Then I Threw Myself Onto The Stage

images-8 Here is a link to sharp piece written by Andy Moore for a site based in Madison, WI, called The Isthmus:  In it, Moore briefly enters the Twilight Zone of Bob Dylan’s private/public world. Dylan and his band rehearsed for several days at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, before launching the summer tour in Milwaukee. The staff of the Barrymore were sworn–and we do mean legally sworn–to NORAD-level secrecy, and Dylan originally wanted the building evacuated of all staff, but relented to the Barrymore’s  request to be allowed to carry on their business in the office. The secret rehearsals were amplified and, one nice night,  the theater’s doors somehow secretly opened,  and people eating at a diner across the street enjoyed the perfectly audible sounds of  a free top-secret Bob Dylan rehearsal. 

Moore does witty justice to the strange mixture of insolence, cojones, professional discipline, irreality, and image-making that only Bob Dylan can pour into three days in Madison, Wisconsin. 

images-1Just a few weeks later, I attended Bob Dylan’s concert in Bethel Woods, NY. As a non-driver, this treat entailed a 3 hour bus ride from Manhattan to a lovely scenic spot high above any human settlement, a 5 hour wait for Bob Dylan to take the stage. High points of the energetic show for me were another glorious tragic Forgetful Heart, a strong Workingman’s Blues, and a lively  Tweedledum/dee. Then followed an hour’s wait in the bus as the parking lot emptied, the ride back to Manhattan, the manifold charms of the MTA at 3 AM, and the final  arrival home in Brooklyn at 4 AM Sunday. 


When I listen to Real Live, I hear a terrific guitarist in the act of figuring out how to integrate his gifts into the peculiar demands and energies of performing with Bob Dylan. Mick Taylor’s gorgeous streams of note-bending solos sometimes upstage Bob Dylan’s vocals. Sometimes Taylor comes in too soon. Sometimes I can actually hear him pause, expecting Dylan to resume singing,  then Dylan lets the moment go longer than Taylor’s timing, and a little edgy pause, a moment of vertigo,  happens in the music onstage. These awkwardnesses are surely awkward. And because we’re listening to two great performers, the arguable  ill-matching can also give a tension and life to these performances that would be absent with weak performers. For me,  it all works in I and I, and partly because Dylan wrote the song with the voice he’s singing it with on this recording, so his phrasing  here has a particular strength and confidence and the trade-offs between the vocals and Taylor’s solos are thrilling and not clumsy.

Then there is the Tangled Up in Blue on Real Live, where Dylan takes us through  the song like a wormhole, you hold on for dear life, I think I know this song and now it’s exactly in the moment of shattering but never coming apart, the scans and rhymes impossibly holding together, the song impossibly depositing you in an alternate universe that is still Tangled Up in Blue. And I wonder whether night after night of singing alongside Mick Taylor’s guitar playing, the tortuous and insistent solos–could that kind of musical improvisation have influenced Dylan’s verbal improvisations, so that somehow this relation between music and words answers for  one small part of the outrageous inventiveness of that Tangled Up in Blue?


images-6Of course one of the reasons Bob Dylan’s 1984 appearance on the David Letterman show is galvanizing, hilarious, and addictive is because of his audacious playfulness with the time constraints of live  television. In Jokerman, he turns his back to the audience, dithers about for a harmonica, steps off the raised portion of the stage, abandons The Plugz to a trial by fire they do indeed pass–this is all nerve-wracking even for the viewer, and marvelously exposes the nonsense of “live” television.

images-4Well, these were the thoughts I had when I read Alan Light’s piece in the Cambridge Companion on Bob Dylan the performer, and Martin Jacobi’s piece on collaboration. Both are solid overviews, largely chronological, that offer a catalogue of Dylan’s stage lives, and the musicians and writers Dylan has worked with, covered, ben influenced by, plundered from. The issue of  whether or not we dignify the plundering, and how we dignify the plundering once we’ve decided to dignify it, is de rigueur in *serious* Dylan studies, and Jacobi takes it on briefly and cogently in his conclusion, making fashionable references to performance studies. This is what we want from a quasi-academic survey of the influences and collaborations of a serious popular artist: a skeletal but accurate catalogue that the whole range of his work merits attention, a nod to the idea that Bob Dylan’s plundering matters more than someone less serious, and the nod ennobled by fluency in sophisticated critical theory.

