COLUMN FORTY-THREE, MARCH 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
KING BOB & QUEEN JONI: A CROWN JEWEL OF A SHOW
(Photo by Ken Regan from the cover of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits; Volume 3)
I really wouldn't know what to say to Bob Dylan if I bumped into him again. I suppose I could talk about our one-time mutual acquaintances, but then he's discarded so many of us, that might not be a good idea. Some time ago, after Bob and I hadn't seen each other for a while, he summoned me backstage when news of a book I'd published on a Xerox hit the front pages of the underground press. What that conversation amounted to was approximately this: I said something like he was still wowing 'em and he said something like so was I. Probably, I'm still too much overwhelmed by Bob's power, but the truth is I don't know when or if anybody will ever outwow Bob.
For me, the show he put on at Madison Square Garden last November 1 was so good, it scared me. I was once drug-crazed enough to believe that Bob was the new messiah and his November 1 performance at the Garden evoked those past insanities of mine. To me, Bob is still the King of Hip and, in his appearance at the Garden, he topped a double-bill with Joni Mitchell, whom I consider the Queen of Hip. Which, in my opinion, made for one crown jewel of a show, the epitome of both their careers. I felt that all the psychic energy I'd put into rooting for the two of them had finally been realized. If I had one show to see in my entire lifetime, this would be the show I'd chose.
King Bob and Queen Joni, my two all-time favorites on the same bill! Yes, this was one show I had to see. November 1 was the Sunday before Election Day and I needed a time out from the agony of what the fascists of the Christian Far Right and their asshole Republican pawns were trying to put over on America. Yes, I needed a time out from the hate and obfuscation of those sanctimonious hypocrites. I needed a time out to relax. I didn't need to hear any more of their pompous bullshit. What I did need was the pleasurable magic of King Bob and Queen Joni.
As the concert was about to begin, I heard someone complaining that the writeup about Joni in the Sunday New York Times magazine made her sound too full of herself. Why shouldn't she sound full of herself? She's well aware that she deserves her throne!
"Fuck humility," she has said. "There's Bob Dylan and then there's me."
At least that's what I've been told she said. As for Bob, he was full of himself when I first met him in 1963. Even his management felt full of itself. I'll tell about Albert Grossman in future columns but when I phoned Bob's current manager, Jeff Kramer, to ask for press tickets to the show, Jeff told me to call Jeff Rosen in Bob's New York office. However, Jeff Rosen never bothered calling me back. Was Bob's management reflecting how full of himself Bob still feels? Bob was not much older than 22 when he started telling me:
"I know that there's nobody who does what I do better than me."
It was Bill Bentley, Warner Brothers Records publicity chief, who got me my seats to the show, at which I sat with the Warner Brothers Records crowd, including one exec I thought I recognized as the former assistant manager of Bill Graham's Fillmore
to the senses
East. I never did get a chance to say hello to him before the lights dimmed. Suddenly. Madison Square Garden became not the cavernous arena that it is, but an intimate night club in which beautiful Joni came out to sing. Her voice poured into the arena like butterscotch that sticks to the senses. Just the same as Bob's songs have always impacted on the world's psyche. His music has certainly made itself at home in the consciousnesses of those I like to call "The Enlightened."
Like Shakespeare or like the Bible, Bob and his lyrics can be quoted in just about every situation. In Bob's Make You Feel My Love, the ninth cut in his Time Out Of Mind cd, he sings, "You seen nothing like me yet." That's something like what I used to say about Bob, almost right from the time I first met him: "You aint seen nothin' yet!" As I witnessed his show at the Garden, I imagined he was telling me that himself:
"You aint seen nothin' yet!"
Getting addicted to Bob can be hazardous to your mental health. It was to mine. Am I still much too impressed with Bob? Am I so weak minded that I have let him invade my psyche and take over my consciousness? He still makes appearances in my dreams. Am I getting tetched about him again? You know, I wasn't the only one impressed enough to think that Bob was The New Messiah. Author Ron Rosenbaum, whose writing I have long admired, once told me he thought the same thing. And in The Band's bus, parked behind the Carnegie Hall stage door on West 56th Street the mid-winter night of The Band's most recent Carnegie Hall concert, Bob Johnston, who produced Highway 61 Revisited, maybe Bob's greatest album, told me:
"I really thought Bob was a messenger from Jesus or something."
