Andrew Muir’s book, Razor’s Edge, follows the Never Ending Tour from 1988 to 1999. Muir gives informed overviews, as well as detailed personal accounts of shows flung far about the globe. He describes a show in 1994, in Hiroshima, where Bob played the first acoustic version of Masters of War since 1963. I regret I’ve never heard a recording of this performance. For all those people who complain that Bob Dylan doesn’t “communicate” enough to the audience, I invite you to consider what the hell you mean by communicate: the simple fact of this choice is a message more intimate and provocative than any speech the man could give from a stage. Muir writes:
Here he was in Hiroshima, an American in the first Japanese city obliterated when the U.S. dropped The Bomb, singing out against the terrible sufferings of the innocent in war. I have rarely been as moved. How strange that such a blunt, unforgiving, adolescent piece should achieve that effect. Or rather how strange it would have been in almost any other location (109).
The strangeness is key. It would seem an obvious, benevolent gesture of solidarity to sing an anti-war song in Hiroshima. But Masters of War is not an anti-war song, it is not a song begging for peace or even advocating peace. It is adolescent and blunt as it indicts the elders, the Masters, who use young people as playing pieces in their wars while they remain safe, their power reinforced by the destruction of innocents who may be manipulated to believe that their sacrifices are for the general good, but who will be sacrificed regardless. The singer is himself brutal, he doesn’t appeal to ethics, but to vengefulness and a righteous morality. He would set these Masters of War outside the embrace of the lord of forgiveness, Christ himself. He fantasizes gloating over their deaths. He accuses them of manufacturing such terror in their pawns, that young people will choose not to bring children into a world so treacherous. These are not mature philosophies that offer a vision of a peaceful utopia. They are the violent rages of youth against its own exploitation.
He sang this in a pointed gesture of historical significance–the first acoustic performance since the song’s earliest life–to an audience that might have contained survivors of the bomb, and that almost certainly contained the children and perhaps grandchildren of the survivors, and relatives or descendants of those who did not survive. Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles about what it is to be a child of Pearl Harbor, the cusp event of the 20th century. He offered the song’s pitiless judgement, its fantasy of revenge, to people whose country suffered the worst single moment of destruction in history at the hands of the singer’s country, and who lost the war as well as a military presence in the world. The Japan he sang to has been rebuilt, secure, at peace. And still, the song is not a healing thing, it does not offer unity and reconciliation. It admits different kinds of violence, and different ways the human heart darkens against others. Muir was absolutely right to find it “strange” that he was moved by this performance, which reminds us that war destroys the spirit. Dylan offered them a quiet and personal rendition of the song, and their responses are their own business.
If this performance were *timeless* or if it *erased boundaries between nations* it did so with a strong cold truthful reminder of the corruptibility of spirit that characterizes war. It seems outside history because of its time and place and the identities of the singer and the audience, not despite these factors.
In 1994 Bob Dylan also performed at The Great Music Experience in Japan, in the city of Nara. There is excellent film footage of this. The first time I watched it, I see Bob Dylan looking small and preoccupied, standing at the center of a very large stage dwarfed absurdly by an entire orchestra behind him. His guitar seems a pointless prop. A friend tells me, “He’s going to do Hard Rain.” I can’t imagine the surreal catalog and the heroic journey holding up to a schmaltzy wall of violins and cellos. I prepared myself to be undone by Bob Dylan’s embarrassment. The strings start up, Bob starts strumming and singing, and after the incongruity of the first line or so, all bets are off. A New Voice is born, is what happens. Inside the lush sound of the orchestra, his voice seems to grow, to become sonically larger. Not louder, but more expansive. The vocals are not foreground and the orchestra is not background, and the orchestra does not complement the vocals–instead, his voice becomes capacious enough to hold the orchestra within his song.
Hard Rain was not composed on the occasion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as I mentioned elsewhere in this blog. It has still often been heard as a ballad for the anxious spirit of the atomic age, a boy’s journey through world that has become shards of horror and of hope because of the threat of perfectly feasible destruction. And here it is being sung by its composer, who lived to see the threat carried out and the world scarred over but still intact. And he’s joined by musicians who are the beneficiaries of extreme cases of sacrifice, destruction, and renovation. The whole thing could be a We Are The World bit of kitsch, and it is not. It’s not, in part because of the strange and suggestive world of the song’s lyrics, in part because all the performers do their jobs with professional skill and focus that can’t easily be sentimentalized, and in part because Bob Dylan found a new voice equal to a setting–both the stage at Nara and the thousands of unseen watchers enjoying the video footage–that would have seemed preposterous at the level of science fiction when he first performed the song in the tiny hole of the Gaslight, for an audience of people who almost all knew each other.
Bob Dylan performing Hard Rain in Nara, and Bob Dylan performing Masters of War in Hiroshima, can only be thought about, and felt, as a coming-together of so many stories that took decades to develop: political, biographical, technological, economic. It is puerile and sentimental to ascribe some quality of *transcendence* and *timelessness* to the songs themselves. It is foolish to find a *closure* to anything at all in seeing and hearing Bob Dylan perform these songs in Japan. It is Philistine to reduce these events to signs of a homogenized global culture that doesn’t recognize the traditional boundaries of time and space. Better to stick with Andrew Muir’s “strangeness.” The peculiar availability of these songs to new settings, the peculiar adaptability of Dylan’s performing self to new settings, our capacity for emotions that are not familiar and not comfortable–all these real-world factors can combine to provoke us to ask “What is it I just saw and heard?” Why are we so grateful for these moments?
Here is a photo of the Mihama Nuclear Reactor in Japan and there has to be a story that brings the Japanese people from Hiroshima to Mihama that is not a shallow story of healing and victory, but a story in which time passes and things change, and some people felt some of these moments of change with special clarity and wonder.