Bob Dylan, Late Autumn

The two Asian-American women to our left had come from San Jose to Berkeley’s Greek Theater because the brother of one, who was boyfriend to the other, had been a great fan of the evening’s headliner; and the women knew, if he had not died six months before, he would have been at the concert. In fact, they believed him there now. Each held his photograph to contemplate, while they smoked the joints through which the music reached them, beneath the chill, grey, starless sky.

The women looked about 25. It was, I realized, as if, in 1967, I had driven one hour and paid scalper’s prices to seek transcendence through a performer who had first hit the charts before the United States entered World War I.

They say Bob Dylan can not sing – not an unfamiliar charge to those of us who have been following him since 1963. They say, as one curmudgeon I encountered the next morning put it, “He has no stage presence, whatsoever!” But on whom else could one’s eyes have been fixed but Bob in gondolier’s hat and cavalry-striped pants, skittering about, posturing stiff-armed, stiff-legged, as if he had seen diagramed in a manual how entertainers move a limb from Point A to Point B but never actually witnessed a human being accomplish this. And how long has it been since Bob has spoken except to introduce his band? One does not attend him for sociability or wit or political instruction. They complain his instrumental skills have deteriorated below the passable, and, true, arthritic fingers may prevent his playing the guitar, but he has at it energetically with piano and harp and electric keyboard. And, hey, at 71, the man was playing his 34th show, in his 33rd city, in 69 days, and he gave us his customary 15 songs and his full 90 minutes. Anything but appreciation, seems to me, a picking at nits.

Mark Knopfler, who opened, told the sold-out crowd how happy he was to be back in Berkeley. “We love you,” members of the audience yelled in response. No one hollered “Love” at Bob. But we Dylanists clapped and cheered and contemplated his every glance and gesture for clues to a greater understanding than we would ever expect to receive from Frank Sinatra or James Brown. We recognized that in his five-decade career he has contributed more to American culture than anyone since, oh, Mark Twain, while pursuing a vision that has been uniquely, fascinatingly, perversely his. Who else but Dylan, now a senior citizen entitled to kick-back and accept reward and tribute, would release a critically acclaimed, commercially successful album, Tempest – and tour without one number from it in his set list? Who else transforms beloved songs from his back catalogue so drastically that even his most devoted fans nudge one another to ask whether they are hearing “Lay, Lady, Lay” or “The Mighty Quinn.” No one even bothers yelling a request to Dylan. We know it would be no more profitable than Job beseeching a break from God.

Dylan’s alterations are not always successful. Even I, who, from Day One, found his vocals moving and would enjoy him if he played with both boots nailed to the stage, found some renderings deflating. For the first time in 20-plus Dylan live performances, I wished I could have heard more of the band. (Charley Sexton, the lead guitarist, who, the last time in town, stood toe-to-toe with Dylan firing exhaustive licks at him, now keeps 15-feet away, restricted to infrequent snippets of improvisation.) The longing arose on the few occasions that Dylan’s current approach to lyrics, a lilting chant, deprived his songs of emotional content. Old, original Bob infused each number with scorn or anger, longing or regret and set us devotees, snarling or pining, as partisans, beside him. Now some selections eluded this connection. But “Ballad of a Thin Man” still scathed; “Highway 61 Revisited” kicked ass; “Like a Rolling Stone” enthralled; and “Feel My Love” felt tender as a kiss.

Bob Dylan wrote the best protest songs of a generation forged by protest. He scrubbed love songs free of treacle and infused them with relevant grit. If he did not invent the “hate” song, he gave musical nastiness a grandeur it had previously lacked. And Dylan legitimized rock’n’roll. Before he went electric the taste-making intellectual establishment regarded rock as popcorn for peabrains. But given the credit he had won as an appropriately left-leaning folkie, when he plugged in and poetry issued, attention had to be paid. And once it was, the Beatles grew up, the Fillmore’s doors opened, Rolling Stone hit the stands; and the world was transformed. (I would refer those who disagree with this analysis to my seminal “Bob Dylan: The Man; the Moment; the Italian Meats Sandwich,” “Karamu” Spring, 1996, just reprinted, rev’d, in the All-Dylan, All-the-time “Montague Street” #3.)

But momentously, if occasionally maddeningly, Dylan moved on. Decade after decade, he dug his work into America, into faith, into fantasy, into terror, into whimsy, into headlines, into myth, into passion, into fantasy, and, even, into Christmas, flashing originality and brilliance at every investigation. He has drawn books from novelists, poets, musicologists, sociologists, historians, theologians compelled by his mystery and power to give understanding and explication a go. Yet he is so available and familiar he is regularly referenced by political columnists, sports writers, and, just last week, the Times’s business section’s description of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference on the international economic system.

Marcel Duchamp posited that it was time to move visual art beyond the eye-pleasing “retinal.” Dylan moves music beyond the ear-soothing cocheal. Melody and harmony are fine; but those of us involved with him value more deeply his ability to plunge our consciousness into other times and other places, resurrect communion with old friends and old foes, past loves and passee hatreds, collapse and, then, enliven our present through collisions with dreams and nightmares, fates and furies, and former versions of ourselves.

Consider that the encore, as it has been continually through this leg of Dylan’s journey, was “Blowin’in the Wind.” That, of course, was the hit from 50 years ago, the first song of his I ever heard. Then, at 21, one received it as talismanic inspiration. One believed it spoke of racial harmony and world peace. One believed we were on an irresistible march toward these achievements. On other tours, Dylan has omitted the song from his repertoire or presented it as though the wind on which it centered was as devoid of substance as any mirage. But now, featured so prominently as a good-night and good-bye, coming on the heels of Tempest’s warnings of “wasted years” and “final run(s),” and “last trip(s),” weight has been restored. “He, me, you… Every year we’ve been singing this,” Adele said. “‘How many times…?’ It’s running out.”

And if change doesn’t happen… If the world to come remains the world that is, we can, through the restorative properties of his great art, like the two women beside us, seek personal healing.