Hey Pal, we did it! After years of hero worship we finally saw the greatest songwriter of all time in concert. Bob Dylan. Air Canada Centre. November 14, 2012.
We were in the same room as the legend! WOOOO HOOOO!!
Now we have to ask ourselves – did we like it?
Here’s my answer to that: “Ballad of a Thin Man”. I’ll explain in a minute.
First let me just say I’d read reviews, so I’d been warned: Bob is old; his voice, never conventional, has degenerated into a barking, grizzled yowl; lyrics are indecipherable; he plays too many new songs, and his old songs sound like the new ones etc. etc. Bottom line – a Bob concert is not what you probably hope it will be.
So I knew what we were in for.
Here’s what I loved:
- Watching him bang away at that piano like he was the only one in the room.
- Looking forward to the odd time when he got up, strutted about the stage and took the mic in hand. One time I think he almost danced. There was definite leg kicking.
- Observing that, from our fairly distant seats, it looked like he was wearing rugger pants.
- Trying to play “name that tune” with you, Pal. Who won anyway? I think we tied.
- “All Along the Watchtower”. You missed it! Bad time for a bathroom break.
- His wailing harmonica solos. Bob can’t sing, but he can blow.
- And the rousing electric “Blowing in the Wind” for a finale.
But much of what I saw and heard I didn’t understand. Here are some things that left me puzzled:
- Does he have to sing that way, or does he just want to? Why does it sometimes sound like he’s mocking his own lyrics?
- If he’s going to play just one song off Desire, why “Joey”?
- Why so much new stuff? Really. “Thunder on the Mountain” is pretty cool, don’t get me wrong, but if you have to bump “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to make room for it….?
- Why sell a t-shirt promoting “Chimes of Freedom” and then not play it? (I bought the shirt anyway – it’s awesome.)
- Why have Mark Knopfler on stage for a few songs and not even mention him?
Because he’s Bob Dylan, that’s why. And he doesn’t give a crap if you like it. He’s light years ahead of the rest of us and always will be.
Which brings me back to “Ballad of a Thin Man” – the fifth song off Highway 61 Revisited, and a song that more than any other I had to learn to love.
Overall, my Bob love grew slowly and steadily – a 20-year journey. First, I made due with Greatest Hits, figuring that was all I needed. Then I began to explore: freewheelin’ folky Bob, Blood on the Tracks Bob, country Bob, Blond on Blond Bob. And so on.
I steered clear of Highway 61 for a long time. Sure, it had “Like a Rolling Stone”, and I knew it was seminal. I also knew it was kind of abrasive. Hell, it even looks abrasive.
But you can’t call yourself a Dylan fan and not give that album an honest shot. So I pulled a copy out of a bargain bin at Sam the Record Man and brought it on home.
I didn’t like it.
But I kept listening. Something drew me in. And one by one, the songs came to me. Or rather, I came to them. “Desolation Row”. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh..”. “Tombstone Blues”. Bit by bit, I fell in love.
Except Ballad – A direct and scathing assault on some fellow named Mr. Jones (probably a reporter in real life), who stumbles into a scene he clearly does not understand. And how could he understand it? There’s the one-eyed midget who screams at you for milk, the sword-swallower who borrows your throat and clicks his high heels, and the geek who calls you a freak and throws you a bone. And that’s just for starters.
It’s a spooky, jarring thing, with off-kilter timing and weird organ bits that come in and out. I could not get into its groove. It agitated me. Something was happening here, and I didn’t know what it was. Call me Mr. Jones.
Then, one day, it clicked. It started with this line: “You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, you’re very well read, it’s well known.”
I love that Mr. Jones has “been through” Fitzgerald’s books, which is very different from actually “reading” them. What a great way to describe someone who doesn’t particularly want to read something, but wants to say he’s read it. (It reminded me of a character in Catch 22, who is described as “knowing everything about literature except how to enjoy it.”) So that was it: two words – “been through” – the key to unlocking that particular song for me. I finally caught up.
And that sealed it – with all nine of its songs now beloved, Highway 61 Revisited became my favourite album of all time.
How appropriate, then, that “Ballad of a Thin Man” was hands-down the highlight of the concert for me.
The backdrop was illuminated with cool white lighting – the only time in the show there seemed to be an effort to enhance music with stage show. The band nailed it. There was a haunting echo effect on Bob’s voice. And Bob’s snarly voice is perfectly suited for sneering Ballad, making it one time his new delivery truly enhanced a classic tune. It was every bit as unsettling as it is in on the album. It was, in a word, awesome.
So did I love the concert?
Did it all make sense?
Not at all.
But who am I to question or to judge?
He’s Bob, and I’m still Mr. Jones, with my eyes in my pocket and my nose on the ground. Maybe there ought to be a law against me comin’ around. But it won’t stop me.
I’ll never catch up to Bob, but I’ll keep chasing.