In May 1997, Bob Dylan was rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening heart condition. The prospect of his imminent death created a great deal of excitement. “The scary news blowin’ in the wind last week was that Bob Dylan might be dying,” read a Newsweek article. “It sounded like a death knell for the counterculture.” Scores of other magazines ran career retrospectives. The death of the greatest sixties folk singer—what an opportunity!
In fact, Dylan was fine. “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon,” he remarked as he left the hospital. What was really “blowin’ in the wind” was a wish that Dylan would die already. Recently, I talked to a friend who had seen Dylan perform at a small, suburban venue, and had found the experience unnerving. “I feel like he should be dead,” he said of Dylan. Another fan told me he sees Dylan as a “museum piece.” If the star can’t actually die, he can at least be treated as an object frozen behind Plexiglas.
Of course, it would be easy to imagine various appropriate ways for Dylan to have died. Like James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison, Dylan could have died decades ago, precisely when his artistic powers and celebrity had reached their supposed pinnacle. A single, shared conception of Dylan would emerge. The “Dylan” figure would translate easily into a coherent set of attitudes and histories. Real life Bob Dylan, however, has defied such slick categorization.
There is perhaps nobody else in America so widely beloved whose death would be so readily accepted. Many Dylan fans feel that their conviction in albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or Blood on the Tracks is mocked by Christmas in the Heart, Dylan’s 2009 Christmas music compilation. Even those who do not consider today’s Dylan an affront to their cherished vision of the artist might feel that his relevancy is simply spent. These fans might feel—but never say—that Dylan should have retired gracefully from the world of the living decades ago.
Three weeks ago I saw my first Bob Dylan concert. He was playing at the Paul E. Tsongas Center, a stadium that is usually home to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell ice hockey team. Dylan had already played at the space twice before, in 2000 and 2010. As I entered the Tsongas Center, certain mundane details struck me as strange. The persistent beep, beep of electronic ticket checkers; the concession stand display cases of slowly turning hot dogs. I might have felt more comfortable seeing Dylan play in a forest clearing or cathedral.
This response can be partly explained by my own history as a Dylan fan. When I first started listening to Dylan at age 13, I discovered new ways of understanding myself. Melancholy made more sense to me as “One Too Many Mornings”; restlessness was an empty concept without “Tangled Up in Blue.” I listened to these songs alone in my room and began articulating myself to myself.
Eventually, Dylan produced for me the outlines of something like a worldview. I insisted to my dad that I could never enjoy music that had no lyrics. When my mom tried to take me to The Frick Museum I refused, on the grounds that Henry Clay Frick had oppressed the American workers Dylan sings about. I’d always had preferences; Dylan gave me an outlook.
The state of my soul as I stood in the Tsongas Center food court, however, also had to do with the story of Dylan’s fame, what the figure of “Dylan” has meant at different points in American history. At the show I talked to a group of four guys, all button-down types who had gotten the tickets by chance. One of them said to me, “I’m not here for a rock show, I’m here for living history. I can tell my grandkids about this.” Treating Dylan as “living history” is about the same as treating him like a “museum piece.” As a museum piece, Dylan at Tsongas was like the Mona Lisa being shown at a community arts center. As living history, Dylan would only be competing with popular conceptions of his former self. Who would want to live the life of mere “living history”?
It’s also difficult to understand what this living history of Bob Dylan even means. Popular narratives about Dylan tend to focus on this fact. The trend is most clearly expressed in the movie I’m Not There, in which five different actors of varying genders and ethnicities portray different Dylans at different stages of his life.
This story replicates the Dean/Hendrix/Morrison way of understanding celebrities, except in Dylan’s case it is subdivided into discrete, sequential parts. Fans can lament the death of the Folk Revivalist Dylan, or the death of the Rock Avant-Gardist Dylan, or the death of the Seventies Cynic Dylan. That Dylan lived past all of these avatars—for example, to a Christian Evangelical Dylan—undermines the obvious primacy of any one of them. My friend who wished Dylan had died was wishing that he could take one Dylan of the past as the True Dylan.
In the Tsongas Center I was certainly wishing something similar. Was the Dylan whom I had studied, followed, and worshipped the same Dylan who was about to play honkytonk to a half-empty hockey rink? I left the food court and headed to the stage, ready to encounter my platitudes in the flesh.
