To prepare myself for this assignment and as Dylan himself was unavailable for interview, I went to visit an acquaintance of mine named Bob - well at least that's his nickname, earned because of his fanatical devotion to Bob Dylan. Bob is in his early 20's; he owns every Dylan record ever released in the original pressings, dozens of bootlegs, a tape of the singer speaking on the phone, videos, books, and hopes soon to aquire a photocopy (of a photocopy) of the man's birth certificate. He plans to change his surname as well; no guesses as to what to .Bob's not alone in his obsession. Dylan is an artist who has always provoked idolisation and controversy in equal measure, losing one set of fans and gaining another everytime he has made one of the radical changes of direction in his career that he's famous for. The event that, provoked the greatest critical backlash, and exodus of admirers from the Dylan camp, was his much-publicised conversation to Christianity, and subsequent release of three gospel albums, in the early 80's. The Christian community at least was delighted at the emergence of such a potentially instrumental spokesman for the faith. However, like every other grouping over the years, it tried to adopt Dylan and make him their own, it has been left bewildered and a little confused. His public statements have been ambiguous, his recorded work patchy, and some of his live appearances downright awful. Nothing on his reported behaviour seemed to suggest he was living the life he had so unequivocally after his conversion. Few wanted to be judgemental, -after all, Dylan had taken enough flak for standing up for his beliefs from the world at large, without the church getting on his back. Nevertheless, some were left wondering if the emperor was wearing any clothes.
A NEW SET
With his new album, 'Oh Mercy', released to near universal acclaim and rated as his best piece of work for 10 years, Dylan seems to have pulled off his old trick of confounding his critics and aquiring a new set of fans at the same time. Daniel Lanois' production is informal and atmospheric, sparse almost to the point of feeling unfinished at times. Finding the right atmosphere is Lanois' speciality - this is the man who recorded U2's Joshua Tree in a vast empty stately home - and his sympathetic approach certainly seems to have worked with Dylan. The songs are allowed to stand or fall on their own merit, without being swamped in fussy arrangements. The subject matter is typical Dylan - hypocrisy, conceit, political machinations, betrayal and loss - without at least one track; the beautiful piano-based ballad 'Ring Them Bells' containing explicitly Christian lyrics, several of the songs sound as though they will stand the test of time and enter Dylan's vast storehouse of classics - part of that small percentage or rock culture that will endure.
The audience gathered at the Hammersmith Odeon ranged in age from 10 years older than Dylan himself to several years younger than his children. You can tell that we're dealing with a legend. Within the space of a few minutes I spot three men, who have brought their sons along to catch a glimpse - one of the kids is only around eight years old, clutching his #8 programme tightly in his little fist. Outside, the touts are doing good business, and tickets are reputed to be changing hands at £60 and upwards - all this for a 48 year old ex-folk singer from Minnesota.
Dylan appears on stage with hi three piece band only slightly late, to a rapturous reception. The first two songs have me sweating, for, despite a fairly thorough knowledge of the man's back catalogue, I don't recognise them. They are taken at a brisk pace; Dylan keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the boards, and the lyrics are inaudible in the mix. I look round and realise that I'm not alone in being slightly mystified.
Dylan pauses and then launches into 'Hollis Brown', the sad tale of multiple death on a south Dakota farm, and the audience breathe a sigh of relief - the song is at least recognisable, even though the melody has been strangely altered. Dylan also appears to relax, and says 'thank you', his first direct communication with the audience of the evening. Next he launches into his classic 60's indictment of arms manufacturers and war mongerers, 'Masters of War', and follow it up with the inimitable surreal rock and roll of 'Stuck outside of Mobile'.
But something is wrong. The lyrics are the same, the chord sequences are the same, but - he's not singing the tunes. Now, some would maintain Dylan never sang a tune in his life, and it's true he always sang kind of around the melody, but nevertheless he wrote some great tunes, and sung them well enough for us to hum them. Lets face it, he launched the careers of thousands of buskers and student bedsit guitarists - and if he's sung them like this, you'd never have heard 'Blowing in the Wind' echoing through your local underground station.
