Down Where The Vultures Feed

indexAround 1:20 in the afternoon on Friday the 26th, I sat with my back against a wall at the edge of Hoboken while I waited for the gates to open and launch the stampede to the Pier A stage. Other people sat alone or in twos or threes to either side of me; I was the 15th or 20th person from the front of the line. A man pushing an empty stroller ambled past us followed by his tiny flaxen daughter. She stopped, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed,  in front of nearly every one of us who sat facing the street and she returned every smile we gave her by ramping up her expression of expectant wonder. I realized that all of us sitting down came to just her height and when had she ever seen one friendly adult after another after another who was her own size? That was the last agreeable encounter and completely relaxed moment  I had for the next 10 hours. This is my fault. For me, the  point of GA shows is that nothing but my will and effort prevent me from getting as close to the stage as possible. If I can’t get in the first rows of a seated concert, I submit to fortune and fate. But there is no fortune in General Admission, there is only the art of war–the back of the field is for the weak, the lazy,  and the contented pacificist. I respect the pacificists and sometimes believe I can go to a GA Bob Dylan concert with just that Zen quality but when the day comes, the fire burns, and I suffer for it.

imagesSee, I want whatever passes for readers in centuries way down the line to understand that AmericanaramA, or any summertime general admission Bob Dylan concert, is not all about whether Charlie Sexton showed up (he did), or whether the new arrangement of She Belongs to Me is more majestic than playful (it is), or whether Duquesne Whistle  is a little disappointingly too fast (it is).  How are these vacuum-sealed comments, all these considered and sensitive responses, plausible when I’ve stood in the sun, then under stars, on lumpy grass for 10 hours?  The stiff limbs and the tension of staking and defending my tiny square foot of ground against barbaric invaders whose banners always read “My friend’s holding that space for me.”  How after a while I begin to feel that the world has always contained nothing at all but a cluttered stage curtained in cheap black fabric, and the My Morning Jacket t-shirt and Celtic tattoos on the man–too old for either–who is only inches from me and has for years and years been only inches from me. The three young people inches behind me are able to keep up their arch banter for so very long, as though in a contest to see who will run out of irony first. A middle-aged couple, discussing where they parked their car, is in front of me at the rail, with their son who’s about 14.  The boy is trying to look not unhappy. He has shaggy hair which likely makes more of an impression in Scarsdale than it does here among ear gauges and body art. He’s in a tough spot–this is technically a rock concert, and he still  has to spend the entire day with his parents in full view of other teenagers smoking pot and talking about Jim James. A woman on her own, about my age, stands her ground right next to me and reads the Times with patience and dignity. She owns her spot. I would love to befriend her but she’s mastered the noli me tangere of the concert pro and although I think of myself as a pro, I’m too high strung to be noli me tangere. A fat girl holding a can of beer over her head shoves past me and I look her right in the eye and say “Kiss my ass.” I am old enough to be her mother, I think. Unrepentantly.

Ryan Bingham was unexpected–I thought I’d just have to hold on through My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Mr Bingham’s got the alt-country hipster thing down and his first song expressed thoughts about heroin and depression in a big hoarse voice. It was a hard 45 minutes for me because the front of the stage was filling up with aggressive young Morning Jacket fans–I had to work hard to hold my inch of land without violence that would work against me. I was very surprised by Jim James. I knew him only from his appearance in I’m Not There.  All this time I’ve considered his magnificent (no other word for it) version of Goin’ to Acapulco to be one of maybe 4 covers of Dylan songs of all time that I consider keepers. And here was this strutting leonine person with all these filters and echoes distorting a fine voice. When he put on that circus smock with the gizmo hanging around his neck he looked like a mental patient under the delusion of being a Con Ed employee. I did like seeing the fans around me in love with this, knowing every word,  taken out of themselves. It’s a *festival* after all, and I high-handedly gave the children their moment.

I don’t know from Wilco, but I liked Jeff Tweedy’s stage self: this was clearly a man who’d been around the block and fallen down on the curb a few times and is still able to work hard and  laugh about what he’s seen and done. My territory, though, deteriorated badly during their set. It takes only one tall pogo-ing man shouting the name of every song, and shouting along with every song, jumping and shouting, to hijack my tiny window of sight and sound.

