I’m of the crowd who believes that when Bob Dylan sings It Ain’t Me Babe, he’s singing it to us, his audience. Audiences always want something and it’s the rarest performer who can make us want, show us what we want, refuse to actually hand over what we want, and thrill us anyway. What we want and what Bob Dylan ain’t change over the years,they change depending on the performer he is at the time. Until I heard two live versions of the song in 2005, my favorite was the Rolling Thunder It Ain’t Me Babe, which you can see in Renaldo and Clara. He cavorts around the microphone like a little savage, complete with feathers and greasepaint, his eyes are dazed and dazzling, and he bites off the words and spits them out. I can hypnotize you, and you’ll never catch me, you’ll never tame me is what this performance tells us. In 2005, I heard him do this song once in New Jersey, and once very far from New Jersey, in Glasgow, Scotland. “I’m not the one you want, babe, I will only let you down,” he set each word down separately in its own growl, each word was final, each word seemed to be an announcement of its own. The vocals came from someplace dark, as if to say You’ll never get what’s hidden, you’ll never even know if there’s really anything there but you’ll feel every word.
It Ain’t Me Babe pulls us in and turns its back on us, a strong rendition of it is an awful teasing dance. I like to think that the song now, with its dark hollow allure, might have something peculiar to say about the currently neverending relationship Bob Dylan is relentlessly creating with audiences as far apart as Montclair, New Jersey and Glasgow, Scotland.
That my first overseas Dylan concert should have happened in Scotland was a special treat for me. Around the 1890s, my great-grandparents apparently decided they’d had one pogrom too many and made their way from some unknown Russian spot of misery to the tolerance of Florence Street in Glasgow. There is a particular history of hospitality towards Jews in Scotland. When the Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow opened in 1879 the Glasgow Herald reported the event, and mentioned a “unique and attractive ceremony,” which is much more charming than a lot of things the paper could have said. I saw where my great grandparents lived, near a small bridge crossing the River Clyde. My great grandfather worked in a cigarette factory, and my great grandmother was a seamstress, the kinds of occupations which have served poor people on the move for centuries. I suppose they got used to a variety of things which I take for granted: the English language, being left alone, warmer winters than in Russia.
Here’s a photo from the website of the small hotel chain that owns the hotel I stayed at when I visited Glasgow in 2005. A person could certainly write one of those familiar migration stories beginning with my great grandparents’ Glasgow tale of persecution, exile, tolerance, opportunity, endurance, and then leading to my Glasgow tale of assimilation, security, freedom, leisure, affluence.
And it’s all over. It’s only later that I think of all the songs I would have loved to see him play which he didn’t – at the time the setlist seemed pretty much perfect. I have no doubt that the quality of Dylan’s performances varies wildly, but on this occasion he blew us away and I’d definitely take my chances again if and when he comes back.
Above is the conclusion to a review I found on the Internet of the concert I enjoyed also that November night at the SECC. The review was by a fellow named Mathew West, who at the time apparently lived in Edinburgh, a person I don’t know, and whose review of the concert can be found by anyone with Internet access anywhere in the world.
Air travel is standardized and the distance covered is invisible to the traveler.We are used to instantaneous anonymous community. We demand unmediated, unmonitored instantaneous transmission of information. We have to deal every day with unmediated and unmonitored appropriation and manipulation of information and of other people’s words. These conditions appear uncontrollable and inexorable, and they are in fact the products and services, or byproducts, of a corporate oligarchy that continues to absorb or destroy smaller commercial entities and erase boundaries and differences through economic control. This is a catalog of the truisms which characterize the Now I understand we occupy.