The story is the same throughout the set, songs from the new album - of which he played only four - sound much as he'd recorded them - None of them are songs that rely too much on a melody anyhow. But as for the older numbers, the songs most of this audience have come to hear, are treated with disrespect, bordering on total disinterest.
Bob had told me that the highlight of the set would probably be the accoustic section when Dylan »Ou_iC rli> accompanied only by his guitar and his trusty harmonica, with a little help from his other guitarist, G E Smith. Sure enough, Dylan straps on his accoustic guitar and strums out the chords to arguably his most famous song, "Blowing in the Wind". The crowd goes wild in that sparse setting we can really hear what Dylan's up to in his vocal treatment of the songs. In this case, he's singing a completely different tune. The phrasing of the lyrics has been changed so much that punchlines are delivered before the chord sequence has come round, so that they lose all effectiveness. Halfway through he plays a harmonica solo that bears no relation to the chord structure or melody of the song, but consists of playing two notes randomly for a time, then stopping.
The crowd applauses as though John Coltrane had just played a particularly fine solo, and I get a chill. I have to say that the afternoon before the concert I saw a middle-aged bag-lady in a Hammersmith subway playing harmonica slightly better than this man, who has been a professional musician for approaching 30 years. As he continues to wheel out magnificent songs and mutilate them, and as the crowd continues to applaud ecstatically, I grow more and more uncomfortable, in 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' he forgets the lyrics. And then in 'Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' he achieved what he appears to have been aiming at all night, and sings the whole of one verse, and a chorus, on one note. And that remains the pattern. 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' is recognised only because of it's destructive chord sequence and the lyrics - the tune melody is again replaced with a total non-tune. A moment of light relief comes when the band returns to play a song off the new album 'Everything is Broken," and Dylan breaks a string. The set finishes with a version of 'Like a Rolling Stone', which Dylan extends on and on, playing lead guitar, wiggling his hips, and apparently working up quite a sweat. The band goes off and pandemonium breaks out.
Dylan has another surprise up his sleeve, returning to sing a simple accoustic folk song aboot the dangers of the mining i try - Its certainly noi - he's ever recorded: Dylan times slips the work of a blues or folk singer into his set - he sings it with some conviction. "It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew/the dangers are double, the pleasures are few/rain never falls, sun never shines/dark as a dungeon way down in the mine." We're reminded what a fine folk-singer the young Dylan was.
He leaves us with a rehashed 'Highway 61' and a lot of unanswered questions. Just what is the man trying to do? The decision to sing one of the melodies of his own songs must be deliberate - he can't have become suddenly tone-deaf, if he is sick to death of his old material, and of his audience, why does he slog around the world playing live -surely it can't be just for the money. And how does all this square with his beliefs?
I returned to see Bob at work at his job in a West End bookshop. He'd seen Dylan in Paris and London, with front seats at both shows, and thought him wonderful, it didn't matter if Dylan sang 'out of tune' in conceit. Bob has all the records y. All he wanted was to to be near him. He and his friends had cheered when Bob had shaken his head to get the sweat off his face in Paris. He told me tales of Dylan's erratic behaviour, as one who speaks of a member of the family who's gone a little off the rails.
I put it to him that it might be the obsessive adulation of people like himself that was making Dylan paranoid, and he agreed saying "mats rock and roll". Did he worship Dylan, see him as some sort of God? Yes he was happy to agree, I don't know which of the two Bobs I felt most concerned for, the idol or the idolator, we're talking about a spiritual sickness, a trap set for both the artist and the fan.
And yet - Dylan can still write the lyrical, pastoral religious poetry of 'Ring them Bells'.
"Ring them bells sweet mother, for the poor man's son/ ring them bells as the world will know that God is one/The Shepherd is asleep/where the willows weep/and the mountains are filled with lost sheep."
Bob Dylan - leading Christian poet, or lost sheep? You'll have to make up your own mind: to paraphrase the song, something's going on and I'm still not sure what it is.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.