So Many Roads, So Much At Stake: Bob Dylan Grows Into Himself
Bob Dylan's 1995 MTV Unplugged concert must have been a simple twist of fate, the kind his admirers muse about. It played at Dylan's vagaries, and raised freshly the enigmas Dylan rides. The network's plug-pulling landed Dylan somewhere strangely close to the electric folk sound premiered thirty years ago at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where his audacity earned him the cavils of self-righteous folk purists. This time he received the affection due an exile returning home. I for one am led again to ask: is there a purity that remains through Dylan's relentless self-evolution? Is the enduring Dylan his own witting or unwitting creation? In the MTV appearance, more than any in recent memory, a meeting seemed to occur. Beyond the obvious--the television picture of a wiry, dark-coated Dylan in sunglasses, like something from his Don't Look Back days--Dylan in other ways called up the past. A wizened Dylan, sharpeyed with piercing hesitancies, ran with the youthful, acerbic, direct-no-matter-how-indirect Dylan of blessed memory.
Listen closely to the album of the concert, Bob Dylan Unplugged. The choice of material isn't a cozy cross-section of his prolific corpus. Instead it is Dylan the still-hungry bard directing the show. Who is Dylan the elder bard and what does he sing? For the most part he sings the songs of Dylan the younger bard--"John Brown," "With God On Our Side," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Like A Rolling Stone," "Desolation Row," "All Along The Watchtower," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." But this Dylan sings with a well hewn maturity and a perceptiveness that makes the younger man seem, in retrospect, precocious, graced with intuition, but without the ken we could not, after all, have expected him to have. Dylan's choice of songs seems to mark a personal reclamation.
To be clear: ever since his 1966 post-Blonde on Blonde motocycle accident, critics have hailed "Dylan's Return" so often that it has become worse than a cliche: it has become part of Dylan's trademark. The problem is that many times the critics have been right. John Wesley Harding was a veritable return from near death. Blood on the Tracks was a comeback from the abyss of Self-Portrait. Infidels was a truly glorious return from the cimmerian Christian period.
So I would not say that Unplugged represents a comeback in the by now pedestrian sense of Dylan comebacks. The deep roots of this recording might be Dylan's showing at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1972, and at the Live Aid and Farm Aid spectacles of the mid-eighties. In those instances Dylan was included, or included himself, as a stamp of ethical authenticity. His mere presence symbolized an appeal for justice. It didn't matter what he sang or didn't sing. (Well, not strictly true: a rendition of "Motorpsycho Nightmare"--the tale of an adventitious night with a small-minded, well-armed farmer and his sexy daughter--might have turned a few eyebrows at Farm Aid). This time there were no funds to raise. His coupling of older songs of ethical exploration with newer, likeminded songs seems to have risen from another accord, perhaps what you might call a new agreement with his iconoclasm. Dylan the inveterate iconoclast has, after all, been keen to break his own public image as much as to break others' images. But the one image of himself he has not been able to break is Dylan the ethical singer--because his ethical conscience appears without exception in every period of his career. It is a dilemma: in Dylan's ethics of protest, he retains his sense of wholeness by breaking any hard, static persona that could be pinned to him, for which he gets the very adulation that potentially stifles. What to do? Rather than deny his nature as if it were accidental, in Unplugged he seems to accept the public figure that recurs despite himself, to take hold of it and drive it toward a unification with his restless creativity.
What, specifically, is Dylan's ethical authority? Again and again in his music you hear the voice of the searcher, a certain kind of searcher who finds open-endedness, not answers but suggestions, not certainties but intimations of truths. What is unusual, and unique to Dylan, is the voice of the searcher singing about social reality. His "protest" songs are generally not condemnations (with exceptions, of course--as for example "Masters of War" and "Hurricane"). Rather they are navigations through social meaning and contradiction, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes plain, sometimes arcane. Their quality of ethical conscience issues from a skill at calling us in with an alertness beyond a mere message, an ability to speak convictions without making them words to swear by. Where has this conscience placed Dylan the man? Who can say? At most we can address his public face--and perhaps this is the most he can do, too. His recalcitrant refusal of hard answers places Dylan virtually alone in twentieth-century American music in the role of a popular seer. If John Coltrane's work is something like mystical apotheosis in the popular ear, Dylan's is something like prophecy. But unlike Isaiah, Dylan precisely questions whether he has God on his side.
