Paul Williams – “Bob Dylan: Time Again” (1998)

September 11, 2008 at 12:05 pm (Bob Dylan, Reviews & Articles)

Paul Williams is one of the leading authorities on Dylan. He has written about 4 books that are all definitely worth reading. He always gives great insight into the man and his music. This article was written the year after Dylan’s great comeback album Time Out of Mind came out, for Uncut magazine – March 1998…

 

“Oh honey, even after all these years, you’re still the one!”
– Bob Dylan, ‘Can’t Wait’, December 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20, 1997, El Rey Theatre; Los Angeles

 

For the man who once told us “don’t look back”, which of course we all took as instructions on How To Be Cool, 1997 was one hell of a year to look back on.

He got paid good money to play a few songs for the Pope. His first album of new songs in seven years was an immediate commercial and critical success (Best-Of-The-Year on most lists, Grammy-nominated, his first gold record since 1984), after decades of a frustrating, predictable indifference to every new album from both the press and the public. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and rumoured to have a good chance of getting it if he can just wait (stay alive) a few more years. President Clinton presented him with a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award (especially sweet because he received it along with one of his own heroes, his friend, Lauren Bacall). He also received the prestigious Lillian And Dorothy Gish Award (he expressed regret that he “never had a chance to appear in a movie with Lillian Gish”).

And Newsweek put him on the cover – a kind of American coronation – for the first time since 1974, partly in response to a brief death scare that got tremendous press and recharged his celebrity standing round the world.

But the really interesting story is not that these things happened, but rather how the old curmudgeon responded to them. That’s something I hoped to find out – and did find out – by standing in the audience for five nights of Bob Dylan performances (with his most polished band ever) in a relatively small venue (900-person capacity, no seats except in the tiny VIP section/balcony) in his sorta hometown, Los Angeles, mid-December, 1997. The end of a seven-city “club tour” celebrating (very atypical of Dylan) his new album…and his last five shows of the year. Sold out, star-studded (all his unannounced opening acts were million-selling recording artists), and most important of all (to the headliner, and to this reporter), the music sounded great. They were five fabulous nights.

High points? There were many. Two that particularly stand out for me came in the middle of the second show at the El Rey, Wednesday night, December 17. When he started singing ‘Blind Willie McTell’ (1983, one of his all-time-greatest songs, and one he’d never performed live until 1997), I got tears in my eyes. It wasn’t just that it sounded good (which it did, the new arrangement is terrific, though of course no match for the solo piano performance of the officially released version). It was an overwhelming sense of the power of this moment.

Bob Dylan is barely 50-feet away from me, singing possibly the greatest tribute to “the singer” (any singer) ever written by an American songwriter or poet. “I know one thing, nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan sings in a slightly-modified wording in this ’97 version.

Just before this performance, however, came the single most ecstatic musical moment (for me) of the five shows: a version of ‘White Dove’ by Carter Stanley – the only “cover” song performed outside of the acoustic set over the five nights. Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, is, among other things, a very deliberate and extremely knowledgeable tribute to American roots music, folk, blues, folk-country, R’n’B. By singing ‘White Dove’ with his new guitar player, Larry Campbell, one of the relatively few full vocal duets Dylan has done with a male singer in his entire career, Dylan made a remarkably soulful statement about his love of music and his sense of time and place (rural USA, mid-20th century, that’s where he comes from). People tend to think of blue-grass in terms of banjos and fiddles, but Bob Dylan is aware that there is also a bluegrass vocal style, defined largely by the great early records of The Stanley Brothers. ‘White Dove’ was their first single, in 1949. Almost 50 years later, Wednesday night, the song was spine-tingling. “White dove will mourn in sorrow/The willows will hang their heads/Now that Mother and Daddy are dead.”

Before telling you more about the El Rey shows, however, I want to get to the other focus of this article, which is who Bob Dylan is at this moment in his life and our lives, as revealed on Time Out Of Mind and at these shows, and in a series of extraordinarily open and articulate interviews he has given in the past six months. Want to know who Bob Dylan really is at age 56? Listen. He’ll tell you.

To start with, he’s a happy man. This may seem an outrageous assertion to those who have listened casually to the lyrics of his new songs. Time Out Of Mind is the sort of record that is easily (mis)interpreted as a message of despair or decay (“That’s how it is, when things disintegrate”) (“Feel like I’m comin’ to the end of my way…”) (“The party’s over, and there’s less and less to say”) (“Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb”).