As I recall, Joni was wearing a flowered shirt with her guitar hanging from her neck. But now, as I write this a month or so later, I can imagine she was dressed in a long, slinky, shimmering gown like an old-style nightclub jazz singer. New York Times reviewer Ben Ratliff seems to have picked up on something like that, too. In his review the following Tuesday (which happened to be Election Day), he wrote:
". . .what audiences have learned recently is how good a jazz singer Ms. Mitchell can be. Putting down her guitar and lighting a cigarette, she turned to a plainer style to sing Comes Love, made famous by Billie Holiday. Without the sudden rushes of phrasing and Ms. Mitchell's signature chords wrapped around it, the song made the most of her natural voice, its bright cutting vowels and its new depths, a gift of age. It took her into a completely new context."
Yeah, Joni's getting older and so am I, but no, Joni wasn't Billie. Maybe she's the equivalent of a new kind of Billie Holiday to people like me, but, to me that night, she sure came over as a nightclub act. Possibly, her image projected on the giant TV screen above the stage helped enhance the impression that we were in a cozy club. The only failure of her performance, if there was one, was not Joni's fault at all but can be blamed on the sound crew, who miked her improperly. When she sang certain notes with her mouth too close to the microphone, her voice tended to distort.
Still, that voice, with its extensive range and subtle shadings, emerged throughout her set as her lead instrument. Backing her up was a trumpet player, a drummer, a bassist and a guitarist who doubled on steel guitar, which began to annoy me at I forget which point.
Joni's voice proved to be the instrument which kept driving the others. Her harmonies, of course, have always been flawless and she even experimented with reinventing one or more of her songs, including her inspirational Woodstock, a celebration of the spectacular 1969 Festival that defined the '60s.
But nobody can out-reinvent Bob, who has kept reinventing himself throughout his entire career. From his limitless imagination, he has kept redoing not only his persona but also his songs. Which is one of the reasons both Bob and his material always manage to remain fresh, no matter how much older he and I get. Dated that I might be, I can't think of anyone who is more original than Bob. I remember him years ago refusing to look forward to a future of having to sing the audience's same old favorites over and over again. Instead, he has kept reinventing those favorites, turning them into new songs. For instance, when I saw him perform some months before in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, where Bob and his band had me dancing at my seat along with the rest of the rockin,' rollin' and boogalooin' audience, his Tangled Up In Blue sounded so unfamiliar that I had to tap the shoulder of the person in front of me to ask:
"Which song was that?"
Bob's always full of surprises. He almost never does what he's expected to do. With his originality and continuing freshness, he keeps enlarging his audience, digging deeper into the emerging generations for recruits to his legions of followers. Which includes a large percentage of those young and old who have achieved enlightenment from the Beats.
I take great pride in having been the man responsible for connecting Bob to the Beat Generation and I'm well acquainted with many of his followers from the Beat camp. I lump them all together as "The Enlightened." I imagined those in the audience to be as happy as I was to be present and accounted for in the Garden that night. Ranging in age from pre-teens to seniors like me, "The Enlightened" in the audience on this night included Beat Generation enthusiasts old enough to be the grandfathers of the kid Dylan fans at the other end of the spectrum.
They were all interspersed in the audience and I felt them to be as devoted as I am. Was I only imagining when I sensed a psychic brotherhood among us. To me, we were all one family, members of a the brotherhood, children of the '60s. Although the Garden enforces a strict no smoking rule, I even caught a whiff or two of marijuana breezing by.
It's as if the splash made by the Beat Generation has sent out a wave, not a ripple, and the wave keeps expanding in that limitless lake called time. And then came the Beatles' splash. Whether they made a point of it or not, the Beatles, too, were influenced by the Beats. And then came the splash Bob made. It wasn't as spectacular and instantaneous a splash as the one made by the Beatles. It was rather a splash in slow-motion, a splash that has endured more that 30 years---until now we can look back and see the great body of work that Bob has created, impacting not only on contemporary music, but on the psyche of the world.
In my mind, the three spreading waves from these splashes have fused into one. To me, this wave, which I call "the '60s," represents a countercultural revolution that continues to engulf a world desperate for enlightenment. To me, "the '60s," might represent the most self-destructive binge of creativity in history. But this wave is still spreading, with no shoreline in sight upon which to crash.
To me, Bob is perhaps the most vital and important artist of this century and maybe even the next. I never claimed to be qualified as a music critic, but I look back at that night as one helluva show. Months ago, in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, Bob's performance approximated a Grateful Dead show, compelling the audience to stand and gyrate to his music like a Deadhead audience. At the Garden, however, Bob seemed to have become a club act, maybe even a Frank Sinatra type lounge entertainer, gesturing and dancing to his lyrics.
