Bob Dylan in Throes
Bob Dylan, my disputed namesake, is still a living human. He is an interesting little guy, to say the least. You’ll excuse me if I choose to ignore our personal feelings regarding his music (which has taken many circuitous routes toward authenticity in the past fifty years, each of which has elicited yelps of anxious emotional analytics from the relatively large group of eager people who realize that talking about him is the closest thing to canon that music writing approaches) in favor of the more fruitful path of just trying to figure out his whole deal once again in the light that his current persona -a hammy cabaret guy who shuffles briefly to twelve bar blues while intentionally garbling his thoroughly composed lines- reflects in the faces of the people who yearn to love him deeply still.
I bring this up because Harriet, a Dylan lover from back in the day, was nice enough to furnish Daniel and his crew (which included me) with tickets to his show at the Dolby Amphitheater on Saturday evening. He plays a pretty long set these days, so during the show there’s plenty of time to both space off idly at the brown fedoras conservatively nodding about beneath a jagged, tribal looking eye motif that Dylan apparently uses as his symbol- kind of a vaudevillian Australian surfer /salvia leaf influenced logo- and to ponder the meaning of the phenomena itself. Bob himself definitely seems to be encouraging this type of reaction, as his singing works to disassociate the listener from emotionally responding to the songs via the melody of his singing: he can still sing, but he chooses instead to lounge-rasp a semi-incoherent stream of pronouns and states of being. It has long been known that he absolutely loves to fuck with the people that love him most, and although his present day act has persisted relatively unchanged for about fifteen years now and has thus acquired a semblance of being the ‘real Dylan’, it’s clear that this is just another deconstruction of the icon, a half-cynical one appropriate to his age and the thoroughly fussed-over cultural weight that he now must act proud of dragging around everywhere he goes- all of which is such old hat that it can be no surprise to see him wearing one as he pretends to innocuously dote about onstage.
Yes, he wears an old hat; it is very conspicuous. He is, after all, the much-fussed-over archetype of the artist in the age of media. The inevitable struggle of immensely famous individuals against their own perception of what their audience wants from them has become as familiar and tedious as the chord progression during the ninth verse of a self-conscious ‘Dust my Broom’, but it remains the dominant paradigm of expression for individualized pop singers responding ‘honestly’ to the strange environment of celebrity. Dylan has been doomed to clumsily outmaneuver his identity for centuries. This present version, with anonymous looking men in taupe suits subserviently filling his shadow with constricted licks and heavily allusive meandering through the musical landscape of grandfather’s childhood, is as cynical as you would expect if you’ve ever characterized yourself as a fan of the man. The cultural ossification of his legacy has been in motion for a generation and by now has grown so overwhelming that I’m not surprised to see BD doing bits of bowlegged gesture dances onstage in order to help him inhabit this strange body that will only really become powerful again at the instant of his death (only to be completely stripped of that power and turned into an unexamined historical cliché seconds after). Any discussion of his actual music in this context becomes totally ridiculous and unnecessary- it is a very small thing in comparison with the problem of his continued existence in a world that has been waiting decades to bawl over the sixties again.
Dylan of course understands the meaning of his own obsolescence better than anyone, but of course he prefers to pretend everything is normal for financial and personal reasons. Critics too are aware, but they for the most part continue to give such ecstatic reviews to his new records that they come off as condescending in the context of his contemporary irrelevance in regard to his position as anything other than a receptacle for people’s sweeping, incomplete understandings of 20th century art and commerce, and as beacon for a desperate applause that begs him not to die so that the dream of the artist who may do ‘as he wishes’ will also still have some corporeality for older people who are familiar with the blues. So many of these mental constructions filled the room on Saturday that despite the abundance of overdetermined symbols of rootsy authenticity (in the form of 12 bar orthodoxy and small, shuffling Dylan himself), it was difficult to identify what the hell was actually going on. What were people loving there? Towards the end of the second set a man stood up near us and began preemptively orchestrating a standing ovation by talking to people individually, as though horrified by the thought that Dylan would perceive a hint of indifference from the second mezzanine and be hurt by it. From the audience arose a sense of pleading, a desperate and intentional urge to enjoy and to recognize; from the back of Dylan’s throat came atonal clicks whines and phlegmatic breaths suffused in an unapproachable familiarity. There was a sadistic impulse at play that is not as obvious on the records, revealed in the pure delight that appeared on the faces of his worshippers as he withheld their moment of pleasure. In fact, aside from a few harmonica breaks in which the theater scene dissolved into the exuberant musicality of yore for a few seconds, he never gave in.
Even though this act isn’t anything new or particularly exciting, it is kind of satisfying to watch the most famous old person in America do Mark E. Smith fronting Cole Porter/Robert Cray’s band. The lyrics, from what I could make out, are still good and bleak and a great distance from the wacky beat poetics of some of his 60’s dreams. But whereas he used to use innovative musicianship to give some kind of traction to his literary flights of fancy (the man has been greatly indulged), he now undermines his lyrics by couching them in overwrought nothingness. That the exhaustion of this meta-approach itself can only be accurately charted in duration based performance art by individuals with seemingly endless personal resources makes the whole expensive event seem kind of pointless. Not that I wasn’t grateful for the opportunity to throw my personal experience onto the enormous pyre of self-indulgent Dylan opinions of the past. The man is trapped in his own body by the unmeasurable pressure of the environment which has formed around him as a result of his ability in crafting an identity which, despite its slight shifts of form, remains instantly recognizable in the undifferentiated sea of egos gnashing to consume planet earth whole. I was trapped in my seat by morbid deference to the nearly unfathomable web of emotional attachments that seemed to constrict Bob’s movements to the slight shakeoffs of a silk shrouded insect finally resigning itself to its coming consumption by the beast. And also because I began to like how he seemed to be addressing it; with a friendly old fuck you to a moment already thoroughly suffused with the nostalgia of ‘the last time’.