by Philip Hale
As the pandemic of 2020 lays waste to all live music, stopping Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour” in its tracks as nothing else has, this seems a good time to reflect on his 2019 Fall performances and what they tell us about Dylan, the artist.
It is both uncertain when he will be able to tour again and what impact a break in his relentless schedule may have. Last year’s Fall shows were met with near-universal acclaim, the argument reduced to how far back did one have to go to find him performing at an equivalent level. Now that the opportunity to see how Dylan would have followed up on them this Spring has been foreclosed they take on an added significance. If we assume for a moment that the praise was not unfounded, is there any way to make sense of such a phenomenon occurring this relatively late in an immense career?
One way to think about these shows and what they tell us about Dylan’s creative essence and the one I want to explore here may be to look at it through the eyes of T.S Eliot and apply some philosophical reading of the concept of art, originality and truth.
So much is written about Dylan yet he remains in a fundamental way mysterious. This mystery is not a product of his oft-cited so-called enigmatic, reclusive or deflective behavior. It concerns why his music impacts the way it does, not,“who he really is?” – a question which is of no interest to me.
If you start to think about why his music resonates I don’t believe it can be captured by just referencing the lyrics, or the melody, an approach that works just fine with Paul McCartney for example. There is something else, something more profound about the human condition and the core essence of art that is being communicated by Dylan. He challenges us to confront the metaphysical.
The 2019 Fall shows are both an example of that challenge being laid down and an indication of where the answer to it might be found. My reference point is the nine of the 10 Beacon shows that I attended, set in the context of witnessing 42 shows in the era of “The Set” that started in 2013. This period, freed from the expectation of nightly song changes, and with Dylan performing with great consistency throughout, created an environment ripe to absorb what he was doing.
The Fall of 2019 found him energized and wrapped in the material and the performance in a way that marked itself collectively as different from anything that he has produced on stage before. Not better, as that is subjective but different. No single element had not been present before, each song/performance could find its corollary elsewhere in this post 2013 era. The energy, exuberance, pathos and humor among other elements that Dylan delivered had all been present in different quantities and at different times during those years. In the Fall of 2019, however, Dylan seemed to pull together every element he needed and wanted into one harmonious mix. Still, though, how and why was it so impactful to so many people?
It is here that Eliot may be of assistance in understanding the “how”. In his seminal “Tradition and the Individual Talent’ published in 1919, Eliot expounded the theory that a poet, (I am expanding his definition of a poet to encompass the work of Dylan for the sake of making this connection), needs to strip his/her personality from the process of creating the art or as he more eloquently put it, “Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.’
Eliot goes on to say “the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.” This sheds light on the ability of Dylan to write from so many points of view while imbuing songs with a complexity that can defy analysis. It would help explain why a song such as “Early Roman Kings” resonates with the power that it does while not apparently coming from a consistent narrator. It would point to how “North Country Blues” found a young Dylan inhabiting the character of a miner’s wife so completely that you forget it is him singing it.
Dylan of course is not just a poet, his Nobel acceptance speech concludes with a quote from Homer “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story,” to emphasize his point that “lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”
He has also said, “I am only Bob Dylan when I need to be”. It seems safe to assume he is Bob Dylan when he writes and when he performs. This transfiguration from man to artist would explain the times when Dylan’s writing or performing has fallen short of his own peaks. Sometimes he probably cannot get out of his own way, it’s that concept that he has explained as having to get to a place where he consciously can do what he once did unconsciously. When Dylan reaches that place his art becomes transcendent.
Dylan, on this reading, left his personality in the wings in the Fall, entered the medium of live performance exactly and completely, and became “Bob Dylan” in a pure sense; that of the performing character, stripped of any needs that the man underlying it had, everything subsumed to that transformation to “Bob Dylan” as that is as much a “medium” for him as the act of performance is. By that I mean it is a layered process where Dylan needs to get into the medium that is “Bob Dylan” in order to pass through to the medium of performance.
This not an argument that this was the first time he has done it but more that it is not an atmosphere that can simply be inhaled on demand. What is remarkable is that he could make the transfiguration again so completely in 2019.