I'd never seen Bob dance so much onstage. In the old days, he'd be stiff and shy behind the microphone. But now, in his 50s, he's grown up. At the Garden, it seemed, he'd abandoned himself to adulthood and to the realization that this was nothing but showbiz, after all. And so why shouldn't he act out his lyrics with his hands, arms and body language the way Sinatra used to do? Did Bob turn into a latter-day (but still very Dylanized) Frankie? Frankie never had the power that Bob has because Frankie never wrote his own songs.
I used to try to form friendships with the musicians who played behind Bob. I used to try to get to know everyone that Bob knew. But as the gulf between Bob and me has widened, I've paid less and less attention to his music, to his career and to his musicians. As one Dylan fan I know told me, "Bob's a lot like Chuck Berry. He has pick-up bands all over the place." That's because musicians all over the place want the distinction of playing behind Bob. He has already demonstrated his power to elicit great performances out of whomever plays behind him.
As I've said, I never claimed to be a music critic but it seemed to me that the band playing behind Bob has tightened up a great deal since I saw Bob open for the Dead in Giants Stadium a few summers ago. I'm now too far out of the loop to keep track of Bob's personnel. When I first walked into the skybox at Giants Stadium that night, Bob was already into his set and the music was so rockingly danceable that I thought it was the Grateful Dead playing behind him.
In the old days, I'd tried so hard to put Bob together with the Dead's Jerry Garcia. Jerry was really hot to meet Bob and all but begged me for an introduction. I tried and tried to set up a meeting, but somehow Bob kept resisting. Bob would always at first keep resisting my suggestions and ideas, some of which he would later incorporate into his career.
The skybox is at about the 50-yard line, too far away from the stage for me to make out exactly who was on it. Or maybe I was just stoned when I first walked into the skybox. The idea that the Dead might be playing behind Bob of course delighted me, but I too often deceive myself. No, it wasn't the Dead playing behind Bob, it was Bob's band. Which just about outperformed Jerry and his crew that night, even though Bob's band at that time still had trouble getting its endings together. But then, Bob is famous for not even telling his musicians what the next song will be, much less what key it's in. I'm still trying to find a Deadhead who taped that Giants Stadium show. I'd like to get a copy of that tape.
In my opinion, the band Bob had at the Garden was the slickest and smoothest and show biziest a group of musicians Bob has ever collected to play behind him. Including those musicians of long ago who gave such everlasting grandeur to some of Bob's greatest recorded anthems, all of them old friends to "The Enlightened." For his closing anthem at the Garden Bob sang a rousing Everybody Must Get Stoned, which seemed like not a bad idea at all.
From what I saw, Bob really enjoyed putting on this show. I remembered back to 1969, when I went to the Isle of Wight with him as his roadie. It was getting late. He was waiting to go on. The Band, which preceded him onstage, was taking too long and Bob was in a foul mood. It got to a point where he was wondering why he wanted to perform in the first place.
"So, why do you do it?" I asked him.
"Because I wanna be exalted," he told me.
He certainly got his share of exaltation at the Garden on November 1. It was as if Bob had achieved a new sense of command over his audience. Unhappily, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff, a guitarist himself, saw the show through different eyes:
Bob Dylan is at that stage of cuddly sainthood that Jerry Garcia reached in the 1980s: when he's having fun, the audience is having fun. Mr. Dylan looked modestly happy as he surveyed the Madison Square Garden audience through his deeply sunken eyes on Sunday night, and he talked to the crowd a little more than usual. He dug extensively into his lead-guitar playing, his recent ploy to change his group sound, and he danced gingerly, with self-conscious awkwardness, like an eccentric grandfather doing his impression of Chuck Berry to entertain children.
It was a well-received performance, but uninspired. Mr. Dylan's greatest-hits set, part of a short double-feature tour that pairs him with Joni Mitchell, too often had the innocuous groove of a Grateful Dead sound-alike band. You know you're in a pretty bland zone when the mentioning of New York City in a lyric (as Mr. Dylan did in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") supplies the set's greatest crowd thrill.
With the exception of three clearly enunciated songs---his new "Love Sick"; a Charles Aznavour ballad, "The Times We Have Known," and a truly rehydrated version of "Blowin' in the Wind" that marked the set's best moment---Mr. Dylan's delivery was characteristically bizarre. He ran together several lines in single breath, came close to rapping at times, and generally sounded as if he could be singing in any language.
"I usually play these songs all by myself," he said, as he introduced the Aznavour. "But I feel all by myself now." If only he could have better projected that feeling.
Obviously, Ben Ratliff doesn't consider himself one of "The Enlightened," although he says he's been a Dylan fan "off and on."
"I've liked some of his music a lot," Ben told me when I phoned to learn why he had found Bob's concert so unsatisfactory when I had found just the opposite. Like most people I know, Ben said his favorite Dylan album is Highway 61 Revisited.
