The World’s Greatest Living Artist written for Prospect Magazine:
As ever, the big question is: what are we all doing here? But I’m distracted from this because the room has started thrumming with that most peculiar of energies—tangible but invisible, personal but shared: human expectation. I’m with my excellent friend Will Smith, the British comedian and actor. We’re at the very front of the balcony. Below, there are hands raised in anticipation, voices calling out and people pressing forward. We are some five thousand in number. But it would be hard to say which of us are the more excited: those who can have no inkling of the bizarre beauty of what they are about to see and hear; or those, like myself, who know what’s coming.
I’m not exactly sure how many times I have done this… I lost count in 2004 and it was past 70 then. I admit: I am entirely without reason or sense when it comes to Bob Dylan. I remember the first time, of course. I was still at school. I went to three out of six freezing February nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember the numbness in my toes as I stood queuing (for hours) to be admitted first and so get as close as possible to the stage. And I remember being caught out by how just how fast the other lunatics ran the second those doors opened.
That was 1990 and in the intervening 21 years, whenever funds and geography have conspired to make it possible, I’ve been back for more. I’ve given up trying to be at the front—such wisdom these days, such dignity—but nonetheless it is to the very same Hammersmith venue that I’ll be returning later this week with Will. He’s not a very sensible person either.
Of course, we’re only middle-ranking extremists. Even back then, I was already 25 years behind the rest of the crowd—many of them here tonight, (60, 70, 80 years old), grizzled veterans of the 1960s. Paradoxically, I now look at the new recruits—in their teens or twenties—with the same mixture of fondness, ruefulness, and condescension that I myself once received. Fellas, I think, I love the frizzy hair and the ponchos and everything but were you there when he played “I and I” and Winston Watson on the drums kicked his ass?
We’re in Bournemouth tonight, by the way. I know, I know. What am I doing here? What are they doing here? What is he doing here? I’m coming to it…
But now the house lights go dim and the noise of the crowd rises and—this is it, this is it—a disembodied voice in the darkness intones: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen—Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”
And here he comes—70 years old, dressed as a harlequin-cowboy, hat-brim tipped down low, white shoes, white-piped dark suit, crazy hair, crazy grin-grimace, crazy way of walking, and looking for all the world like a man who has just been asked to play both King Lear and the Fool in some mad production set wherever the Old West meets the Deep South. He seldom speaks to the crowd and there is very little by way of acknowledgement—a half-nod perhaps—before he takes up station sideways-on behind his keyboards.
Darkness again. Will and I crane forward. There’s about a minute of maddened cacophony while his band seem to detune their instruments in order to tune them up afresh and the drummer tests everything he has got as if entirely new to drums, drumming, any notion of order. Then, abruptly, astonishingly, the six men on stage converge—in harmony and in time—and the miracle of music is born among us. The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing.
I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.
We reach the end of the first song and return to the dark abyss of uncertainty while his band de-tune, re-tune, and the drummer hits a few arrhythmic drums. Insanely, every new song is born from this chaos. Why this should be so—like everything else about this Dylan phenomenon—is a mystery. Dylan has played on average 100 shows a year, every year, (think about that a second), since I first went to see him in 1990. It’s really not that much of an exaggeration, therefore, to say that he and his musicians are the tightest rock band playing anywhere in the world today. So why the confusion between every single song? Why the wide-eyed concentration with which they appear to watch him as if expecting at any moment to find themselves plunging panic-stricken, embarrassed and unprofessional into an entirely different universe—a song by, say, Kate Bush?
New spotlights. What’s happening? Hang on—yes, yes—here comes Dylan himself out from behind the keyboards to centre stage. And we’re into the second song. He’s got the microphone in one hand and his harmonica in the other and he’s dancing like a punch-drunk boxer, a marionette, Kafka’s favourite uncle.
On so many levels, the theatre of his performance is extraordinary. He moves quickly, then slows, then freezes. He throws himself into angled positions—stretched out, oblique, hunched—as if dodging bullets that only he can see. He delivers a line, straightens, delivers another, compelled, it seems, to wring new inflections from his songs physically as well as aurally. And that voice again: a keening, a wailing, a lament for the end of time.
“What song is it?” I shout at Will.
“Not sure, not sure,” Will mouths back.
We are lost. We’re not alone. Nobody seems to know. Not the veterans. Not the lunatics down at the front. Maybe not the band, yet. Maybe not even Dylan himself.