Phew. If you were arguing with me about whether on the evidence of his most recent songs and interviews and shows, Bob Dylan is/is not a happy man, all you would have to do is quote these four lines from four different Time Out Of Mind songs, cross your arms, and rest your case.

If this were television, I’d have to defend my position with a snappy soundbite – maybe something about how singing the blues is often misunderstood as bitter misery when it can actually be the exact equivalent of “making a joyful noise unto the Lord”.

Happily, I’ve been given space to stretch out a little here. So I can start – since Dylan’s lyrics, memorable as even these new ones are, function not as sound-bites (“He who is not busy being born is busy dying!”) but as components of songs and of musical performances – by placing each of these lines in the context of the verses and songs they’re extracted from.

‘Can’t Wait’, the gorgeous penultimate performance on Time Out Of Mind (and a song included at all five of the El Rey shows) is the source of the first quote. According to the original Rolling Stone review of the album, Time is “a self-portrait that pivots around a single line: ‘That’s how it is, when things disintegrate.’” The reviewer doesn’t note that this line occurs in a very specific context: the singer (who’s the protagonist of the story) is “tryin’ to recover the sweet love” he and the “you” of the song once had. And he is confessing his inability to handle the emotions her loss stirs in him: “If I ever saw you comin’, I don’t know what I might do/I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true/That’s how it is, when things disintegrate.” What man or woman who’s been through a separation could fail to identify with this story?

So is this whole album about Bob Dylan being horribly depressed right now?

Well, for one thing, the end of his marriage to the mother of his children occurred in 1977, which doesn’t mean he can’t use it as a source of song-material now, nor does it mean he hasn’t been hit equally hard by some more recent romantic (or other-than-romantic) separation. But the text of the verse does make one thing inarguable: the kind of “thing” that is disintegrating in this line is a relationship. And more important, in rock’n’roll there’s a context for every phrase that goes beyond lyrical context: the music, the performance as a whole. True, I’ve written two long books about Dylan’s performances, and so you could say this is a hobbyhorse of mine. But it doesn’t take an expert to note that the “feel” or musical (and vocal) mood of ‘Can’t Wait’ is one of relaxed humour. The singer is laconic, witty and charming.

OK, it isn’t 1966 and he isn’t saying, “Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?”, but this music and this vocal performance are almost as likely to bring a smile to the listener’s face. Or even, as you listen more than once, a grin. Feels good. You mean to tell me this is the voice – and musical creation – of an unhappy man? He probably has his low moments like all the rest of us, but when he’s singing this song he sounds like a sly dog.

The second quote is from ‘Til I Fell in Love With You’, another song Dylan and his band played every night at the El Rey, and another song about a person suffering extravagantly because of love and separation. This one, admittedly, has a rather desperate (and very colourful) musical feel, very different from the relaxed humour of ‘Can’t Wait’. This is more like hysterical hilarity. But the contextual kicker this time is in the line that follows the quoted line. The whole verse reads: “Well, my house is on fire, burnin’ to the sky/Well, I thought it would rain, but the clouds passed by/And I feel like I’m comin’ to the end of my way/But I know God is my shield and He won’t lead me astray.” Still, he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do, but the wittiness of the chorus is reassuring.

Dylan no doubt has suffered in his life, as an artist is supposed to…but he also is clearly having a lot of fun writing and singing these lines, telling these musical stories with a pithiness that John Lennon was very glad to have achieved a few times.

The third quote is from ‘Highlands.’ (I’ve just heard that the long-rumoured video Dylan made for this 16-minute song can now be downloaded free from his Website, bobdylan.com. Welcome to the 21st century.) The context this time, I must say, does (very arguably) consciously tease the listener into believing Dylan is talking about his own career. This is almost the only song on the album that isn’t directly sung to, or about, a woman that the singer/protagonist evidently loved and lost. The comic supporting actress in this epic, the Bostonian waitress, is not that woman. This is not inside information; it should be evident to anyone who listens to the whole album. The work of art doesn’t need a key; it explains itself.

