demand has been issued far less eloquently before. John Jurgensen certainly gives Bob his due and lets fans and scholar Sean Wilentz plead Bob’s case.
But I still find it galling, because if anyone should be forced to retire, it’s a shameless jukebox like Paul McCartney, who like many dusty fossils, has been known to use not only the same songs, but even the same joke night after night.
Besides, there is a connection between Bob and his fans that will allow him to tour as long as he wants to. If Bob is on death’s door in a nursing home in Malibu and offers to duck-walk through the common room, I’d fly there.
I’ve been to six Dylan shows in the last three years. I regret every one that was within driving distance that I missed. I listen to bootlegs of his concerts more than any other music by far. And there’s a moment I always look for. When Spirit on the Water is in the set-list, there’s a magical moment with some of the more savvy audiences.
Bob: You think I’m over the hill?
Audience: No!!!!!! (I always scream this at the top of my lungs, even in hick towns like Kitchener, Ontario where I’m one of the few in on the game).
Bob: You think I’m past my prime.
Bob: Well, let me see what you got. We can have a real good time.
And for many of us, we can. For the Mike Dohertys, the thousands of haters who want nothing but the Greatest Hits, and the many journalists who don’t even understand Dylan well enough to know what they want, it’s damn hard for them to have that real good time. That’s their loss.
The following isn’t from a live concert, but most of that footage is shaky and the sound dubious. So I want to present Bob in fine form and ask, is this the Bob Dylan you want to retire?