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Worn and thirsty and aching and tense from my selfish voluntary ordeal, I watched some people I recognized and some I did not setting up Bob Dylan’s stage. Up close, it is something to see how agilely and cooperatively the roadies and technicians work–never getting in each other’s way, and always generous about stopping whatever they’re doing to help a colleague with a glitch.  I blinked and that whole piano was in place.  I miss the portentous ritual of the Nag Champa, the Fanfare for the Common Man, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” but Stu’s entrance nowadays is always startling and makes for a surge of attention in everyone that’s exciting.

And after the collective awakening to the beginning of Dylan’s set, we disintegrated back into our bits of jostling and sniping and texting and photo-ing and jabbering. Everything Bob Dylan does reaches me through fissures. External fissures–when tall jumping people stumble enough for me to regain a sight line to the stage; when people stop shouting the name of each song to their neighbor so I can hear the lyrics. Internal fissures–when I can break away from my tired legs and thirsty head and foul selfish mood occluding the precious spaciousness I like to think I bring to Dylan concerts–when I can break away from my own occluding self and let the performance demand its space. So in these fissures and glimpses here is what got in:

  • The *story* of the setlist is such a tug of war between Yes and No.  He tells us right off not to want anything, he used to care but…. and describes with great care not caring. He tells us that being sick of love is being sick with love. He extols a woman for being free and self-sufficient. . .and who belongs to him. He joins a violent, threatening, anarchic band of kings and gets us to surrender to him waving our handkerchiefs in the air. He leads us into two very different intimate visions back to back, Hard Rain‘s prophesying and Blind Willie McTell‘s historical lament. Finally he pulls back the curtain and reminds us it’s all theater. Something’s happening. Don’t think you can name it and know it. But take it, you can have it, and good night.
  • I feel about Duquesne Whistle the way I feel about Beyond Here Lies Nothin’–rocking beauties that say everything about that tug of war between staying and moving on. I’ve been waiting to hear him make  Duquesne Whistle bite the air like he does with live versions of Beyond Here. But this was too fast and rushed for me, I lost the words themselves and then the delectation of the words that I love on the record. So that thing happened where the recorded version retreated in me into a protected space where the version Bob Dylan is singing right now for me can’t reach. You know when a live performance of a song gets farther in than the recorded version, and you know when it doesn’t.
  • Early Roman Kings live has the what the hell is that? factor that makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan and everyone else everyone else. It’s not a song. It’s a whole show, a whole theater, a whole oratory. Every word hammers out that menacing and burlesque world and only Bob Dylan can control it.
  • Don’t like the Jerry Lee Lewis standing at the piano thing. When he sits at the piano, there’s more concentration to his playing.
  • Hatless, the ferocious mess of his hair is just right for the show’s energy.

The crowd for all its density dispersed so fast  after the show. We couldn’t wait to get away from each other. The field looked like a landfill of crushed beer cans and food containers and newspapers and some trampled sunglasses and even cellphones. Some of us had to get home and prepare for Jones Beach the next night. A few on line reviews of that Jones Beach show guessed that we got no fun encore like Friday’s The Weight singalong because we didn’t deserve any. That we were a dull audience Saturday night and being punished for it. Well, a good few of us were very very tired.

Play on, Bob. On and on. Of course you have more moxie than all of us put together. We just try to keep up from our own tiny patches of this earth you’re roaming. Some of us are flawed creatures and keeping up doesn’t bring out the best in us.  And as always:

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15 thoughts on “Down Where The Vultures Feed

  1. Yea, but I can’t imagine having more than one concert’s worth of interest in this tour. And the set list may ‘tell’ you these things, but the musicality of same seems very limited. The ranges are just so limited. Not a criticism. At 72 – and after summer days and summer nights are gone – Dylan still has something going on. I think your experiences and perceptions, from this post, would well fit those of a deadhead. Which tell me more about your credentials as a fan than it does about the music.

    • The musicality within any given show is limited or the consistent setlist limits the range over multiple concerts? The range of moods and tones within a show is impressive, although perhaps that’s not being attentive to musicality. Since I came to Dylan late, in 2005, I’m grateful to pack as much repetition in as possible, that’s for sure.