The Rolling Thunder Revue performances offer a context of another time where Dylan entered this realm. Opinions may vary but there seems to be a consensus that the 1975 leg was transcendent and the 1976 version laudatory but not sublime. That difference can be viewed through Eliot’s prism; that by ’76 Dylan was unable to block out the noise sufficiently to be at one with the medium and not allow his personality to enter his art.
Much of the buy-in to Eliot’s theory comes from an acceptance of the metaphysical, that there is some mystery to what is created in a great piece of art. Here we can lean on the writing of Martin Heidegger in his 1937 essay, “The Origin of a Work of Art”, to maybe answer the why question around the effect Dylan’s work in 2019 had on so many. In his essay, Heidegger is searching for a definition of what thing is at work in the “work’ of art and he settles on that it is the revealing of a truth that is hidden until the coming into existence of the work of art exposes it.
Dylan, of course, has often talked of the truth of performance. Let’s take the example of “Lenny Bruce” from Dylan’s recent set to try and see if it helps illustrate what Heidegger was getting at and how what typically would be considered a minor song can transcend that ranking. Dylan needs to enter a space where this emergence of the truth or “unconcealment” as Heidegger puts it, happens at on least two occasions. The first time is when he writes the song, that act of creation ‘unconceals” the song, before it was written it exists only as a hidden idea, a potential occupying no space or time. Metaphysically speaking, as it is written its own truth is revealed, that truth is outside of the words or music that the artist employs, the thing that is the song has its own “being”, it “needed” to come into existence as it contained a truth that could only exist in it. It now has its own purpose and identity and no longer “belongs” to its creator.
Arguably that truth with Lenny Bruce is the capturing of a memory, a sense of a man, Bruce, and Dylan’s memory of a time. It also contains another truth, the potential to be performed that is separate from just the written words. It holds within it both elements, its truth as a song and a further hidden truth that will be revealed only if it is performed. This may sound too complex an explanation of what is happening but if we think about Dylan’s abandoned songs or the existence of so many masterpieces left in the vaults it makes perfect sense if Dylan felt he either didn’t or couldn’t access the truth of a given song. It also helps to explain why Dylan adds a song like Lenny Bruce to a setlist after a long absence. He is returning to it seeking something in it once more.
Heidegger was clear that his ideas were only relevant to great art so we can argue over whether “Lenny Bruce” constitutes great art as a written song. But it is the secondary element, the performance of it in 2019 that reveals a latent greatness in the writing. It does not have to fit a standard interpretation of greatness in the way Tangled Up In Blue does for instance. It just needs to contain the potential for Dylan to make great performative art with it.
Live on stage, Dylan must birth a new relationship with it. Performance creates a new piece of work that lives only for that moment (it can be captured by a recording but not in all its elements as there is a visual component, the presence of an audience etc). So in November of 2019 as Dylan sits at the piano the song doesn’t exist in its performative or written truth. It doesn’t matter if he performed it the night before, that is gone, creation must begin again. It is words and accompanying musical notation that has no life until the first note is played this time and Dylan leans into the song this time. If the song came into existence to invoke a feeling and it is that feeling that is the truth of the song then Dylan must reach for it anew if we are to consider the performance as great art.
Here the silences, the pauses, the cadence, the rhythm, the music, the posture all have to coalesce to conjure the mood. It’s different from when Dylan wrote the song nearly 40 years ago so he must locate the truth of it again and subsequently the truth of this actual performance, as the performance is its own work of art. A simple example is the verse beginning “I rode with him, in a taxi once”. As Dylan sang it at the Beacon the distance the journey they took changes on different nights but it doesn’t matter; the truth of the song doesn’t rely on the tachometer, it doesn’t even rely on whether the journey took place at all. Dylan enters the truth of the song for him which is a memory which in turn is the truth that the song reveals. I would argue it can all be found in the way he sings “rode”, that he pours all the truth and memory the song was waiting to reveal into that one word. It’s a circle that he has completed. If someone else were to sing the song or Dylan himself were to carelessly toss it off then it collapses into words and music that may or may not be pleasant to listen to but would not be great art.