Anyway, the line I quoted above, “The party’s over, and there’s less and less to say,” is in a part of the song that isn’t narrative and comes across as a more universal and timeless voice than the voice of the jilted lover of ‘Can’t Wait’ and ‘Til I Fell In Love With You’. This is the voice of the protagonist, so to speak, of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, a guy who’s stepped outside the limitations of time. So, it’s in the context of this charming voice that croons the opening and closing segments of ‘Highlands’ that we hear these lines that seem time-based and very applicable to the real lifetime of Bob Dylan as we know it (he knows we have to hear it this way; he’s teasing us): “The sun is beginnin’ to shine on me/But it’s not like the sun that used to be/The party’s over, and there’s less and less to say.”

So, you know what? Even though I don’t like to admit to myself that I’m a Boomer (Bob Dylan isn’t; he was born in 1941), I can’t help but hear “the party’s over” as being not so much a reflection on the speaker’s own life, as the Voice Of A Generation speaking once again for that generation.

The party that’s over is the Sixties, and all that we understood that to mean. He’s right. There is less and less to say in, for example, rock’n’roll, or pop music. The Beatles today would very likely be drawing blanks, because the times have changed and what people were interested in listening to when they rushed out to buy the latest Beatles or Bob Dylan records, people are not so open to today. There’s definitely less and less to say when you don’t feel someone’s listening. Which doesn’t have to be considered a personal failure. “The party’s over” could just be an acknowledgment that the times have indeed changed. And is Bob Dylan unhappy about that? Well, he might be, or he might be laughing at you for asking, because he knows he doesn’t give a damn.

The fourth quote, “every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb,” is from ‘Not Dark Yet’. We’re all afraid of death, so the very chorus of this song – “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” – is spooky, confrontational, unsettling for most listeners. Touche, Bob! So, should the fact that he has the courage to talk and sing about such a subject be taken as an indication that he’s less happy than the rest of us? More grounded in his happiness, more honest with himself, seems a more likely possibility.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” the other Dylan famously beseeched us. But ‘Not Dark Yet’ is a remarkably gentle song. The kindness of its pace (and of the singer’s voice) is almost hypnotic. I know people who’ve found themselves listening to this one song every day for weeks or more. Not just because they like to be unsettled, I think. Probably because it’s a deeply moving performance, and somehow quite comforting.

The second line of Dylan Thomas’ poem is “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”. There’s a lot of burning and raving in these Time songs. That shouldn’t be taken to mean (Bob) Dylan is obsessed with old age. Rather, the masterful poet is having fun playing with the feelings and images the subject evokes in him, and in his listeners. And as always with this particular master poet, every good phrase has the ability to serve a variety of purposes, can be heard dozens of stimulating ways by different listeners or by the same listener at different times. “Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” is a fabulous couplet, worthy of Pope (Alexander, not John Paul).

The second half evokes the cliche about men in the French Foreign Legion, who joined to forget someone or something. In the same way it evokes cliches about men, or women, in pubs or bars. Which, if we hear the speaker as someone drinking to forget, would explain why his nerves are numb. Funny. Name two or three other auteurs currently writing in the English language who are as witty as this Time Out Of Mind Dylan. Woody Allen? Ken Campbell? Philip K Dick could have gotten a nod in this category before his light darkened. So should we hear the words of this album as some kind of gloomy news? Surely, it’s more a case of “laugh, laugh, in the face of the dying of the light”.

 

So, have I gotten across my notion of who Bob Dylan is at this moment in his life?

He’s a person who’s having a fabulous time doing what he does best – writing, recording, singing, playing shows for live audiences. And having the satisfaction of feeling and knowing that he’s doing it as well as he ever has in his life and long career. That’s a very happy person, from my point of view.

What makes this a particularly joyous moment in the life of Bob Dylan is not just that he’s expressing himself with such gusto, and triumphantly attaining the secret and extremely high standards he sets for his own work. And being publicly acknowledged for it – the awards could be just for being “famous long ago”, as he once put it; but the sales of and acclaim for Time Out Of Mind are here and now. It’s that this comes after a long fallow period in some important respects.

True, he’s made great albums fairly recently (World Gone Wrong, 1993), and his band through 1995 was as good as any he’s ever played in. But 1997 was a year when he released an album that was both a better collection of new songs and a better-sounding recording than lots of people, including him, thought he could ever achieve again. And though he’s certainly had his share of public attention in the past decade, it hasn’t been anything like that absolutely extraordinary public response his new music, his avant-garde art, received constantly in his mid-Sixties heyday.