"I'm a fan of his early stuff," Ben explained. "Everything after Nashville Skyline really just hasn't killed me."
It's not unusual for young music critics who are guitarists themselves to take shots at Bob, who, although he may be one of the greatest artists who ever lived, is certainly not the one of the greatest guitarists ever born. Ben said he thought that Bob "made it
Some people can play
for an entire chorus
worse by all the lead guitar that he's been playing lately. I really do believe that some people can play one note for an entire chorus and make it sound incredibly beautiful, but Dylan can't. And I don't know, I guess I felt it was kind of charming in a way but not that good. That was what my disappointment was all about.
"It struck me that at the moment, Dylan's last album, Time Out of Mind, is regarded as the pinnacle of good taste for an older, mature rock fan and hailed as a masterpiece and all that stuff, whereas Joni Mitchell's last record, I think, turned a lot of people off; her music is seen as kind of passť and the words are getting more and more purple and flowery and the music is getting close to New Age and all that stuff. I had that in mind when I went to the concert and what I experienced at the concert was that Dylan played a set that I found quite bland. I didn't thoroughly dislike it, but I just thought it was bland, whereas Joni Mitchell played a set that was musically incredibly effective and I couldn't help but play the two off against each other. And just say in print that I thought Joni Mitchell came out a lot better.
"I keep saying bland, because I felt like that was the sound of the band that night. They were playing in kind of a bland, grooving style and they did alter the songs a little bit."
Ben added, however, that he thought Bob's "presence was really interesting off and on."
I was surprised to hear from some who had known Bob for as long as I have that they agreed with Ben. They complained that Bob's performance at the Garden lacked the passion that had characterized Bob's performances earlier in his career, that Joni's performance at the Garden had been much more powerful than Bob's. Although there was a period during the past 10 years when Bob's shows had disappointed me, too, I'm probably too ingrained a Dylan fan to concede that his magic might be fading.
And yet, I now find myself having second thoughts. Was Bob's show at the Garden really as powerful as all those great Dylan performances I witnessed earlier in his career? Would that concert at the Garden really be the one show I would want to see in my lifetime? Wasn't it only the fact that Joni was on the bill, too, made me think so?
I'm now past 70 years old. And believe in what I've come to believe in even more But passionately than ever. But the younger generations keep spawning new ideas and new creativity, just as younger generations always have done. Each generation always produces its own heros. Rap is the new idiom of the young. Although I keep listening, Rap still hasn't been able to speak to me. But I do recognize it as a valid art form. Is it that I'm old hat to believe that Bob's genius still hasn't been topped? I admire the revolutionary passion of the young. But when it comes to fighting Revolutions, usually only the young do the fighting. Old farts like me don't have the energy for revolutionary warfare. Or any kind of warfare.
It's always in their youth that our greatest artists make their most important contributions. Afterwards, they usually try to institutionalize their legends, as Allen Ginsberg did in his later years and as even I, with my own insignificant legend, continue to try to do.
Some younger poets emerging in the aftermath of the Beat Generation are turning against their Beat elders. They're attacking the aging Beat poets as having become an entrenched bunch of yawns. What the younger poets have begun to call "The Beat Corporation." That's exactly the kind of attitude today's elders had when they were young.
So, maybe I'm old hat, too. Maybe I'm too obsessed with the cultural revolt of the '60s to open my mind to the revolution of today's young. So, what function must I serve?
As one who has lived through a lot of history and now finds much of that history being distorted, I feel it incumbent upon me to tell what I know. I am, after all, a journalist whose job was to chronicle those times and I even tried to help shape them. So what is there left for me to do in my life, but to tell all those stories? How I was at the crests of the waves from the Beats to the Beatles. One writer has described me as a "pop star lackey," and I was! But I was also the proverbial fly on the wall. As Bob himself told me, "You're invisible. Sometimes you can be seen smoking a cigarette, but you're the invisible man!" The perfect spy!
Some of these reminiscences which are about to appear in THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST I started writing years ago. But, because of the refusal of America's editors to publish me, it was not until the advent of the Internet that I have been able to offer them to you.
I take the occasion of my report on Bob's concert with Joni to announce the start of my serialization of My Dylan Papers, although not necessarily in consecutive BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST columns. The installments will run concurrently with THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST's periodic serialization of The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz.
I met Bob in 1963 after the Saturday Evening Post assigned me to profile him. I quickly found him so fascinating that I wasn't able to do much else but hang out with him. It wasn't long before I was quoting the late style-setting newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, then one of my idols. When asked why he didn't write about his idol, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy answered:
"Because I'd rather be his friend."
That's the way I used to feel about Bob Dylan. ##
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