We dig deep. Dylan has written more than 450 songs (think about that for another second) and I know all of them inside out but I’m still not sure. He seems to enjoy catching everyone out (including his musicians) by randomly changing the set list or pretending one song is another song for a few bars. Will makes the observation that Bob could happily play song-bingo with his catalogue every night: he could have one of the madmen in the audience shout out a random number between one and 500 and still play a more interesting, powerful, poetical and well-known set than any other living artist. Maybe this is what he’s been doing. Meanwhile, something is happening here…
A spell is being cast. The man on the stage is leading us all in conjuring up the ghosts of Dylan past, Dylan present and Dylan future. And now, as the song progresses, we are retuning our ears, refiguring our eyes. We hear the crazy intonations clearly. We understand this antic demeanour. The magic is working.
“Is this one of his?” I ask.
Will looks baffled. Sometimes Dylan plays The Clash, sometimes Elvis. Maybe it is Kate Bush.
“I think it is ‘This wheel’s on fire,’” I shout.
Will nods. We’ve got it. This is not bad. Only two verses in. We’ve been entirely beaten before. And, oh, we now realise, what a song it is…
Why? Because we, the half of the audience who do this a lot, we all thought this was a song written when Dylan was 26, (already seven world-changing albums into his career—think about that for another second) about his famous motorcycle “accident.” Or, if not that, then a song that in some way refigured King Lear’s words to Cordelia: “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” Or, if not that, then a song that somehow channels the prophet Ezekiel’s vision: “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire with horses of fire suddenly appeared.”
But no. What we didn’t realise was that this song, now that we listen to it again—here, tonight—this song is actually about the relationship between a 70-year-old singer-poet-musician and his audience, about the memory and continuing life of the songs, about all that has happened since it was written in 1967: “If your memory serves you well/We were going to meet again and wait/So I’m going to unpack all my things/And sit before it gets too late/ No man alive will come to you/ With another tale to tell…” Now how does he do that? How can this be? How is it that a relatively minor song written 44 years ago means all these new things to us, to him, here in 2011 in, of all places, Bournemouth?
Which brings us to the answer to the big question: what are we doing here?
What the uninitiated do not seem to understand about Dylan’s work is that it’s not really poetry, nor is it really music, but rather the much more powerful intersection of the two. Lots of Dylan does stand up on the page, but lots of Dylan doesn’t. Instead, it’s when you hear him that his tremendous imaginative power reveals itself. And it’s when you hear him live that this happens most of all. Each night, with astonishing verve and energy, he seeks to find, then connect with, and then highlight some new strand in the tapestry of his verse. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. And it is for this particular reason that we are all here—and why we are driven to return again and again.
“Oh Christ, he’s doing a guitar solo,” Will says.
I shake my head, bewildered. We’re into song three. Now there are three other guitarists on stage. One of them is Mark Knopfler. But the truth is that they are all—by some distance—better lead guitarists than Dylan. I have about 50 live recordings of his concerts; on no occasion has he ever played a good guitar solo.
But of course there are deeper and more general reasons as to why we are here—reasons to do with art and art’s concerns. We’re after something real and authentic and spellbinding and heartfelt that is not packaged or contrived or facetiously achieved, something full of feeling and insight, but something that is not delivered at the expense of human intelligence or subtlety or wit. Such sustenance is plentiful with Dylan because, like all great artists, he is—and has always been —forcefully and seriously engaged with the quiddity of life. How are we to live, given this? How am I to love, given that? Can you forgive me, given this? Can I forgive you, given that? Can there be a creator, given what we know? How do we sustain ourselves and endure, if not? Who am I to myself, to others, to you? What is happening here? How does it feel?
I know what you are beginning to suspect. And—yes—it’s no coincidence that besides Shakespeare I’ve also sounded some Biblical notes in this essay. (The step from art to religion was ever a short one.) So, OK, as a robust agnostic, I’m prepared to admit it: seeing Dylan is the closest I come to a religious experience. But forget all the stuff you have read about him by people who are 40 years out of date, this is what he himself has recently said: “Here’s the thing with me and religion. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else… I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs.”
Which bring us, finally, to the question of what Dylan himself is doing playing 100 nights year at 70. Of course, there are simple answers to this question: enjoying himself, making money, working. But there are also more complex answers. He breathes life into his songs each night in order to keep them alive to himself because he, too, is seeking transcendence and meaning and purpose in his work.
Whenever I meet someone new, it is always a huge relief to discover that they know and like Dylan. Such taste guarantees an attitude to the world and a freight of emotional intelligence that I feel I can trust. Similarly, when I meet people who say that they don’t like him or don’t get it, then I feel a momentary despair—in much the way as when people say they don’t like classical music or art galleries or reading or a particular country. It’s all in my head, of course, but then everything is all in all of our heads. (What else is there?) Besides, what Dylan is really about is protest—not narrow political protest anymore—but a kind of existential protest. And you just don’t get that on The X Factor.