20 May 2021

Bob Dylan at Eighty

Bob Dylan
From Bob Dylan's New Zealand, 6:21 pm on 20 May 2021

Waiting for Bob Dylan’s Auckland show in 2018 to start, I had a chat with an older man in the seat two rows down from mine.

“Is this your first show?” I asked. “Yes” he said. “Dylan’s a legend. I gotta see him.”  A moment later an announcement came over the PA: there are to be no cameras, no photos, no video recordings during the concert. Turn your phones OFF! The announcement is repeated several times.

  • Five-part web series Bob Dylan's New Zealand airing on Nine to Noon from 24th May and available on-demand here.
Andrew McCallum author and huge Bob Dylan fan

Andrew McCallum author and huge Bob Dylan fan Photo: Supplied

A little way into the concert, the older man who came to see the legend gets his phone out, holds it up. “You’ll get thrown out” I tell him. He takes some photos anyway. Security eyes him up. He puts the phone away.

Dylan’s in top form. The voice is clear and strong. He’s pounding away on the piano on Highway 61 Revisited like he’s channelling Little Richard. Simple Twist of Fate is all delicacy with an aching harp solo. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright is a tour-de-force, played as a torch ballad with just piano, pedal steel and a bowed bass, recalling in its torch-ness a version that Ke$ha recorded alone on her Macbook – check her version out. It’s stunning.

The twenty-song set includes a whole bunch of songs you’d want to hear the legend sing: Ballad of a Thin Man, Blowin’ in the Wind, It Ain’t Me Babe, Desolation Row, Tangled Up in Blue. There are eight songs from late period Dylan, including a delicate Make You Feel My Love, from Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind; a song Adele made famous and has become something of a standard.  People sing it at their weddings.

Two thirds of the way through the concert the man who came to see the legend is gone. Maybe he couldn’t get his head around Dylan singing an “Adele” song. Maybe the reality of the 77-year-old Dylan could never live up to the sixties sounds in his head. And he wasn’t alone. By the show’s end, the row I’m sitting in – prime $180 seats – is almost empty.

Adele performing at last month's Gammy Awards in Los Angeles, 12 February.

But those 2018 shows in Australia and New Zealand are generally considered by the fan base to be something special. Word that Dylan was in a good groove quickly spread on the Internet while Dylan was still in Australia. By the time the tour reached Auckland, a famous but deeply anonymous Dylan concert bootlegger, who goes by the pseudonym Soomlos (google it), had made the trip from the States to Auckland just to capture the two New Zealand shows for posterity. Even though several competent New Zealanders with good equipment were also on the job.

Which all goes to show that there are classes of Dylan concert goers: the Dylan curious, prone to disappointment; the casual Dylan fans, who buy the albums, go to the odd show and are generally happy, if a little non-plussed; and then there’s Dylan fandom.

The latter is a highly connected world-wide somewhat anarchic community of people who have caught the Dylan bug, generally keep a low profile, but devote a significant amount of time and resources to all things Dylan. They number at least in the hundreds of thousands. In my experience they tend to be everywhere, in most occupations, from politicians to electricians. There’s probably one living on your street.

Bob Dylan, 1963

Bob Dylan, 1963 Photo: supplied

They come in different flavours. There are the pilgrims, who go to the places Dylan’s lived, Hibbing and Duluth and Greenwich Village in New York. There are the Dylan scholars like English literary critic Christopher Ricks or American historian Sean Wilentz. There are the tapers and videographers, people like the aforementioned Soomlos, who travel the world recording Dylan shows from the audience and share the results as a service to humanity. These days a lot of their work can be seen and heard on Youtube.

There are the front rowers, the people that attend hundreds of Dylan shows and hang on the rail, just metres from the man. There are the collectors of ephemera, ticket stubs, posters and programmes. There are the lyric dissectors and setlist obsessives, who keep track of what songs were played when and where and how many times. If you are interested, All Along the Watchtower at 2268 performances, is the song Dylan’s played the most.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue Photo: Netflix

And there are the completists, people who collect all available recordings, official, unofficial and illicit. These are the people who will have a recording of every single show Dylan has performed, if a recording was made, and the global network ensures that at every show there is someone who has the right equipment and a good seat for sound.

New Zealand is home to at least four or five completists that I know about, and its possible several more. Such people tend to stay below the radar, but not all.

New Zealander Les Kokay is well known in Dylan collector circles. His meticulous annotation of Dylan’s 1974 tour with The Band and the two Rolling Thunder Revue tours in 1975 and 76 provide a comprehensive guide for collectors; setlists with detailed comments on performances including lyric changes and lists of available recordings and an assessment of their quality. You can find Kokay’s work on the Internet.

