A few years ago, I read an interview with Thom Yorke. I think it was in a copy of Rolling Stone that I found in the bookstore. In it, Thom made one fact very clear: Bob Dylan can really sing. I believed that too. I believed that from the moment I heard–believe it or not–his set on MTV Unplugged. It’s one of my earliest memories of listening to Bob Dylan. It was released in 1995; I was all of nine years old then. I don’t know exactly why I got my hands on it, but I did. Bob’s scratchy voice didn’t make much sense to me at first, and the fact that I was nine was of no help because the lyrics probably flew right past me. But when I got to what I still think of as the climax of the album–“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” followed by “Like A Rolling Stone”–and it all clicked.
Part of what made “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” work for me was that I could understand it. Here was a man waiting to die, bleeding, gun in his hand, and crying out for Ma. In my melodramatic nine year old mind, that made the most sense out of all the songs on an album that included “Dignity” (one brilliant rendition of it, I might add) and “Desolation Row”. It was performed with masterful clarity, delicate melancholy, and an honest sense of desperation. Every now and then, Bob’s voice went into a primal whine, the sound of a man who really could see death over his shoulder. To think about it now, it wasn’t the simplistic melodramatic fear or sadness that I had had in mind. It was far more complex, and far more evocative, far more… well, mature. My discovery excited me.
The version of “Like A Rolling Stone” may not have been the greatest performance of it ever, but I adored it then. I still love it today, for the simple reason that when I first heard it, it was magical to me. It was the first time I had ever heard such a song, both mean and uplifting at the same time. I didn’t even think that was possible. When he asked, How does it feel?, it felt as if I had asked it. When he castigated this ambivalent figure with, You never understood that it ain’t no good/You should never let other people get your kicks for you, it felt like those words were mine. And when his voice soared going into one of the choruses, I knew that Bob Dylan could sing, and that became a secret that I would keep with me as I proceeded to dig out as many of his old records as I possibly could.
I went to the Timbre Rock & Roots Festival last night with a deep sense of paranoid uncertainty. I was going to see one of the great artists of my canon: Was I going to regret it when I found the man never quite matching up to the myth? Everyone had been having a go at him since his performances in China: Had he lost it? There was always a faint sense that something could collapse, that an illusion was going to be dismantled, or that time and politics had robbed even the greatest of men.
My parents never thought that Dylan could sing. How could this sometimes death-drawl belong to a singer? Why does he sound like he’s talking in long stretches? Is he a nascent rap star whose style was a form of droning lyricism?
My mom didn’t have any idea who he was; she speaks primarily Chinese and that was a main factor in her quite different cultural exposure. My dad had heard of him, but this was and still is a far cry from his world. Whatever it was, Bob made no sense to either of them. I was disappointed then, but not quite as disheartened to realise that it wasn’t just my parents. Most people around me, friends and family, seemed to think the same way. You have to remember two things: I didn’t have the people who had any reason to be interested in him, and I was young and didn’t know how to pursue these passions as effectively or aggressively as I can now.
That’s why Bob had to stay my secret for so long. I was something of an impressionable adolescent (who wasn’t?), too fragile to get into a fight, and yet too eager to shatter. Over the years, however, I had to defend my love of the likes of David Lynch (“His pictures just don’t make sense.”), Grant Morrison (“Comic books?! You can’t be serious!”), José Saramago (“Too fabulist, too humanistic, and too unliterary.”), and Dhalgren (“Science fiction?! You can’t be serious!” and “This isn’t proper science fiction!”). Oddly enough, I discovered that it was comparatively easy to defend Bob Dylan. Blame it on the Internet. There was such a huge community out there that I didn’t find it hard to do so anymore. In fact, in a way, Bob Dylan became one of the few I would no longer have to defend.
On the night, Bob emerged on stage wearing a subdued suit and a hat. His voice was just like it was on the recent records, only even less mellifluous (if that’s possible), yet richer, more resonant, and as the night would prove, more versatile than it seemed to be allowed to be on the albums.
The band opened with a mixture of newer songs–including a remarkable rendition of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”–and classics–even if they were comprehensively reworked, such as a version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” that took me by surprise. This pattern would continue through the night. To put it in a procedural fashion, it was a rootsy, groovy band that trusted in its ability to dive into a blues shuffle, American folk, and tuneful pop with effortless brilliance and genuine relish.
I only have scattered memories of the night. Music-wise, I remember an excellent performance of “Tangled Up In Blue”. And I actually believe that the rocking variation of “Highway 61 Revisited” is better than the one found on the album. Through the night, the band entertained, surprised, and charmed with its sincerity and technical mastery. Bob himself led the charge with his quite unique charisma. He felt his way into the concert quickly and bit into each song with gusto. The audience bought it with equal readiness.
Behind him, his silhouette was projected onto an enormous black banner. And night fell.
Cigarette smoke, dancing, and lots of beer–I remember thinking, I don’t even drink.
Perhaps one day this will prove to be a Proustian moment of some sort for me.