About this last point…Dylan expressed anger and disappointment to close friends a few months after the release of World Gone Wrong. He knew how good this album was, and he’d even pulled a few tricks out of the closet – wrote Dylanesque liner notes for the first time in decades, came up with a cover much closer to his mid-Sixties aesthetic than any album sleeve since. He loved this record and wanted it to get its due. But then it came out and sold the exact same numbers as any record he ever puts out, good or indifferent…and the reviews, while favourable, weren’t the kind of insane enthusiasm (or loud, angry, confused babbling) he’d always gotten in the Sixties.

My theory is he was “spoiled” by the almost impossibly responsive world that greeted his songs and albums and aesthetic persona when he was a young man. You get treated that absurdly well, you’re gonna miss it when it’s gone.

Let me tell you a quick anecdote from the El Rey shows that I think illustrates the kind of fun our man Bob has been having lately. Friday night, fourth show, after the fourth and final encore (the first two encores were the only times a guest musician appeared with Bob: Sheryl Crow sang with him and played guitar and then accordion on ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’)…anyway, Friday after the last encore Bob grabbed his bass player, Tony Garnier, and said something to him excitedly while pointing up at the little balcony VIP Section in the back of the room.

Bob was pointing out Gregory Peck, who’d been moving his leg and tapping his foot furiously all through ‘Rainy Day Women’. What a moment for the co-author (with Sam Shepard) of ‘Brownsville Girl’, on which Dylan sang: “There was this movie I seen one time, about a man riding across the desert, and it starred Gregory Peck…” Did that young man falling in love with the movies at his uncle’s theatre in Hibbing ever dream that someday those figures on the screen would be watching him from the balcony of a similar theatre…?

Gregory Peck’s other cameo appearance in what we might call “This Is Your Life, Bob Dylan, 1997!” came when he delivered the spoken (as opposed to sung) tribute to Bob at the Kennedy Center ceremony a few weeks before the El Rey shows. Peck said he thinks of Dylan as “a kind of 19th century troubadour, a maverick American spirit…in him we hear the echo of old American voices, Whitman and Mark Twain, blues singers, fiddlers and balladeers…Bob Dylan’s voice reaches just as high and it will linger just as long.” He could have been reviewing Time Out Of Mind!

Peck’s description of Dylan’s impact in the Sixties included the sentences: “He expanded the canvas. It was a restless reinvention of the music, album after album.” That’s exactly what the El Rey shows were. Night after night.

Dylan started 1997 by reinventing his band, his instrument for expressing himself onstage. He broke in a new guitar player, Larry Campbell, six months after introducing a new drummer, David Kemper (who’d previously played in the Jerry Garcia Band). The other two band members in ’97, and at the El Rey, were stalwarts: Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and mandolin, with Dylan since ’92, and Tony Garnier on bass, with Dylan at every show he’s played since 1989.

“Restless reinvention” is an excellent summation of Dylan’s method as a performer, an artist. He plays with a band (he hasn’t performed solo since 1965) because in his aesthetic, the creation of a sound and the dynamics between the elements of that sound are as important as any messages words can convey. His voice is important, of course. It’s an instrument interacting with other instruments that must all play together at the moment when the art is created.

For Time Out Of Mind, Dylan took the very unusual step of giving a statement to the record company that they could quote in ads and on posters so he could speak directly to his audience: “Daniel [Lanois, Time‘s producer] and I talked about these songs and how they should sound long before we recorded them. As for listeners, some people, when it comes to me, extrapolate only the lyrics from the music. But in this case, the music itself has just as far-reaching effect, and it was meant to be that way.

“It’s definitely a performance record instead of a poetic literary type of thing. You can feel it rather than think about it.”

You’d expect, therefore, more musical and sonic reinvention at the “club tour” shows, and that’s what we got at the El Rey. As Dylan has done over the years, he had an outline, a basic structure that left lots of room for improvisation and spontaneity within that outline, that canvas. Sixteen songs a night, four of them from Time Out Of Mind, always the same four, serving as a kind of backbone for this set of performances, a starting point, a foundation to build each evening around. A statement the artist wants to make. Never mind that you were desperate to hear ‘Not Dark Yet’ – this is the bandleader’s show, his work of art, and he’s not showcasing the album’s “best” songs, but rather the ones that he senses will allow him to create and express what his muse asks of him this month, this moment.