      • Not to belabour but,

        All this sounds to me like a quasi-religious experience. Moods? Tones? Care to expound? Yes, he is not Perry Como, that’s for sure. But then I have come to expect that, after so many hundreds of hours listening to Dylan’s records. So the fact that he has more to offer at a concert than the “love song” or the “protest song” doesn’t startle me or make me sit up. It is how they are delivered that interests me. No, I am not looking for a note by note replay of Hiway 61 or Blood on the Tracks.

        But, an observation is that, as ever, his act is contrived. This is not a criticism. But his current voice is chosen, as were all the previous ones. Why this one? Why bark and rasp where before he soared and conquered? I don’t buy that’s the effect of age etc. How does that limit the range? Or does it tighten the range and thus intensify the effect? How?

        Part of what attracted me as a youngster was his style – unpolished (professionally unpolished I realize later), spontaneous, looking for those sublime accidents. Now? His band is polished as it gets. The music does not surprise, likely even Dylan any more. The accidents now occur only on the hiways between shows. Even the sense of that edge, that sometimes veered off and crashed, is long gone.

        Violent. That is a word I would summon up if needed to describe it. As ever, the lasting impression is the sound of the voice. Which is fine. He doesn’t want to do the ‘greatest hits’ tour over and over again, he wants to shake it up, he doesn’t want to be his own cover band (ala the RS). But, where does it leave him?

      • It seems to leave him with an audience whose responses to whatever he is doing differ. I’m not an apologist for Dylan’s choices, nor for whatever provokes or pleases or inspires me personally in his work. I do like the idea that he’s performing age more than he is manifesting it on stage. I passed him on the street once in Halifax (I would not have spoken to him if doing so would have brought about eternal world peace; I did take a photo once he and Baron were far enough away not to notice me with my camera–that is the photo on the home page of this blog)–I was surprised to see that he walks with a completely brisk and limber gait, pretty much exactly the familiar loping stride that I’d seen in so much footage of him as a younger man. Surprised that the shuffling fellow I’d grown accustomed to seeing onstage was, well, guess what, an act.

        You miss his contrived spontaneity, which I suppose I’ve never experienced. At concerts and through Montague Street, and this blog, as well as other writing and teaching projects, I’ve met quite a lot of people who, like me, have become Dylan enthusiasts only fairly recently and well into his current basically consistent performing style. For the most part we can’t get enough. I say the same thing always and then always again to people, perhaps like yourself, who took to his songs and his showmanship years ago and who are bemused by the fact that I never tire of the riverboat gambler suits, the rasp, Tony Garnier, or the same arrangement of Watchtower night after night year after year: at the very least we are some kind of proof that Bob Dylan’s songwriting and performing is made from metals of impressive durability and flexibility. There are so many sides to this stream called Bob Dylan and plenty of fish of different shapes and sizes for all of us. Too many metaphors in those last two sentences.

      • You said

        “… I never tire of the riverboat gambler suits, the rasp, Tony Garnier, or the same arrangement of Watchtower night after night year after year: at the very least we are some kind of proof that Bob Dylan’s songwriting and performing is made from metals of impressive durability and flexibility. ”

        It is this that I would be more interested in learning about, if you can express it – how does this music maintain interest. Specifically – how does the music work, despite the reality of which you captured in the above quote. I mean the concerts, not the records. I’ve heard the records. That’s why I am here. Are you able to write about music? Are you able to place this music within broader and illuminating contexts and contrasts that may help someone understand how the music works? Again, by “music” I mean the live stuff, not the studio recordings. That is what I think I would find quite interesting. Because the subjectivity you draw on seems to assume something, something that may or may not be quite so (it seems actually to be the other side of the same subjectivity coin used by the professional critics who write reviews that say that the shows suck because he barks and spits and shuffles and you can’t make out the lyrics etc etc – iow, pure subjectivity without any insight other than – “it’s great!” or “it sucked!”). You likely missed or didn’t get my “deadhead” comparison in a previous post. Many thousands trekked across the country year after year to listen to endless tours of mostly pretty mediocre stuff. Attesting to a “timelessness” of the music? Hardly. There were other reasons, and I suspect similar elements at work in the late Dylan devotees who seem more intent on 1. assuming the greatness of Dylan as a serious artist and 2. aligning themselves with that greatness as those who “get it”. The actual music seems left out of the equation (eg how it has changed from years past, how the arrangements have changed… oh, so many opportunities to list….). Iow, there seems to be simply an “I and he” thing.

