03/23/05: THE BOB DYLAN SHOW
Since the election, a lot of us have given up on the news, as if the apocalypse quietly occurred without us and it was too late to do anything about it. The headlines and villains who were such a daily part of our lives three months ago don't seem to penetrate any more. That's a very dangerous place to be, obviously. Norman Klein, at least, is still writing about it. Check out this new article.
He's not alone. The Bob Dylan show, featuring Amos Lee, Merle Haggard and the Strangers, and Bob Dylan and his new band, came into town Monday night to start off a five night stand on Hollywood and Vine. They brought history -- the history many of us would rather not see -- with them. The show had the feel of a geo-political event, and its spilled out strange hippies and Dylan heads onto Hollywood Blvd. The glitterati in attendance seemed oddly discombobulated by the eccentric self-reliances on display, as old troubadours showed off their nubile young girlfriends, sang of the road, darkness and war and relentlessly rocked the house as if they still believed in the devil after all.
Fronting "the oldest beer joint band in the world," Haggard's strange mix of radical conservative portraiture and marijuana-induced hippy libertarianism brought the crowd to its feet ("Mama Tried," "Wish I Was 30 Again") or left them politely clapping ("Fightin' Side of Me"). He recommended "putting your mind on Bob Dylan" and not listening to George Bush, but sang hymns to the troops boldly conservative and rich with red state paranoia. When Haggard broke into "Okie from Muskogee," only to stop and start it once or twice to illustrate the effects of marijuana on his old man's mind, it was unclear who was the butt of the Lincoln-faced genius' joke. Merle's song-writing continues to flow unabated in these years where culture has pretty much dead-ended, and he writes with grace and humor and pathos about a world many of us would rather not see. Merle came like a warning and a sign of things that are passing away and rising up. The tragedy that he left in his wake was not the tragedy of his own life, but of his country.
After Haggard's old-country machismo and piercing confrontation, Bob Dylan emerged in a black suit and five-gallon hat, crouched over an old wooden half-size piano, and seemed at first like a kid. One was reminded of the concerts he played so many years ago in Hibbing high-schools, now banging out "Drifter's Escape" like he'd just discovered Rock n Roll could save his soul and didn't much care about the price. Dylan crouched demonically stage right all night, giving the center generously to a band still clearly learning the songs -- an anomalous grouping of the fresh and weathered, a band eager and capable of rocking hard blues or rolling out sweet country ballads, and clearly eager to follow Dylan's strange and cascading direction. He laughed and gestured and led the rollicking show throughout, but the show itself grew increasingly dark.
"Times They Are A' Changin" is a song that is supposed to mold itself ingeniously to encompass new epochs, but all the times I've seen Dylan sing it it never seemed genuinely to apply. In the 90s, for instance, it would have proved disastrous to any critic's career to be caught "prophecying with pen." But tonight, after Haggard introduced the War so clearly, one saw the song in a whole new light, a warning to a country that is collapsing, to a privileged elite that is simply waiting for the end. "The chance won't come again," Dylan snarled with a terrible Brechtian, mask-like grin. "The old road is rapidly chaaaaaaaaangin..."
The set was simple. Devoted to Love and Theft and JWH country grooves of yesteryear, it cast out horizontal songs that could have gone on for ever, and sometimes seemed to. Dylan rocked hard throughout, banging out his blues like a kabuki voodoo priest; playing harp with one hand and piano with the other. It was a strange and beautiful hardcore show, its tenderest moment an encore cover of Merle's Sing Me Back Home." If it left many fans wishing for hits unheard (the Guy behind us almost blew out my ear yelling for "Handy Dandy"), it left me and Milkblood amazed at Dylan's vivacious, theatrical presence (the mask-like ginning voice and darting black eyes), and the strange vibrant power of rock and roll music to make you wonder what the hell you've been doing recently. Small lines were added here and there ("There's a War goin on" in "High Water") pointing to outside political events, but it was clear we were in Zombie land, where the singer was rocking out to gods we didn't quite understand, completely outside of compromise, that his own war was being waged every single day of his life, that he loved it -- and that we were indeed all damned together.
After the performance, the musicians stood on stage and faced the audience in a line.