Single-minded fans of Dylan’s early work would be shocked to hear how his voice sounds in 2013. Dylan’s voice has been changing throughout his career, but the most dramatic shift began in the 1990s and culminated in ’97 with the album Time Out of Mind. Here Dylan sounds like he has been smoking cigarettes rolled with gravel. The album’s song titles give this sense, materially—“Dirt Road Blues,” “Cold Irons Bound”—and narratively—“Million Miles,” “Highlands.”
16 years after Time, Dylan can’t sing for more than seven or eight seconds in a row. He rumbles through a short section of a song, pauses, then rumbles forward again. There is no harmonic fiber between each lyric phrase; they are connected in the way that swept-up shards of glass collectively make a pile. Dylan’s staccato delivery resembles a gun fight with pistols, in which each shooter rapidly fires his entire clip, stops to reload, then fires again. When Dylan sang “Visions of Johanna” at the concert, he croaked the words: “And these visions! of Jo-hanna! they kept me up! past! the dawn!”
This rough, cracked sound evinces the wear and tear of Dylan’s career over the past 25 years. This period is popularly referred to as “The Never Ending Tour.” It’s a title Dylan rejects— nothing is actually never ending—but it is useful in giving fans a way to talk about Dylan’s new approach since 1988. The year prior, in ’87, Dylan toured with the Grateful Dead, rock’s most famous performance act. The Dead toured constantly, and in doing so developed a small audience of devoted fans who would travel with them from venue to venue across the country. This audience commitment allowed the Dead to treat each show creatively, playing the songs they wanted to play, how they wanted to play them, instead of replicating studio-packaged hits.
Since his moment with the Dead, Dylan has adopted this model for himself. According to critic Lee Marshall’s calculations, Dylan played an average of 34.5 shows a year between 1966-1987, and an average of 100 shows a year between 1988-2006. The relentless schedule of the Never Ending Tour is embodied by the destruction it has wreaked on Dylan’s already creaky voice.
The voice also symbolically enacts Dylan’s aesthetic approach in the Never Ending concerts. At the Tsongas Center show, Dylan played a few of his old hits: “Visions of Johanna,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “All Along the Watchtower.” The scenes in each of these songs predominantly take place at night; the characters consist of a “peddler,” a “fiddler,” a waitress “at a topless place,” a “joker,” a “thief.” The similarities between each song can be summed up by the “Tangled” line: “The only thing I knew how to do / Was to keep on keeping on.” These are songs of a restless journeyman who has faith in little but his ability to persist. Songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” or “Girl from The North Country” would sound bizarre in Dylan’s contemporary voice, while these other tunes gain new meaning.
Few of Dylan’s old songs deal explicitly with sex. Even the songs that come closest, like “4th Time Around” or “Lay, Lady, Lay,” mention sex only obliquely. In the former tune, Dylan sings: “And when she did come, I asked her for some / She said, “No, dear” / I said, “Your words aren’t clear.” Describing sex with hints and innuendo is just one tactic Dylan uses to describe fundamental failures to communicate. Clear proclamations regarding sex are just as difficult as clear proclamations of love or fidelity.
These days, sexual desire and sexual prowess are much more prevalent in Dylan’s music, and at the Tsongas concert Dylan used sex as a symbol of his enduirng vitality. On “Early Roman Kings” off new Dylan album Tempest, he sings, “I ain’t afraid to make love / To a bitch or a hag.” Later in the same verse: “I ain’t dead yet.” In concert, the highest emotional climaxes come at these moments of pluck and spunk, self-announcements of a weary but unbroken durability. Dylan’s predatory growl, his bowlegged stance, his hip thrusts at the keyboard, the cowboy hat that covers most of his face: These also contribute to a vision of a man who is held together by sweat and spit and semen.
Of course there are moments in the concert that evoke a younger Dylan, the one familiar to me from childhood. Dylan’s sound on the harmonica is, like his voice, jerky and dissonant. But when suddenly, in the middle of a solo, he produces a clear-toned melodious phrase, the crowd starts yelping and wooting. I interpreted this response as the product of the audience’s collective vision of a Dylan who might sing, “Goodbye’s too good a word babe / So I’ll just say fare thee well.”
This revelation lasts for only a moment; Dylan’s voice returns to squash it. This is no failure, however, for the true Dylan fans in the audience who make up the vast majority of the people in attendance. Most people milling around the food court reported having seen Dylan dozens of time since the Never Ending Tour began. Chuck and Angela had both seen Dylan 100 times; Chuck, mostly in 1998, when Dylan played 110 shows across four continents between January 13 and November 7. Chuck, who had an earring the shape of a hand in his left ear, said he goes mostly because “I like the new stuff.” Angela, a tall faded blonde with pale eyes, said simply, “There’s a difference between being a concertgoer and being a Bob Dylan fan.”