Dylan's band, the Endless Tour ensemble, splices the sounds of various Dylan periods, solidly, and with a curious understatement--as if the composite Dylan band were somehow less than the sum of its parts. Brendon O'Brien's hammond organ recalls Garth Hudson, though far less subtly and inventively. My own preference would be to eliminate the organ--it contributes more static and less texture. Bucky Baxter's pedal steel and dobro are redolent of Dylan's late sixties sweet Nashville sound. The band's weak link for me is John Jackson's guitar, which is not even bland--showing again how a distinctive lead guitar has always clinched Dylan's sound--from Mike Bloomfield to Robbie Robertson and Mark Knopfler. The band is, however, a titanic cut above the Greatful Dead (the nadir band of Dylan's career, if you ask me).
Dylan begins Unplugged with a snapping performance of "Tombstone Blues," the lead guitar phrase implying the masterful Highway 61 Revisited version. This version is rejuvinated from the 1980s tour versions, in which it had been flattened out, sped up and denuded of the verbal pricks and incisions that gave the song its power--in an effort, I guess, to make it light and danceable. The original 1965 quasi-talked original mocks and twists and chews up American middle class proprieties shamelessly:
The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
the city fathers they're trying to endorse
the reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse
but the town has no need to be nervous...
John the Baptist after torturing a thief
looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
saying, "tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
is there a hole for me to get sick in?"
In the MTV version, the proprieties are treated as so hollow there's hardly any reason for rebelliousness. Dylan sings the chorus, Mama's in the factory she ain't got no shoes, Daddy's in the alley he's lookin' for food, I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues, as if the down and out straits were utterly naturalized. The song is delivered with a straightforwardness that brings it into a more difficult focus, as if he himself were sobered to find that the hyperbole of his youth has become the commonplace of 1995 America.
In "Shooting Star," from his trenchant 1989 album, Oh, Mercy, Dylan focusses his audience's concentration further. The song is a gentle reminiscence stabbed with an injunction. As a shooting star crosses Dylan's sky, he wonders whether an intimate "you" ever succeeded in breaking into a world he himself never knew--and then hears a commandment: Listen to the engine, listen to the bell... --and finds himself thrown into a moment of reckoning, with only a last chance to clasp on to understanding--himself alone, pushing forward amidst, he notices, all good people praying... But just as suddenly he loses the moment, as the shooting star--his live feeling--slips away. The brevity of the reckoning is left unexplained, and seems in ways even to have been a phantasm. Still the song rings a power of introspection. Dylan once again engages his exceptional willingness to raise a frank confrontation with the question of whether transcendence is a meaningful or meaningless experience for him (compare this song, for example, to "Jokerman," "I and I," "Every Grain of Sand"). And once again Dylan recreates the experience of the question rather than proffers solutions.
His own reply is "All Along the Watchtower," a minor-key pseudo-dialogue that dwells in the still urgency of some looming calamity. In the John Wesley Harding original, the song is cagey, elliptical. The Last Waltz version, on which Dylan has essentially modeled all subsequent versions, is fleshier and more monumental. In this version the band is fairly quiet, and the vocal reedy and tense. The song seems almost like a flag hoisted up in the face of the impending doom, a sign of clarity against imminent chaos. The song resonates with the mood of the set, foreboding a social tumult that Dylan feels perhaps more deeply in his gut now, in the era of corporate agglomeration and bald cupidity, more than in 1968: businessmen they drink my wine and plowmen dig my earth: none of them along the line know what any of it is worth. Dylan partly blurts it, partly hollers.
Dylan's ethical posture appears fully in the next two songs. He sings "The Times They Are A-Changin'" with the plaint of a Yiddish balladeer. Now, though, the lyric is no longer the proclamation of an oracle, but the confession of a counselor. The anti-war ballad, "John Brown" is delivered with a thin, tinny voice urgently, closely. The song, in which a mother's naive faith in her son's war heroism is wrecked when his body and soul are mutilated, issues a mature declamation. The songs of Dylan's early politics have become keener with age. Dylan does not sing them nostalgically, but as admonitions to a younger generation that has not produced a songwriter and singer of equal acumen. His effort is precisely to haunt.