Where is Bob Dylan in all this? Bob’s everywhere! Here he is in Sweden, Spain, and Brixton, all in 2005, the same year I saw him in Glasgow. Or maybe these photos are Sweden, Milan, and Nashville, I’m not sure–three other places he performed in 2005. In Glasgow, he opened with Maggie’s Farm, as he did in Bologna one week earlier, a fact I mention only because on the bootleg recording of the Glasgow show, right before the show begins, a man close to the taper calls out “TWEEDLEDEE!” in what I hear as a thick brogue but Mathew West would hear unaccented. If this man had been at the show in Bologna he could have heard Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Maybe he was at the Bologna show, or maybe he’d already downloaded it, been blown away by that night’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and wanted it live for himself. In Glasgow, Bob did give us a Sugar Baby in which the delivery seemed to be exactly one-tenth of a heartbeat longer than my ears expected to hear each phrase, thus creating this wonderful tension throughout the song. One of those performances in which I know what it means to hang on every word. And of course when he sung “some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff,” a companionable, hearty, appreciative roar went up. I also recommend this show for a ne plus ultra Just Like A Woman: Bob paused between each line of the refrain, and this Glasgow crowd gave him back a thundering “JUST LIKE A WOMAN” each time, and he let us sing “I just don’t fit,” and then he actually purred back to us into the microphone “That’s right.” Some concerts are lovefests, this was one of them, and perhaps my great-grandparents could not have hoped nor dreamed of thousands of people showering honest love all over an erstwhile Jewish man on a stage a mile or two from their strange new street. And he did the forbidding/enticing It Ain’t Me Babe at this show, too.
How does the NET work? I think it is best summarised as the creation of an ongoing environment which enables the performer to reach inspired moments in performance.
Lee Marshall offers this admirably pithy remark on p. 208-209 of his book, Bob Dylan, The Never Ending Star. Perhaps an unintended pithiness here is the pun in the phrase “NET work.” The “ongoing environment,” in which the man pictured above appears on identical stages hundreds of miles apart, night after night, more often than not within 20 minutes of the time stated on the ticket for each appearance, is of course an extremely well-oiled and expensive machine. The parts of this machine are exactly the cliched catalogue of modern life I breezed through above: people and things and money and information moved around with astonishing speed and safety and efficiency, all made possible and protected by economic networks that to a great extent manipulate culture and power and diminish regional differences.
Dylan has said “The songs are the star of the show, not me” (Hilburn interview, 2004), and in 2006 he said of the songs on Modern Times, that “when I was singing them, they seemed to have an ancient presence” (Lethem, Rolling Stone, 2006). Dylan could almost have you believe that the perfection of this global cultural machine was ideally timed to satisfy his desire to bring the peculiar timelessness of his songs to an audience that would hear them as timeless, and not as historical. Dylan himself has said right out that he expected people to attend early NET shows who wanted a revival of the history Dylan’s come to represent, and they would not find what they wanted, and they would not return. But younger people, people who don’t or can’t identify with this history, would be his repeat audience. They are the ones who would take advantage of this speeded-up and seemingly borderless world to experience as often as possible this “ongoing environment”; they would become fluent in the combination of routine and surprise that characterizes the Neverending Tour.
But what does it mean when we say his music is timeless? Timeless as performances. Timeless as compositions. This topic deserves its own space. But I want to end this post with a glance at the people who continue to be “shocked–shocked!” when Bob Dylan appears in a lingerie or SUV commercial, or when Bob Dylan allows Pepsi to use Forever Young to sell soda, and I think the latest is another ad with Times They Are A-Changin’ ? I can’t keep these straight. To these people I say: if you have bought Bob Dylan CDs from a retail establishment, and if you have purchased tickets to a Bob Dylan concert through any source, and if you watched No Direction Home on television, maybe even saw I’m Not There in a movie theater or rented it through NetFlix–you and Bob are already enmeshed in the one world of commerce and advertising and intellectual property and filthy lucre. How exactly are these offended people telling the difference between the moneylenders in the temple and the good people in the temple who just happen to be exchanging cash? Why is a 6-figure recording contract a higher moral ground than a Cadillac commercial? What do you think it takes to mount a 2 hour rock concert–honor, love, and benevolence? How clean do you need this man’s hands to be for the sanctity of your own conscience? I suggest listening to your own favorite version of It Ain’t Me Babe.