One of the two main highlights of the night for me (on a night full of highlights) was a complete reinvention of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna’ Fall”. As with all his complete reinventions, this surprised me at first. It wasn’t quite the folk-styled protest song of the Sixties. It was melodic and soulful rearrangment that seemed to allow Bob a lot more performative space. I believe that it wooed me–and the rest of the audience, I should think–in a way that wouldn’t quite have been possible with the original arrangment. It was subtler, richer, and had more breadth for emotional complexity. Whether or not he was our prophet, he certainly was our poet. That is, there is more to poetry than words on a sheet. There is poetry to be found in music, and in performance, and the debates about whether or not Dylan is truly a poet in the traditional sense of the word for all I care–last night affirmed that he was a poet nonetheless to me.
The other big highlight was the finale of the set before the encore. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” ran the whole gamut of the emotions; Bob evoked righteousness, bitter condescension, fragile anger, and a deep world weariness with probably his most outstanding performance of the night. His voice was alternately an evocative growl, a measured wheeze, a deep bellow, and a explosive bark. It was a performance that will certainly stay in my mind for a long time to come.
He left the stage after that. It went dark. It took a while but the band returned to the chants of, One more, Bob. There seemed to be little doubt about what they would play then.
I never quite would have thought I’d hear supposedly five thousand Singaporeans spontaneously singing, How does it feel?/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone, at the top of their voices. This doesn’t even happen at the National Day Parade.
I’d like to think that Bob hasn’t changed–or perhaps, given that the whole idea of “Bob Dylan” has always been about change, it might be more accurate to say that I’d like to think that he hasn’t changed in a way to become the antithesis of what he seemed to be in the Sixties. I have to admit that the mostly rather scathing reports of his performances in China were always at the back of my mind. Would I have been happier if he didn’t perform “Like A Rolling Stone”? Have I become so cynical as to be unable to view a performance of it as anything but a crowd-pleaser?
Was he any less of a conformist for resisting our labels of “voice of a generation” and “prophet” and “poet”?
For the record, I was one of the first to shout along when the song hit the chorus. I couldn’t resist.
Maybe it was the fanboy in me, all too glad to be in the presence of one of his heroes. Maybe I remembered what it was like when I got to this song on the MTV Unplugged album and finally understanding something that I would treasure thenceforth. Maybe I saw the preciousness of human connection, that we were all in his tall shadow, under the sound of his voice, and with words that we shared. Maybe it was because I’d also like to think that having watched people I know and love slowly seem to turn a bit bitter and a bit cynical over the past few years, I knew I had to trust what I felt. Or maybe it was the rush of blood that tends to accompany the recognition of genuine art.
Maybe it was all of these things, and not just.
Over the years, I’ve had something of–lack of a better term and all that–a love-hate relationship with art. Art of various sorts. I invested a lot of effort and time into an intellectual understanding of art. In the past few years, however, these endeavours have tended towards the anaemic for me. The more I’ve tried to identify and define, the more I’ve tried to put things into any systematic or interrogative understanding, the higher the risk that I will feel removed from it all. Of course, I have none of the insightfulness of Sontag, the eloquence of Barthes, or the intelligence of Bazin, and that arguably accounts for a good part of the my failures to properly examine art successfully in this mode. It has always been a struggle for me to hang onto things that matter to me against the tools that are available to me.
Recently, however–that is, these past few years–I’ve negotiated this better. I find myself being far more of an intuitive than an intellectual person where this is involved. Art that engages me, art that matters to me, art that leaves me with a voice with which to speak or without a desire to, tends to resist easy labels such as technical brilliance, beauty, and artistic accomplishment. All my attempts to describe what I look for in art have ended up in failure. (Being quite averse to embarrassment, I tend to ignore the possibility of an impaired linguistic aptitude and to blame the insufficiencies of language instead.) Therefore, and unfortunately, the best I can offer are the vague and ever-ballooning terms of heart and soul.
For example, the writing of Cortázar matters to me not (mainly) because of its inventiveness, his structural innovation, and his linguistic brilliance, but rather because it possesses facets of a culture, captures the human soul like no other, and is best described as a pulse, perhaps the pulse of living. The music of Radiohead speaks to me not purely on melodic sense, or catchiness, or guitar solos and riffs, but on the stark soundscapes and emotional spectra conjured. Art Spiegelman is a mighty fine artist and a master of the form, but his work resonates on levels so far removed from those that I barely ever have the time to talk about the technical details.
The point is, it’s not always been easy living with this vague, unscientific, and non-institutional love of art. But sometimes, some people make it so easy. Last night, in an hour and a half, Bob Dylan brought with him all the technical things you’d expect him to: master showmanship, instrumental wizardry, and a voice both incredibly experienced and performatively gifted. Yet, these are just the bells and whistles. What we truly got last night was music revealing and enabling our persistent search for human connection; songs that spanned eras and emotions alike, from the mean to the beautiful and ever shade in between, recalling memories as they made new ones; and a performance to keep close to the heart for all the years to come.
Things are not necessarily beautiful in their transience, but some transient things certainly are.
I can still vividly see people holding hands, in embraces, cheering, clapping, waving, as Bob closed the set with a melodic rendition of “Forever Young.”
It was the first time I had seen Bob live. The way these things are, with constraints geographical and temporal, it is with more than a hint of resignation that I admit that it may very well be the last as well. But never say never, as they so optimistically put it.
So instead, I’ll say, One more, Bob. One more.