‘Cold Irons Bound’ rocks out in the Number 3 spot, previously-held by ‘All Along The Watchtower’. ‘Can’t Wait’, gloriously expressive, never exactly the same one night to the next, is in the Number 5 spot between Number 4 (likely to be different every night, another surprise from the huge songbook Dylan and his band had rehearsed and were drawing from) and Number 6, always ‘Silvio’, a song clearly chosen because Dylan likes the response it invariably gets from audiences, a response not based on the song’s reputation or nostalgic value (never a hit, a song from an obscure 1988 album, with lyrics by the Dead’s Robert Hunter) and therefore necessarily based on the performance, the feel, what’s happening right here this moment.

”Til I Fell In Love With You’ is in the Number 12 spot, the dramatic “show-closer”, a kind of summation, a rave-up to make a big R’n’B band statement before walking offstage so the audience can go through the ritual of demanding encores.

Which encores always included ‘Love Sick’ at the penultimate Number 15 spot…Decades from now, when we’re nostalgic for these great 1997-98 club tour shows, it will be the sound of the opening of ‘Love Sick’ that we’ll remember. The opening song of the album, the closing song of the live show (except for the perfunctory ‘Rainy Day Women’), ‘Love Sick’ is what you hear in your ears as you’re walking out of the theatre. “I’m walkin’, through streets that are dead, walkin’ with you in my head/My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired…” Sounds great on the record. But it had a whole new sound at these shows, and it was unforgettable.

Also important to the show’s structure is the acoustic set, songs seven through nine, not exactly solo acoustic, but full band including drums. This set at the El Rey always started with a cover song, usually celebrating some kind of outlaw activity (‘Cocaine Blues’, ‘Roving Gambler’, ‘Stone Walls And Steel Bars’). This would be followed by a particular kind of Dylan classic, crowd-pleaser but singer-pleaser, too, all part of putting together a show that will satisfy the muse and thrill the crowd and fulfil the singer’s purpose in life, all at once.

Number 8 songs (mid-acoustic set) from the El Rey included: ‘Hattie Carroll’ (wow, what a performance!), ‘One Too Many Mornings’, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero’, ‘John Brown’. Number 8 songs that were “alternate choices” on Dylan’s set lists, the ones we could have gotten: ‘Desolation Row’, ‘To Ramona’.

I’m sure Dylan felt more confident of his ability to get exactly the sound and feel he wanted with this band than any unit he’s ever put together – not that they were better, it just has to do with the bandleader’s feeling about his instrument.

So imagine yourself standing in that high-ceilinged club (old burlesque theatre with great chandeliers) surrounded by other ecstatic Bob fans, including Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton and Andre Agassi, listening to ‘I And I’ and ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, and ‘Born In Time’ and ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’, which had Dylan bobbing his head in obvious enjoyment of his own guitar playing and of the unexpected and delightful vocal phrasing he just heard himself create and, most of all, of the audience’s response to all this, which he notices, which he revels in as evidently as if he were Chuck Berry or Jimi Hendrix or Little Richard or Howlin’ Wolf.

Finally, while the fans and experts debate endlessly about why Dylan does what he does, I suggest the answers are right there in these lines from Dylan’s 1997 interviews: “Being on the road to me is just as natural as breathing. It’s rewarding to thrill the crowd. That’s all I can tell you about it.” And this, in response to fans speculating again about his religious beliefs: “I don’t know what people are wondering about. I’ve always felt an unseen presence, all the time, ever since I was small.” And, “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music, songs like ‘Let Me Rest On A Peaceful Mountain’. That’s my religion. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” And: “The songs I play night after night are proven to be true and strong. Otherwise I couldn’t sing them night after night. They can be performed over and over because there is a truth in them. I was constantly thinking [while working on the new album], ‘Will any of these songs stand up with what I’m playing night after night?'”

At the El Rey, he found out that they do. And in that sense, completed Time Out Of Mind to his satisfaction. And as a member of the crowd, I’m here to tell you it’s rewarding (and kinda religious) to be thrilled by a great living artist.

Night after night. After all these years…

Paul Williams

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2 Comments

  1. jason said,

    I was at a Dylan show in Irvine, CA in late 2004, chatting with two other fans. To my surprise, one of them turned out to be Paul Williams! It was SUCH a cool experience to be watching Bob with Paul, and chatting between songs about the performances. What a show!

  2. jmucci said,

    Very cool….

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