4 November 2002
10) Bob Dylan: “Train of Love,” from Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash (Lucky Dog). Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Dylan almost never does good work on them, but here, surrounded by Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle (it’s against the law to make a tribute album without him), Travis Tritt, Keb’ Mo’, the unspeakable Hank Williams, Jr., Bruce Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Rosanne Cash, he gets real, real gone, though not before pausing to wave goodbye: “I used to sing this song before I ever wrote a song,” Dylan says before “Train of Love.” “I also want to thank you for standing up for me, way back when.” Way back in 1965, onstage at the Newport Folk Festival, where, as the current revisionist line has it, nothing actually happened.
9 December 2002
Special Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden Number!
1) Announcement (MSG, Nov. 11). For years, the same voice has opened every show with the same words: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Columbia recording artist, BOBDYLAN!”—the name always squashed into a single word. Last August 9, though, in anticipation of a date in Hamburg, N.Y., a looking-back piece appeared in the Buffalo News. As print it was boilerplate; hearing it appropriated word for word as Dylan’s new fanfare was pure media shock, the displacement that takes place when the conventions of one form are shoved into those of another. This is what the audience hears today: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ’n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jay-sus, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Dylan!”
2) “Masters of War” (MSG, Nov. 11) In 1991, with the Gulf War under way, Dylan stepped onto the stage at the Grammys telecast with his band and played “Masters of War,” from 1963—but you couldn’t necessarily tell. The song was buried in its performance, as if history were its true audience.
With a second Gulf War looming, there was no disguise when, seven songs into the first of two New York shows, Dylan gathered his small band into a half-circle for an acoustic, almost chamber-music version. Played very slowly, very deliberately, the performance made you understand just how good the song is. It wasn’t a matter of relevance. You could imagine that if the last war on earth had occurred thirty-nine years ago—if the song had, by its very appearance, ended war—the song would still speak, just as a 7000-year-old god excavated in Jordan and recently installed in the Louvre is still speaking, reminding you of what you came from, of who you once were.
3) Cover: “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” from Elvis Costello, 1977 (MSG, Nov. 11) He didn’t sing about the shoes; having apparently invested more wisely than the angels, he wore them.
4) The Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Live 1975—The Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia) Confusion in almost every vocal, a pound of sugar in almost every arrangement. Right, the famous “donned makeup in the ’70s” period.
5) Paul Muldoon, “Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000,” from ‘Do You, Mr. Jones?’—Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, edited by Neil Corcoran (Chatto & Windus, U.K.) Muldoon is a poet (author most recently of Moy Sand and Gravel), co-writer on Warren Zevon’s “My Ride’s Here,” and a professor at Princeton. Leading off this new essay collection with a new poem, Muldoon goes back to a show Dylan played at Princeton in 2000—which took place in Princeton’s Dillon Gym. “You know what, honey? We call that a homonym,” the narrator of the poem says to the woman he’s at the concert with. Muldoon lets the suggestiveness in “homonym”—homage, homunculus, Homoousian—take over; the prosaic moves over an odd surface. Then Dylan’s only previous appearance at Princeton enters the poem—in 1970, when Dylan was present not to play but to accept an honorary degree. “He wouldn’t wear a hood,” the narrator remembers. “You know what, honey? We call that disquietude.”
6) Cover: “Something,” from George Harrison, 1969 (MSG, Nov. 13) A final encore, done very straight. Musicians love this song; musicians admire the ability to craft anything that’s at once generic, anonymous and likely to generate income for a hundred years.
7) “Summer Days” (MSG, Nov. 11) The turnaround cut from the seven-years-overdue unreleased live album “Having a Rave-up with Bob Dylan!”
8) “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” (MSG, Nov. 11) Dylan’s first performance of the song since he recorded it with the Hawks in a basement of a big pink house in upstate New York thirty-five years ago. Two of the five who were there then are dead. The house was recently on the market as a prime Dylan collectable. The tune still blew the air of pure American fedupness: “Pack up the meat, sweet, we’re headin’ out.”
9) “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (MSG, Nov. 11) From 1964. The audience always waits to cheer for “Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked.” By now the number has outlasted almost as many presidents as Fidel Castro: Lyndon Johnson (no problem, for a man who liked to receive guests while sitting on the toilet), Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton (who as president was stripped naked, and who you can imagine singing the line to himself) and now George W. Bush. The line took nothing away from him. He lives in the armor of his own entitlement, and he may outlast the song.
