Ol’ Blue Eyes

To get the preliminaries out of the way, at Bob Dylan’s third of three concerts at the Oakland Paramount, first, the band – Bob (piano and harmonica), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (banjo, viola, violin, mandolin, pedal and lap steel), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), and especially, given the way the sound mix reached these ears, George Reville (drums) and Charley Sexton (lead guitar) – was terrific; but if you understood more than one-third of the lyrics, you beat the over-under. Second, they did nineteen songs, of which one was from the sixties and five from Tempest, Bob’s latest release of new material. (Last year, at Mountain View, they did fifteen songs, of which four were from the sixties and two from Tempest. The year before, in Berkeley, eight of fifteen songs from the sixties and none from Tempest, even though it had just been released and could have used the promotion.) Third, as for ingratiating stage presence, Bob no longer even introduces the musicians. (If he said anything, it was “Thank you. We’ll be right back.” At least, immediately after something undistinguishable uttered from his microphone, everyone walked off stage and returned, fifteen minutes later, to resume playing, without any buzzings or dimming lights to alert those in line in the rest rooms, of whom, given the number of graying pony tails in the audience, male as well as female, there were likely to be plenty.) Of further demographic note, it being the night after the World Series, the audience sported about as many t-shirts saluting the Giants as it did saluting Bob. And finally, when he’d played Mountain View, Bob was still varying his shows by a couple songs, night to night; but on most of this tour, he has been sticking with the same songs, in the same order, every night, regardless of whether he is moving on or sticking around.

With one exception. For four months, in forty-one concerts, in fourteen countries, on three continents, his encore had been “All Along the Watchtower,” followed by “Blowing in the Wind.” But in Hollywood, three nights before, he had switched. Now he sent us home with “Stay With Me.”

That song, written by Jerome Moross and sung by Frank Sinatra, had been the theme for the 1963 film The Cardinal, directed by Otto Preminger, and based, not on the life of Enos Slaughter or Bob Gibson or Dizzy Dean of St. Louis, as one with Game Sevens on his mind when news of this switch reached him might have imagined, but on his eminence Francis Joseph Spellman of New York, who hadn’t played in any.

“Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,” a beseecher begins, “Should my feet sometimes stumble…, stay with me.” Though he has wandered afield and become lost, he asks not be given up on. While he has blundered, even sinned, and, while weary, groping, stumbling through cold and darkness, sought shelter from the wind, he prays, “…stay with me. Stay with me.” Wind, darkness, eyes that do not see, legs that cannot stand, the search for shelter in storms, there is much plucked from a Hollywood a half-century ago, familiar as yesterday to listeners to Bob Dylan. These are colors basic to his palette. These ordered-letters are talismanic objects to be re-arranged, re-shuffled and re-shelved in his touring cabinet of wonders.

They had been present in his previous encore too. Along that watchtower, a howling wind had promised listeners “no relief.” And the blowin’ wind, which had once seemed to promise that men might someday “see,” had been worn by ensuing decades into a tattered, poignant bleat of unrealized expectations.

Now here they came, reformed, again.

The obvious association is that Bob had once more tapped that portion within which had poured out Slow Train Coming. The reflexive choice is to pop him back in bed with Jesus. But I have what, for this non-believer, seems a more generous thought. I don’t think Bob is talking to God. (I bet he doubts there is a God.) I think he is talking to me. I think he stands on that stage, apart though in a group, and all he knows for certain exists above him in the dark is his audience, to whom he is speaking, in this song, in a way that’s more profound and more affecting than if he was reaching to Heaven, as well as communicating more deeply and more personally than would a pandering “It’s great to be back in the Bay Area” or “This one’s for Pablo Sandoval.”

Dylan is seventy-three, the survivor of a disabling cardio-vascular assault, a grandfather many times over, (maybe, secretive as he is, a great-grandfather), and winner of every honor short of a Nobel Prize. (Hey, what is it with you Swedes? Give it up!!) Yet the only way he can be is on the road half of each year, playing one-nighters from Romania, to Slovakia, to Austria.

It can’t just be the music. He could gig at home in Malibu. But to be Bob Dylan requires us. Everyone of us aging, mortal, sometimes, cold, sometimes weary, sometimes lost. I think Dylan knows his stumbles, his wandering, and blunders have irritated and disappointed us. He knows we want to hear “Like a Rolling Stone” sound like it did in 1965. (He knows we sometimes wish it was 1965.) He knows we wish he would sing out against global holocausts or over-sugared soft drinks. (Hell, he knows some of us – and I could name a half-dozen at the Wrench Café – are still mad he went electric.) But I also think he knows that, by now, whatever our preferences, most of us we respect his doing what he does in the fashion that he does it. I think he appreciates our sticking by him, and he is asking, for what remains us, one and all, to stand by him still.

We are on this journey together. We share the same boat, rocking atop the same flood. We frustrate each other. We try each other’s patience. We sing one song when another would be preferred. There is, as yet, no magic wand or baton to wave to change this. So acceptance and tolerance, patience, and trust for everyone on board may be the bearable solution.

The word is that Dylan’s next album will feature covers of multiple Frank Sinatra numbers. The only appropriate response for this man, with his continued capacity to enrich us with wonder and dismay, is “Why the Hell not?”