        Anyway, more than Dylan, more than the Stones or Beatles or (lol!) U2(!), the songsmith who is currently played the most and will be heard the most in the decades and generations to come is and will be Bob Marley.

      • Yes, I noticed your comment on deadheads. I came to Dylan not through popular music–and no, I have no fluency in musicianship, I can’t write knowledgeably about arrangements–but through opera. Before I began listening to Dylan, I felt the operas of Wagner, Mozart, and Verdi were the strongest experience of art I’d had. The contest between the sensuous and the intellectual, with neither side winning, was the most intense and intoxicating way to occupy my consciousness. Sounds pretentious? I couldn’t put this more downhome than that at the moment. I heard the singer Greer Grimsley perform the role of Amfortas in a Seattle OPera production of Parsifal and I thought–this this this is the human voice as…Being. Then I started in on Bob Dylan and soon enough the trained operatic voices became mannered and artificial. My doctorate’s in English literature and I’ve taught writing and literature for over 20 years–what I get from Dylan’s live performances is the promise of moments of expression that tweak meaning and tweak rhyme and meter in language–that’s never failed me, that promise. My dissertation was on Holocaust literature and I learned from that project the ineluctability of pleasure in art, and I lost interest in scientistic criticism. No, you should go elsewhere for sure if you want reviews of the musical arrangements in these shows, I can’t do that, and I don’t disparage it. It just won’t happen here.

      • Ok, but how about within the context of Dylan’s body of work itself? For example, he has been considered as being a brilliant meteor of originality. Yet, as others have pointed out, his act is borrowed – the voice, the mannerisms, the act of writing one’s own songs and so on. His genius is how he put it together. Yet, you feel that the roots and traditions that he has placed himself within are not really relevant. How about comparing his own music with itself? Not in any antagonist sense, but just tell me how this year’s rendition of Tangled Up in Blue compares to past editions – what makes the changes work? How do they add new life and breath into a song that, for his fans, has become one of the legendary. So, I’m not asking for a discussion on music theory. His music has never warranted that much scrutiny. Failing that, just elaborate how the changes of rhythm and intonation in delivery breath new life into things. Enough to keep it fresh night after night, tour after tour. I think these are modest enough requests. Unless it is solely about “downhome” (another purely subjective term) state-of-mind.

        For example, one test of art or merit of art could be to break it down into its most basic lines. Visual art has done this for decades. Music forms also. Is this what Dylan is up to? Iow, is this the effect?

        You wrote:
        “I’m not an apologist for Dylan’s choices, nor for whatever provokes or pleases or inspires me personally in his work.”

        Surely, you see I am hardly putting you in the position of an “apologist” (in the pejorative sense you use it in).

      • “You look like somebody I can trust” is a new line in the peculiar evolving world of Tangled Up in Blue. The song always has been famously/deliriously unreliable, “we just saw it from a different point of view” is precisely the point. So this new line is an in-joke in the life of this song, and also a twist on the one verse where intimacy and inspiration have their fighting chance in the singer’s winding story. I’ve never taken to She Belongs to Me as I do to Love Minus Zero–the enigmatic femme fatale in Belongs to Me doesn’t capture my imagination or move me and the melody doesn’t charm me. In this new live arrangement of the song, paced slower and sung with more drama and less bite, it sounds like he’s remembering wistfully what it was to describe a woman this way. Like other recent pensive/wistful/musing arrangements of Simple Twist of Fate and Positively 4th Street, the performance feels like an observation on the song as a thing with its own life, rather than a new *take* on the contents or the score. Being in the house with Bob Dylan when he sings “The human mind can only stand so much/It’s hard to win with a losing hand” or “‘Great as you are, man, You’ll never be greater than yourself’/I said, ‘I don’t really care'” or “Standing by God’s river my soul is beginning to shake” or “I’m sick of love”– you’d have to be me to know why I’d rather not be anywhere else. I bring to every show a high pitch of attention, and a fortunate memory of a fair number of other live performances, and a fortunate memory of hundreds of repeat listens to different recorded versions of the songs, and a good amount of time thinking about the songs being performed. The more I bring, the closer I pay attention, the more I hear: I hear a new chapter in a song’s biography, I hear a new way to think about a line or a word, I hear a new sound that invokes a new feeling, I enjoy the sheer fact of presence. The deadheads you disparage brought a lot to the hundreds of shows they attended–they brought attention built from extensive knowledge of a body of music and seasoned passionate alertness to shifts and changes in performances of the music, and an always-renewed pleasure in the sheer fact of presence. You might enjoy a novel I read recently called The Light in Amsterdam, by David Park, in which an Irish man takes his moody estranged son to Amsterdam so they can bond over a Bob Dylan concert–the father’s youth was much infused with Dylan’s music, the chance to see him perform is the culmination of all the hours he spent tearing his heart out over Blood on the Tracks. Of course the concert, portrayed in some detail as your basic Never-ending show, is disappointing and inaccessible–the old songs are unrecognizable, Dylan is aloof, the sound is loud and dark and indelicate, etc etc. The character gets exactly the Bob Dylan that’s right for him at that point in his life. Meanwhile, I am through with elaborating, which I haven’t even done much of.

