Before discussing how Bob Dylan sounded at the Beacon Theater this past week, let’s talk about how does it feel to see Bob Dylan in New York City in 2018.
And before I can describe how does it feel, I need to put my own capacity for feeling into context. I live immoderately and immodestly. I subject captive audiences in Uber pools to long bouts of pressured speech about my enthusiasm for Proust. I tip service providers, at best, erratically. At a hotel bar after the concert I shouted pseudo-intellectual opinions concerning the concept of nonlinear causality at a neuroscientist for 45 minutes. I then boasted to the beautiful English girl whom we were all trying in vain not to love (the one who looked like Rita Hayworth and laughed so sonorously that a train would cry) how I was in fact smarter than the neuroscientist, but then the neuroscientist was standing right beside her, and the neuroscientist just looked as though he felt deeply sorry for me. All of this is to say that, overtly, I do not always present as the most empathic individual. Less charitable parties might even remark that I bare a troubling resemblance of affect to the fictional Patrick Bateman of American Psycho notoriety. But let me tell you what happened at the Beacon on Saturday night. During Simple Twist of Fate, the young woman sitting beside me, a stranger, started to cry. I had but a moment to think, “Ahh quixotic youth!” and then Dylan broke into one of those harmonica solos in which he channels every fibre of his being, what is sometimes called Pure Dylan, and then I too started to cry. I’m not talking a single tear running down my cheek. I’m talking about gasping for breath and snot running into my mouth, all while concerned and embarrassed New York men in the vicinity were palming me their drink napkins in lieu of Kleenex. Just as I would regain my composure, the girl would lose hers again, and that would set me off, and this continued well into the next song. In one of those perfect moments of synchronicity borne of a life of intemperate Bob Dylan enthusiasm that song was one of Dylan’s late-period comic masterpieces, Cry a While.
And nor was I the only grown-ass man on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I couldn’t control. I met a man of high spirits who I took to calling “late-period Orson Welles,” after he’d made it clear that ball-busting was not just acceptable but required. This bro-iest of bros admitted gleefully that he’d been, “Crying like a little bitch,” throughout the entire Friday performance. And of course in a classic New York swerve even this stereotypical Irish bastard turned out to be a playwright of serious renown.
The three of us and countless others were moved this way because Bob Dylan has become Great Again. Of course you can argue that Bob Dylan Never Stopped Being Great. As a wool-dyed Dylan apologist I have made this very claim, repeatedly. But right now—he is singing. Singing. Singing as only Dylan can. Remember that old bootleg, Nobody Sings Dylan. The part that’s left out is “…like Dylan.” The joke is that it doesn’t need to be said.
I credit his turnabout to the latest trilogy of cover albums. The two early 90’s albums of Americana covers led to the creative resurgence that birthed Time Out of Mind through to Modern Times, but also, depending on your interpretation, a five- to ten-year run of shows that were often total barn-burners. Now the Sinatra-inspired albums have reminded Dylan how to croon. The addition of these tin pan alley standards had improved his shows immeasurably in recent years. No longer did it feel like a monotonous ZZ Top cover band fronted by a rapping, shouting, and disengaged Tom Waits. There was a new sonic variety, but also a performative one. He would leave the organ to duck-walk and preen centre stage. Since Bob Dylan is among the funniest people in the world, the reintroduction of his comic sensibilities into the shows cannot be understated. Even better, it occurred to Bob that he didn’t need the standards anymore. He could preen and croon on songs like When I Paint My Masterpiece and even Like A Rolling Stone.
Casual Dylan fans are often shocked when I tell them I’ve been to eighteen shows. Doesn’t get you a lot of cred in New York City, however. 300+ was the highest total I heard. A guy in his mid-30s (hereafter referred to as The Great Man) like myself had been to 90. (He was the partner of the Rita Hayworth woman, incidentally. It was out of respect for his greatness that we were all doin’ our best to deny her Hayworthian effects upon our collective sensorium.) But for the less hardcore fans, it’s important that Like a Rolling Stone be performed in a memorable way. Maybe some of them are assholes singing along to show they know the words to one of the most iconic songs of all time. But those assholes must have cared deeply about Bob Dylan at one point. So they deserve something substantive in the LARS slot, as we assholes of a more elitist ilk call it.
Did I mention that I like to drone on about Proust? What makes Proust so rewarding is that you have to work for it. Pages and pages and pages are concerned with the trivial minutiae of French society and how Monsieur du Charlus eats his soup or some shit. But it’s these long stretches of inanity that imbue the beautiful passages with their power. So all those 2009 shows when Bob plunked away at his stupid circus organ (or Instrument of Torture) have given this resurgence its depth of meaning. That ominous Ballad of a Thin Man that was too often the lone high point of that darker era is gone from the set list, but each and every person capable of truly caring knows that Something is Happening Here. Bob Dylan is back motherfuckers. He’s like a fighting rooster again. Increasingly, he even kind of looks like one. So let’s get 27 drinks at The Dublin House. Let’s weep openly and fall into each other’s arms.
And when Clinton Heylin is one day replaced by the writer who can appreciate the contemporary Bob Dylan experience, I will read of these Beacon shows in her books knowing that I bore witness to my time period’s northeastern leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, or this epoch’s Judas Concert that wasn’t really at the Royal Albert Hall. When I consider my brief interaction with the history of Bob Dylan, I will think of the Irish playwright pounding me on my already-compromised kidneys. I will think of the feats of strength that The Great Man and I engaged in, just moments after meeting ourselves, to provide a physical run-off for our spiritual cups that had runneth over. Out of respect for The Great Man I will try not to think of any individual smiles that may have evoked the highway blues from any 1940s screen siren-resemblant persons lest I become too inappropriately reverential. I will however think of weeping beside my seatmate and understanding the exact depths of emotion she was experiencing, which was one of the more profound experiences of my life.
I’ve yelled this into your ear long enough. It’s time that I should be Bringing It All Back Home Again. Have you heard the Good News? It’s that Bob Dylan, who both the religious scholar Seth Rogoyov and I believe is a genuine prophet of God, is Back in the New York Groove. And nothing compares to seeing Bob Dylan in the town that birthed Bob Dylan. The Great Man said that as a Brit, he understood Visions of Johanna in a new way once he was able to walk the streets of Greenwich Village and set his eyes on that crummy little hotel over Washington Square. The Great Man and I speculated on what Bob Dylan would be like if he didn’t make it to New York at the exact time period he did. But not possible isn’t it? As Bob Dylan has said, he was ready for New York.
Did I mention that, in addition to Proust, I like to yell about nonlinear causality? It’s the idea that an effect needn’t follow a cause, meaning the future might be capable of influencing the past. You can imagine how much this proposition must have annoyed the neuroscientist: but humour me. Maybe all those real tears cried at this miraculous run of 2018 shows were part of what brought Bob Dylan to New York in 1961. Though The Great Man and I wouldn’t be born for another twenty years, nor the tearful girl in the abutting seat for another thirty, maybe he was coming for us.