Bill Hester, who saw Dylan in Boston in 1964, specialises in collecting and annotating recordings of Dylan songs by New Zealand artists, of which there are over a hundred. A small selection is on the Audio Culture website.

 New Zealand author and creative writing teacher Mike Johnson is a frequent contributor to the UK site Untold Dylan, which publishes a huge range of articles and analysis on all aspects of Dylan’s art. Johnson recently completed a seven-part series on Dylan’s harmonica playing, with a myriad of audio examples. If you thought Dylan was an ordinary harp player, this series will open your ears.

Johnson’s current project is to chronicle every year of Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, complete with audio from concerts. It is important work, as in my opinion too much emphasis is placed on the lyrics, and too little on the inventiveness of Dylan as performer, and the many sounds his bands have had over the last thirty years. Johnson’s up to 1996, barely a third of the journey.

New Zealand poet Cliff Fell is famous for first identifying quotes from the Roman poet Ovid all through Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times. Subsequently New Zealand born Harvard University classics professor Richard F Thomas identified allusions to Horace, Homer and Virgil. Thomas’s book, Why Dylan Matters, places Dylan alongside these august literary ancients.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman Photo: Neil Gaiman / Instagram

And I would be remiss not to mention current New Zealand resident Neil Gaiman, English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, nonfiction, audio theatre and films. Think American Gods, The Sandman, Coraline. On the excellent Podcast Is it Rolling Bob? Talking Dylan, he recounts the story of how he came to own the “Grossman House”, the house in Woodstock, upstate New York, where Albert Grossman lived, Dylan’s manager in the 1960s, and where Dylan wrote many of his most famous songs.

The photo of Dylan with Grossman’s wife Sally on the cover of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home was taken in the Grossman’s living room. Gaimon recounts how he gradually recreated the cover shot, as many of the items in the photo were still in the house, including the chaise lounge. That is, until his wife Amanda Palmer complained vociferously about living in a Bob Dylan museum.

Why do these people care?

It is more than simple longevity. It is in part the sheer scale of the work, the 39 studio albums, the acclaimed autobiography (Chronicles), the 101 episodes of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, the puzzling films Renaldo and Clara and Masked and Anonymous, the paintings and welded iron sculptures, not to mention the 3000 plus concert performances in all parts of the world.  When he’s touring, Dylan’s typically doing four or five concerts a week.

Does the man ever sleep?

And there is the fact that Dylan’s late career is considered as good and as profound as that of the iconic early work.

But most of all, for me, it is that a close study of Dylan will lead you down many and numberless roads, through folk, blues, country, gospel, and the great American songbook. He’ll lead you to the literary greats, ancient and modern. In the many events around the world to celebrate his eightieth birthday, Shakespeare will be mentioned as often as Woody Guthrie.

And he will get you into movies and start you wondering about the many places he’s namechecked in his songs.

And most profoundly, there is the artistry he applies in putting all this altogether in what is a popular art form, rock and roll, and its many sources and derivatives. And watching this man perform in your town, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, starts you wondering about your own life, the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the loves you’ve lost, the loves you’ve won, and the small pities and fears that you struggle with each day, and whether there really is a God, and if there is, where the hell is s/he?

For these reasons and more Dylan is regarded by many as perhaps the greatest creative figure of the twentieth century, right up there with James Joyce, Picasso, T S Elliot, Miles Davis, Samuel Beckett and a bunch of others I’m too unlearned to trip off of my tongue.  He has been awarded multiple Grammies, an Oscar and the Nobel Prize for literature – a trifecta unlikely to be repeated.

But I know some of you will be shaking your heads. If you’ve even read this far, let me say this: you don’t have to like Bob Dylan. There are enough people in the world who do. You are allowed by the law of the land to be repelled by his singing. You are free to consider that Leonard Cohen is miles better. You can opine that Dylan is a good songwriter, but you prefer other people’s versions of his songs. You can say that his concerts are awful, that you went once, and you couldn’t work out which song he was singing, and he never said a word.

I’ll give you all that. I get it. I’ve been there, with other singers who aren’t Bob Dylan. 

A year after the 2018 concert in Auckland, confronted by a sea of shining phones at a concert in Vienna, an increasingly angered Dylan stops the band, steps up to the microphone and says: “We can either pose for you, or we can play for you”, and proceeds to pose, encouraging his bass player Tony Garnier to do the same.

Because for Dylan, it’s not about the legend, it’s all about the art in the music, it’s all about channelling the ancient muses of myth, poetry and song. He wants you present.

Ironically, you can see a clip of this exchange on Youtube.

  • Five-part web series Bob Dylan's New Zealand airing on Nine to Noon from 24th May and available on-demand here.

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