There’s a vast Michelangelo exhibit at the Met now, primarily of his sketches and other preparatory work on paper, and it is logically well-timed with Bob Dylan’s more or less recent five-night Thanksgiving 2017 stand at the Beacon across the park from the Met at 74th Street. Michelangelo is the master of masters of bodies rising and turning in space. How does torque work? Forget that, how does torque feel? How do shoulders angle to bring hips up so a man can leave the spot where he has been sitting in time to turn a sheet of paper into air just when I choose to look at it? You walk through these galleries and the paper and cases fall away and you feel your own ungainly solid little steps forward, you feel your own submission to gravity, you’re heavy and slow amid these limbs rising and reaching, slaking and twisting through space. It’s exhausting and puny being a little heavy-footed mortal, shuffling among them.
Bob Dylan gets himself up and down and twists around a lot in these shows lately. Restless on the piano bench, which is turned the long way round so he can stand more quickly, I suppose. He turns towards us to squint with that curiosity which is sometimes that of a naturalist come upon a possibly distinctive specimen, and sometimes just benign. Then he’s up, boom, turns his back on the piano, and heads to his stage space–not too close, not too well-lit–turns back, turns forward, wrestles the microphone stand. Even from front row, center, where I reigned on Friday night, you have to turn and turn to follow him: he keeps you busy, plus breaking all the sight lines, with the moving around, even on a small stage, and even following the same tracks night after night.
The songs are incompatible contrasts of benevolence and malice, giving up and going forth, trying and not trying. He used to care; he’s sick of love; go away; he sleeps alone; he’s sunk and selfish in his melancholy. And yet, “my friend,” he says; and overwhelming and humane like Zarathustra, here he comes off the mountain to see what other people need. He restores lost friends in shared memories; he’s going to burn down the place where we’ve reveled with him as summer fades. He can hear the beating hearts of strangers keeping heavy time; and other people’s blood will spill to pay for his power, safety, or gain.
Time is locomotive, or an ecstatic dance, or a clock without hands. It was always a treat to see people startled and leaping to their feet if it was the first time they’d heard the new Thunder on the Mountain. Patiently we sat out each autumn leaf falling quietly and mercilessly to its final rest. But the work of getting into heaven before it’s too late is now strangely jaunty. And desolation row too seems a brisk and well-lit avenue. Once upon a time, though, is so very very past and dim that we all ripen just by listening. The two encores fit together: Blowin’ in the Wind and Thin Man both deal with facing down, whether in a shared and stirring way, or a frustrated and locked-out way, questions we can’t answer. We should have felt humbled by those encores, a little overcome by truth so far off, but we always left considerably more vital than we came in.
And if you were lucky like me, you got all this yes and no, and up and down, and retreating and seizing, 5 times straight. Dylan’s voice is now surprisingly ranged: pity me in my sepia sadnesses; quail before my rock-throated tyrannies; keep up with my running and dancing down that mountain; go ahead and relish the magnanimous ohs in Tangled Up in Blue–“just so you’ll knoo-ow.”
A few years ago, the Times printed a photo of Bob Dylan from, I think, the 1964 Halloween show, alongside a recent photo of him on stage. They did it on purpose to show us what happened to the marble faun in the intervening years: the face, once not so unlike one of Michelangelo’s Sistine ignudis, now guttered and slack. There was supposed to be a point to this juxtaposition, but I’m not sure I remember it: something about when older people dare to leave the house, they let us see what aging looks like?
When Michelangelo was in his 60s, he was visited in his studio by the Frenchman Blaise de Vigenère, who wrote:
I saw Michelangelo at work. He had passed his sixtieth year and although he was not very strong, yet in a quarter of an hour he caused more splinters to fall from a very hard block of marble than three young masons in three or four times as long…And he attacked the work with such energy and fire that I thought it would fly into pieces. With one blow he brought down fragments three or four fingers in breadth, and so exactly at the point marked, that if only a little more marble had fallen, he would have risked spoiling the whole work.
And even later, when he was about 75, Michelangelo famously took a hammer to his own Florentine Pieta, smashed Christ’s limbs and other parts, then divested himself of the work and let a lesser sculptor repair it badly. So we have two powerful images of what, when we ourselves get to a certain age, become desperate to see/imagine: not just the old artist’s vigor, but the mystery of art still driving potent old hands, which though gnarled can still make or ruin according to the still-formidable flame of inspiration.
Bob Dylan moves nimbly on stage and he generally ends a show looking the same as he began it, while Tony or George may look a little fagged. But we’re really greedy for the changes, for songs remade with invitations to new meanings and impressions–new relationships I can have with them. The new Tryin’ to Get to Heaven has destroyed for me the harrowing mortality of the album version and I am very unhappy that this song is no longer funereal. And the new Thunder on the Mountain really did send me straight to Zarathustra, able to read it with fortuitous appetite and vision inspired by the thrill of this new arrangement. More new, more new, more change, more possibility. More, more–see a theater full of Bob Dylan fans as gluttons at a banquet, ugly with our napkins stuck in our collars, banging heavy forks and knives on the table.
But there’s something else in these contrary setlists. It’s not merely that the personas and entire worldviews are varied, but they seem incapable of coexisting. And they appear, take hold, and pass away quickly. This could be a trite lesson in *mindfulness* and the transience of all frames of feeling, but I’m not that affirming. I hear the impatient and fearful restiveness of age. Everything that’s been felt and seen, everyone recollectible, flies in and says their piece: this was right; this was real; I was true; I knew you; no, I did; no, this was the best place; no, this was right; here, this was real; you I really loved; no, you; this I did know; or was it this. And none of it is right. No, all of it is. Mark my words, this controversy starts to matter. And then, I think, it’s all that matters.