Dylan shows are full of couples. I also talked to Ian and Katherine, who had been to more than 40 Dylan concerts. Katherine’s brother had been named Dylan after Bob himself. Ian, also a musician, said of Dylan: “Interest in his music got me interested in playing music.” Like the other serious fans I talked to, Ian was mildly exasperated when I asked him about preferring Dylan’s sixties-era music. “I’m more excited to hear newer material or what he doesn’t play often,” Ian said.
Chuck, Angela, Ian, and Katherine are not sublimating a Dylan death wish. The I’m Not There model of treating “Dylan” as a succession of Dylans doesn’t apply to their conception of the man at all. To them, Dylan is a fully living artist, continuing to produce new songs with a unique style and to rework old material in ways that make sense with the development of this style. Their Dylan has been freed from the constraints of any static historical or cultural moment. He is something less grandiose than a mythic folk hero: just another singer on the road, trying to entertain an audience and have fun onstage at the same time.
This understanding of Dylan is intimately bound up with the logic of the Never Ending Tour. The philosophy of the project can be grasped in part by something Dylan said in a 1965 interview with Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston:
Great paintings shouldn’t be in museums. Have you ever been in a museum? Museums are cemeteries. Paintings should be on the walls of restaurants, in dime stores, in gas stations, in men’s rooms. Great paintings should be where people hang out.... You can’t see great paintings. You pay half a million and hang one in your house and one guest sees it. That’s not art. That’s a shame, a crime.... All this art they’ve been talking about is nonexistent. It just remains on the shelf. It doesn’t make anyone happier. Just think how many people would really feel great if they could see a Picasso in their daily diner. It’s not the bomb that has to go, man, it’s the museums.
By the early 1980s, Dylan began to feel that most of his fans wanted him in a kind of museum-cemetery. One of Dylan’s biographers, Lee Marshall, agrees that fans felt this way for two reasons. First, they were attached to seeing Dylan as he was at some moment in their lives. Their appreciation of Dylan’s music was bound up with the experience of hearing him at college parties or on the radio as they took a road trip cross country. This desire points to Marshall’s second problem. Dylan’s audience was wedded to the renditions of the songs that had appeared on his albums. These versions were canonical, and tinkering with them—let alone replacing whole verses or melodies—would be unacceptable. Dylan could not play a spontaneous, inventive show without angering fans. Dylan began to dislike his own audience.
The Never Ending Tour solved this problem. Now Dylan keeps his band on retainer. He plays for months on end, takes a break for a couple of months, and then hits the road again. The frequency of Dylan’s shows has made them less of “an event,” and consequently has altered the expectations fans apply to them. The novelty of being in the same concert hall as Dylan the Legend begins to dissipate. The hope to be transported back to a bygone era is disappointed. The people who show up to concerts are not there to bask in Dylan’s aura as much as to hear some good music.
This shift in Dylan’s concert style is reflected in his new lyrics, his new voice, even the clothes he now wears at shows. A typical example is his take on the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” on Modern Times. Muddy Water’s classic rendition is lyrically sparse, more a set of images than a short story. When Cream recorded the song, they sang, “We were rollin’ and tumblin’ / Right the whole night long.” It is a fast-paced hoe down. Dylan sings his version from the point of view of the battered traveler having a good time. There is roughness and cynicism—“Some lazy young slut / Has charmed away my brains”—but also vulnerability and remorse—“Well I paid and I paid / My sufferin’ heart is always on the line.”
You could easily imagine a bar band performing revamped standards like this. Dylan is neither challenging nor advancing the song’s tradition; he’s just providing a new take on it that an audience will enjoy. Modern Times might sound like a paradoxical name for an album that is so contained within larger traditions. But the name might also indicate that nothing about “modern times” invalidates Dylan’s beloved folk and rock traditions. Modern times may call for the emphasis of certain features of these traditions—the rambler is more relevant than the miner—but the vocabulary is essentially unchanged.
Those who wish death on Dylan might disdain the portrayal of him as just another talented musician. It fails to satisfy the real appetite among many Dylan fans for mythos. To say that Dylan is a genius is not enough—he must have had, even for just four or five or fifteen years, some unseen access into a collective American soul, and any Dylan without such access must be a revolting sham.
If these fans really search for a myth about Dylan, they will find that 100 days out of every year there is a Dylan who becomes onstage the character he always sang about best: the lonely bard, baffled, scornful, but so perpetually unsatisfied that he can’t stay off the road.