  2. Go Girl,
    your discussion of the drama waiting to be up front for Bob is why I bought the front row seat
    and then hopped the fence at the last minute. Thanks for the colorful encounter.
    Infact sometimes it is better to sit back a couple dozen rows and take in the whole concept,
    and the sound is better too. But the neeeed to be close to him is so overpowering isn’t it.
    Oh well, for the moment. Hope he comes back to the east sooner than we expected, again.

    • I definitely respect the “sit back a couple dozen rows and take in the whole concept” attitude. It is a mature attitude. I am a fine person at seated shows but I just go all Mr Hyde when it’s general admission. And I second your emotion about coming back east. I love those civilized November shows in real theaters.

  3. Or else we could start our own non-charitable profit organization and solicit donations to send us both to the Europe tour for 6 or 7 shows, Doesn’t that sound more realistic than him making a trip back to the East cost in November 2013?!!!!

  4. I enjoyed reading this. I like the part about reaching you through fissures.

    What other 3 cover versions do you consider keepers?

    Some of mine are

    Lucinda Williams – Positively 4th Street
    Jeff Buckley – Mama You Been On My Mind
    Son Volt – Going, Going, Gone

    • I haven’t heard any of these, I’m ashamed to say. I’ll try to find them. What makes a cover version successful for you? I think the good Dylan covers work in one of two ways: they are either like a photograph of a beloved person, a vivid reminder of that person’s features; or they are like hearing someone tell you an anecdote about a beloved person that suddenly casts the person in a new light–deepens and shades your understanding of that person. The covers in the first category are pretty common. The covers in the second category are very few and very far between. Jim James’ Acapulco is definitely one. I once heard Roseanne Cash do License to Kill and suddenly I realized that my vision of the “woman on my block” had been entirely mistaken–I’d always seen her as something descended from John Brown’s mother–a woman daring us to take away her menfolk’s license to kill. But Roseanne Cash showed me how foolish that reading is–the woman is lamenting and tragic, not taunting. A sickly-looking fellow busking outside the Metropolitan Museum did a syllable-perfect Tom Thumb’s Blues that I’ve never forgotten–he made that witty and life-affirming song really matter right then and there. I heard Allen Toussaint do a Mam You Been on My mind that made the song sound 85 years old and impossible to believe a boy wrote it. Hendrix’s AATW is a deathless work of art inspired by another deathless work of art and that is a category of one.

      • I think that’s right what you said about what a cover version can do. They can go in two directions. One direction is an area where the song has already been, sort of retraces the steps it’s already made and stays in familiar, comfortable, pleasant territory. The other direction is actually unpredictably many directions where it pushes the song into a place where it hasn’t been before in such a way that it changes the way you think and feel about the song, strengthens your relationship with it. That’s kinda what you were describing I think maybe.

        I tracked down the cover versions I listed on youtube



      • Thank you! I hope these links will go through for everyone. Yes, it’s the pushing the song into a new territory that almost never happens unless Bob Dylan himself is covering one of his songs.

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