Light surveys the performing career in the metier of a smart, knowledgeable music critic: there is a certain immediate, contingent value to a live music performance. Dylan and the Dead is “abysmal.” “Whatever one thinks of the content” of the gospel material,”there is no question that Dylan and his tight little band were making some glorious music.” Farm Aid was a “tough and rocking” performance. This is what we want from a smart music reviewer, thumbs ups and thumbs downs, respectful fluency in the vernacular of popular music, a comprehensive overview of an important career.

But if some of the members of the high culture board of admissions seem to be  at a stage in Bob Dylan’s career where they want to admit him to the club–examine and locate him as a central culture-making figure–does the fact of his performing career get in the way? Do we just not have a language that suits the special synthesis of composition and performance that’s just intrinsic to what Dylan does? A language for the way different musicians may have created different aural environments that impacted the timbre and phrasing of Dylan’s voice, and even the lyrics he composes? What about his manipulation of his appearance, his distinctive consciousness of being 0n-camera as opposed to being on stage? What about the idea of a performer’s relationship with his audience? What about the evolution of Dylan the musician? In the context of this kind of criticism, is it enough to say that Real Live is mediocre and Dylan and the Dead is abysmal?  Why not examine the role and influence of other musicians on these performances, the state of Dylan’s own musicianship in these tours,  if indeed they are stations in a career that merits the attention given the most significant contributors to cultural and intellectual life?

images-7I know I’m just shadowboxing here. The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan is not an adversary, in one way it’s just a bunch more voices about Bob Dylan and ion another way it is not.  It’s a signal publication in the effort to yank this man into the inner circle of  significant contributors to cultural and intellectual life.  My boredom and frustration with so much of this signal publication comes from the fact that I’m not witnessing the messy birth pangs of a new kind of critical writing that does justice to the ways Bob Dylan plays with–tortures–categories:  performance/composition, image/identity,  authenticity, publicity.  So much else to say…. Let’s try to make the language to say it, and let people in 2249 talk about significant contributors to cultural and intellectual……….







3 thoughts on “Then I Threw Myself Onto The Stage

  1. My sentiments exactly. I was hugely disappointed with both Light and Jacobi’s chapters–all trees, no forest, in my opinion–on two major topics regarding Dylan. Perhaps if Paul Williams were still up to it, he would have been given the Performance chapter. The 3rd volume in his Performing Artist series finds him finally finding words for the most intimate features of Dylan as a performer. It is (in places) really, really wonderful. I say “finally” not because his earlier writings were not illuminating but because he kept getting better, always rising to the challenge of finding a finer vocabulary. An exemplary critic.

    And the problem with the chapter on Dylan as collaborator is that there is no real attention to Dylan as a collaborator with his bands, with other musicians–nothing remotely equal to your speculation on the stimulus Mick Taylor may have provided, which is the only kind of thing I wanted from such an essay. (I too love the Real Live “I and, I”–the only thing I do love about that album–I think the rewrite of “Tangled Up in Blue” is fascinating but terminally weird.) That chapter ends up being less about collaboration than about influences, and the tiresome “plagiarism” debate–a debate that makes you wonder if anyone has ANY notion of how poetry has propagated itself for the last 2,500 years.

    In any case, I see the Cambridge Companion as a huge missed opportunity. I think the editors just lacked the courage of their convictions. Insufficient cojones.

  2. Tombstone Blues on Real Live is a grand performance.

  3. Thank you , Senor Hinchey, as always for your response here. Paul Williams will always be my model for writing on Dylan. If only his exceptional blend of thought and feeling served as a model for so much current critical writing on Dylan.

    I think my rock-bottom concern is that the Cambridge Companion is neither fish nor fowl. The pieces do not agree on the kind of attention Dylan’s work merits, and so we have something as acute and comprehensive as Robert Polito on Hwy 61, something as ingratiating and slender as Carrie Brownstein on Blood on the Tracks, something as rich and provocative as Eric Lott on “Love and Theft,” something as negligible as Barbara O’Dair on gender…..A mix of voices and opinions and critical methodologies is one thing, but a conspicuous lack of commitment to a degree of attention is another. Exactly as you mention above: if this performing and creative artist merits inclusion on the Cambridge Companion shelf, then surely he merits really serious and penetrating attention to how his art has been affected by performance and collaboration, rather cursory surveys and ratings.

    Real Live’s TUIB “Terminally weird”? .You bet! ! Also a bizarre tour de force of improvising metric and rhyming language.

    “Huge missed opportunity.” I second that emotion.

    And PS to LS: Thanks for reminding me that the Tombstone Blues is a standout on Real Live, another example of Dylan and Taylor really working together to bring a new energy to the song, and to prove it can accommodate more energy.

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