10) “All Along the Watchtower” (MSG, Nov. 11) The second of two encores, it began very strangely, with guitarist Charlie Sexton rolling a few spare notes that seemed to call up a distant Western—Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, maybe, with Neil Young’s improvised and timeless guitar soundtrack. It was in fact the opening of Ferrante & Tiecher’s 1961 twin-piano hit “Theme from Exodus,” from the movie based on Leon Uris’s 1958 novel about the creation of the state of Israel. Whether you caught the reference or not, it took the song about to emerge from its own history—one of Dylan’s most world-ending, from 1968, a year that over and over again felt like the end of the world—out of itself. Now the song was going to speak with a new voice: that was the promise that little introduction made.
It was impossible to imagine that Dylan ever played the song with more vehemence, or that, this night, six days after the mid-term congressional elections, the performance was not utterly political, as much a protest song as “Masters of War.” Not when, after Dylan, Sexton and guitarist Larry Campbell led an overwhelming instrumental climb through the tune’s themes following the closing verse, Dylan came back to the mike to sing the opening verse again in a wild voice, throwing the last lines across the seats and out of the hall like a curse: “Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth / None of them, along the line, know what—any—any of it—any of it is—worth.”
3 February 2003
6) The Portable Sixties Reader, edited by Ann Charters (Penguin). At more than 600 pages, a definitively clueless anthology ending with bad poems about the deaths of the decade’s top ten dead people. Count down! Ten! Hemingway! Nine! Marilyn Monroe! Eight! John F. Kennedy! “When I woke up they’d stole a man away,” says Eric von Schmidt—hey, who’s “they”? As Donovan used to say, “I really want to know,” but never mind, Seven! Sylvia Plath! Six! Malcolm X! Five! Martin Luther King, Jr.! Four! Robert F. Kennedy! Three! Neal Cassady! Two! Janis Joplin! And topping the chart: Jack Kerouac! With a straight obit from the Harvard Crimson! Solid! But Janis died in 1970. If she can get in, why not Jimi Hendrix? Captain Beefheart played a soprano sax solo for him the day his death was announced that said more than anything here.
9 April 2003
3) Bob Dylan for Victoria’s Secret (Fox, March 4) “Only two things in this world worth botherin’ your head about and them’s sex and death,” says a “debauched Midwestern businessman” in Michael O’Donoghue and Frank Springer’s 1968 comic serial The Adventures of Phoebe Zeitgeist.That’s the only explanation for the commercial that uses Dylan’s suicidal 1997 “Love Sick” to orchestrate a montage of underwear models looking dour under their hooded eyes. But it’s a better Dylan setting than the nearly four-hours-long God-blessed-the-Confederacy film Gods and Generals, which features his “’Cross the Green Mountain.” I haven’t seen the picture, but I have seen the TV trailer featuring Robert Duvall sitting in a chair as Robert E. Lee and opining, through a mouthful of molasses, “’s in Gawd’s han’s naw,” as if to say, “Hey, don’t blame me.” On the other hand, “Love Sick” is an actual song. At more than eight dying minutes, “’Cross the Green Mountain” might as well be the movie.
16 July 2003
2) Bob Dylan in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (Sony Pictures) Ken Tucker writes in: “Not on the KICK-ASS soundtrack album to this KICK-ASS movie—who needs him there, when you’ve got Nickelback and Kid Rock collaborating on a KICK-ASS version of Elton’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”? No, Dylan sneaks in during the scene in which a KICK-ASS Drew Barrymore gathers her belongings to leave Angel headquarters, and we clearly see that one of her few cherished possessions is a vinyl copy of Bringing It All Back Home. So the real mystery of the movie is, who wanted that product placement in a film filled with shots plugging Cingular Wireless and Body By Demi? My guess? Crispin Glover had been using the album on the set to get himself in the mood to play a bitter, religion-warped mute, and director McG did what he does best, which is stealing cultural totems and reducing them to throwaway junk-jokes that make the viewer feel as though the ASS of anything in life that matters has been KICKED.”