There is arguably a third element of this truth revelation that Dylan was engaged in, in 2019, that wrapped itself around the individual songs and that is the structure of the show as a separate entity. Keeping the focus on the post 2013 shows Dylan entered what can be viewed as a search for the perfect “theatrical” show, a self-contained conceptual work of art that reflects back on him as a great artist beyond the component parts just as the songs are their own individual works of art beyond just their words and music. Seen like this it’s a legacy project that Dylan was only able to approach as his years have advanced. It’s a piece of art that a younger version couldn’t have contemplated. It consists partly of playing theaters with the back drop, the golden movie lighting, the placing of busts and statues on stage but that is just the beginning.
Musically it has been a voyage towards a holy grail that only he can see but we can maybe glimpse. The introduction of the “Tempest “ songs with their epic sweeps and conjuring of visions and characters that don’t have, or need, consistent narrative structure was one element. The bringing in of the Standards, that seemed to have served as both a vehicle to soften his vocals and reconnect him with the heart of his songwriting, that he had perhaps disconnected from at some level, was another. The orchestration of songs and the intense visual and musical focus on him that his unconventional piano playing demanded of the band combined to hone a distinctive sound that Dylan was reaching for.
The fixed but rolling setlist gave Dylan the opportunity to be with songs again and again, ferreting for that connection to them. In recent years when Dylan has performed he can often be seen with his eyes closed at the piano communing with the souls trapped inside his songs. On others he is gesticulating and posturing to unleash their secrets. Having dropped the Standards material and replaced them with his own material Dylan seemed by the Fall shows under discussion to have every song and every arrangement where he wanted them. He had arrived at the destination that the previous 5 years had been heading towards.
Dylan perfectly executed a vision in 2019. His ability to be “Bob Dylan” when he “needed to be” was conjured at will for each song yet he seemed able to luxuriate in the observation of his feat between songs. It was apparent in his energy as he prepped himself for each song. Like a mild-mannered boxer transfigures into a warrior in the ring Dylan stepped back from his “Bob Dylan” creation as he took a glass of water, dried his face or stepped gingerly to his mark before re-engaging in the fight. It produced an avenging angel during “Pay in Blood,” a rocking irascible bluesman on “Highway 61,” a pining and nostalgic lover on “Girl From the North Country”, a wind blowing through a haunted forest of memory on “When I Paint my Masterpiece.” Dylan created a new truth for himself each time as he pulled that truth out of every song by the scruff of its neck.
A small but telling moment happened on a couple of nights on “Simple Twist of Fate”. On the “People tell me it’s a sin” verse Dylan had rewritten the song. He started singing the line “I believe she was my twin” and stopped momentarily in order to finish the line with the rewritten version. It was only important to do so for the next line. He could have just finished the verse out with the original, likely nobody would have noticed or cared. But he cared. It wasn’t what the narrator wanted to say now, the old version wasn’t true to him.
Ultimately perhaps Dylan’s greatest work of art is his 60-year-long connection with his creativity. Eliot concerned himself with tradition and the concept of originality and argued that an artist who leans on tradition and adds to it, can be considered a true original and not just an imitator. Dylan’s ability to stay in connection with his art for so long and to pursue greatness within it when he can access it has led him to creating himself as his own tradition. He has obviously referenced many musical traditions along the way, but this idea that he has produced so much work that he can explore his own history and build on it is maybe one key to unlocking his mystery. He has entered a place where his body of work is so deep and wide that it is its own category, one that he is able to access to produce shows in 2019 that were self-contained truly great works of art.
Now this could all be dismissed with “he’s a performer, that’s all that’s going on here”. I think that misses the mark. Heidegger argues that the “preservers” as he calls those that witness it are essential for the work of art to fulfil its potential as in being witnessed it grasps a historical placement in which to exist. I don’t know for sure if that is what was going on as I watched Dylan in 2019 but it certainly transcended the idea of a concert in any normal use of that word. It’s an idea that stayed with me as I left the theatre but it floated beyond a precise definition. What I had seen was not a stage-play but it pointed towards one; it was not a “show” but it entertained. It was more akin to a happening, an event of serious magnitude. It left people perplexed, enamoured, excited or disappointed but it had its own existence even if one that defied an easy label. A “great work of art” might capture it, a sense that a truth had been set free might be closer.
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