As if he were getting too heavy, Dylan follows with "Rainy Day Women," originally more of a racket hitched to a goodtime melody than a song--but here the band launders and sanitizes it, and it comes off as a lame mime. "Desolation Row" returns the audience to the substance of the performance. The popcorn organ and Dylan's high cracking-up moan recall the absurdist wit of the original. But here, Dylan is less an inhabitant of the place than an experienced, slightly worn guide. The place is even more desolate for being more familiar. The down-home slide guitar suggests that maybe Desolation Row is closer than you think, that it's just about where you yourself are listening from: Chattanooga on an appropriately dark day, San Francisco in the sunlight, Detroit in its innuendoed vacant lots.
"Dignity," the 1994 song that opens the second side, finds Dylan singing in a mode he has always found successful: a long string of vignettes that move in and out of an elusive abstraction. He twists dignity from a noble ideal into a predator and back again. Sometimes you wonder whether Dignity isn't the name of an old lover. This is a song of searching and seeming to be near and not finding. Dylan observes almost blithely:
I went down where the vultures feed
I would have gone deeper but there wasn't any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn't any difference to me
--holding on to the words "neeeed" and "meeee" with a subtle reticulation, certifying that in fact there was a need, and it did make a difference to him. And who doesn't need to hear the tongues of angels in the places of despair? Who doesn't need to find out that those tongues sound just like his own? But if Dylan seems to locate the root of dignity momentarily in himself, still he is not reassured, still he feels tossed and tumbled:
Got no place to fade, got no coat
I'm on the rollin' river in a jerkin' boat
tryin' to read a note somebody wrote
Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
dignity never been photographed
I went into the red, went into the black
into the valley of dry bone dreams...
...And emerges not into "I Shall Be Released"--because he's not altogether sure about it--but rather "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." The result is not an anthem made of this, after all, highly anthemizable song. Rather Dylan changes the melody, making it rise in the penultimate syllables of each line, lending the song a tentative quality, and personalizing it. The chorus, no longer descending evenly toward the tonic, moves up and down in alternate heavy and light stresses, and Dylan's tone assumes the anxiety of a nervous supplicant. How to describe the timbre of Dylan's voice in this song, the texture of the desperate petitioner's appeal? Something like a diaphanous burlap rasp? And the harmonica? The harmonica solo, which lasts across three choruses, is noteworthy in the Dylan catalogue for being the only one comprised of one note, a shrill, insistent indrawn breath pounding and whining again and again for a response. Better this particular version should be called "Knockin' on Purgatory's Door."
In the final selection, "Like A Rolling Stone," Dylan is equally baroque, equally expressive. This, Dylan's searing denunciation of self-serious privilege, his promise of the American Dream turning to rank acrimony, his inglorious wisdom--all this he delivers gingerly, as if it were a hortatory nonce word from an old man you just happened to meet, who put his arm over your shoulder and took you into his confidence. Dylan sings almost with remorse at having to ask at all, How does it feel? to be without a home? Like a complete unknown? Like a rolling stone? Now the question is no longer an accusation, as it had been, but a hypothetical he implores you earnestly to consider. A worry seems to dwell beneath the delivery--the worry, again, of an older man who has seen far more loss than the youth who penned the words, a man who cannot in his ethical conscience take his own song cavalierly. And you cannot help but feel that Dylan's winsome figuring shows a tremulousness before his own insight.
Dylan's encore is a breathtaking version of "With God on Our Side," performed with a lilting country tinge. The song is a shattering of myth, and a pliant pleading--with history, with God, with listeners--to end war. I find this the most moving song in the collection. With slow deliberation, with a voice alternately a pencil thin trail and a billowing cape, Dylan works his way into a nakedness, a standing forth of his essentials. His essentials? It seems clear that Dylan prizes the things that cultivate ethical presence, including this, the minstrel's appeal. Here his appeal seems so honestly his own that it's hard to tell whether he sings self-consciously or unselfconsciously. He both sings and watches from some distance the voice of interpolative justice within himself ring true. In any case, the song acts as a binding agent between himself and himself, and himself and us. We see again that Dylan is most distinctively Dylan when he relaxes into the open, ethical balladeer we know, or think we know, who leaves us feeling somehow both uncomfortable and reassured.
As usual Dylan manages to turn the tables. From his studio albums of late he commonly withholds his best songs. In the MTV Unplugged series, Dylan plugs in. MTV is still not the first place I'll go looking to find insight or stimulation. But treasures--like Bob Dylan--do turn up in unlikely places. Therein lies the promise.