Highway 10 Revisited:
Bob Dylan and His Band in Concert
At the Citizens Business Bank Arena of Ontario
August, 19, 2010
Big Fish is touring small pond America this summer, and his eight tour buses rolled into Ontario, California last night, in San Bernardino County. His web site, the only place in LA where the concert was advertised, is not so much a web site as a secret society of his acolytes, who follow every move, comment on every set list (all of which he varies from show to show, so that half the mystery is simply what he’ll choose to sing on any given night). These are not just acolytes, which has something of a demeaning connotation, but add up to a world wide congregation for this non-preaching preacher, this non-teaching teacher, almost an alternative America waiting in the wings-the side show at the circus, like the small town he came from, Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1941.
He left the small town, but the small town never left him, and over the past few years he has been quietly side-stepping the big cities that made him famous, and giving concerts in ball parks across the country-but not the major league ball parks one would suppose he’d congregate to, rather the minor league ball parks in the small towns, the stuff of which dreams are made. Big Fish would know that Willie Mays, for example, was a Minneapolis Millers player before he played for the New York Giants. Today he is singing for that Minneapolis Miller who has, as Big Fish once had, "a head full of ideas that are driving [me] insane."
Build it and they will come, said Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams; well Big Fish has come, and they will be going on any minute at the Ontario Citizens Business Bank Arena, just off the 10 Freeway and a long way from the Hollywood Bowl, where I first heard Big Fish in 1963, as a special guest on Joan Baez’s show.
The place is packed, and I am looking forward to a living reminder of the best America has to offer, of the Our Town Thornton Wilder wrote about before in some sense it disappeared, the remnant of the America that gave us Abraham Lincoln, And Vachel Lindsey, and Ernest Hemingway, and Bob Dylan.
As the lights go down at around 9:00pm, after an opening set by fellow Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer John Mellencamp, who sang his own ode Small Town on a vintage 000-18 Martin acoustic guitar, and left the audience on their feet with a crack rock band of his own, the familiar strains of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man alert the audience to Big Fish’s imminent arrival; then the longstanding whimsical spoken intro over the loudspeaker starts out, "Ladies and gentlemen please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen"-(and here is the essence of his biography reduced to five simple words) "Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!"
Out of an overture of Barnum and Bailey sounds emanating from the stage suddenly a coherent and familiar melody emerges, followed by a voice that rumbles up from the gravel pit of earth’s most unforgiving terrain:
Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just like they said they would
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home
They’ll stone ya when you’re there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned.
And after forty years I hear the other meaning of "stoned," as in what happened in Iran just the other day, when a young couple got stoned to death for adultery. And it takes me back to Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery, when the New England town near Salem, Massachusetts partakes of its annual ritual, which ends in a random drawing of the local victim who ends the story by being stoned to death, when Dylan reaches the penultimate lines,
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so brave
They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned.
All is not well in small town America, and Dylan isn’t here to sing sentimental odes to a simpler time-he is here once again to be the voice of the outsider-those who feel like he described himself in an upcoming song, "Ain’t it clear/That I just can’t fit."
As the song ends I hear the band segueing into a slow ballad that I can’t quite place, and Dylan’s highly punctuated phrasing is not much help, until he reaches the quintessential description of his truest love song, "She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful/Yet she’s true like ice like fire," Love Minus Zero/No Limit, and a long slow smile spreads over my face as I start quietly singing along,
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Don’t speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all.
What keeps these songs from becoming stale and his concerts from becoming parades of now golden oldies is that the arrangements bear no resemblance to their recorded versions, so the thrill of the set list is in the light of recognition when you hear a song that not only have you heard a hundred times before, but in my case at least have sung a hundred times before, and yet only recognize about a third of the way through, because the phrasing is so different, and the musical setting often more symphonic than the basic rock underpinnings of the records.
Dylan has remained energized by his newfound interpretive genius, complemented by his stellar touring band of Charlie Sexton on lead guitar, Stu Kimball on electric and acoustic guitar, Donnie Herron on pedal steel, violin and banjo, Tony Garnier on bass guitar, and George Receli on drums.
Straight out of Blonde on Blonde, Bob continues on a different highway this time, Highway 61 out of Memphis, home of the blues, which he evokes at one remove by being Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again-again only clarified by the time he hits that existential refrain, from which he finds that, like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is No Exit, so that by the end he becomes Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Resignation,
And here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.
But Dylan is not done with the wars; later in the show he returns to this same Highway 61 in his most biblical antiwar song, Highway 61 Revisited, which tells the story of Abraham and Isaac, who was fully ready to sacrifice his only son in a blood ritual ordered by God to test his faith: God said to Abraham kill me a son
Abe says ‘Man, you must be putting me on
God says ‘Abe,’ Abe says ‘What,’
God says ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run
Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.
Another thing that excites this listener is that, contrary to the last three concerts I have witnessed, Dylan is playing guitar again, and is not just stuck to his keyboards. That’s good news, and not just musically speaking, in that one of the reasons he stopped playing guitar was due to back problems developed over nearly a half century of touring and standing at center stage with that heavy Fender Stratocaster. But Dylan works out in a boxing gym to stay fit, and seems to be in better shape now than on some recent tours. He danced around the stage this time, from guitar, to keyboards, and even some sans big instrument to concentrate solely on his prized harmonica solos-on Highwater Everywhere (for Charlie Patton-and the victims of Katrina), Tangled Up In Blue and Sick of Love, which after a sustained lament that he is no longer capable of love, ends with the powerful punch line, "I’d give anything just to be with you."
Certainly one of the highlights of the show for the audience came four songs in, when he put his guitar down and went to the keyboards for Just Like a Woman. Not exactly known for audience sing alongs, Dylan seemed prepared for this one, as his highly idiosyncratic phrasing (compared to Blonde On Blonde‘s classic recorded version) saved his own almost spoken refrain "just like a woman" until after the audience sang theirs with the sustained harmony of a gospel hymn. And that’s when the lights went on; not mine, and not the house lights-I mean the audience flashlights and cigarette lighters, the first meaningful sign that this was more than a concert-it was indeed a collective community ritual that insisted the 60s aren’t yet over, that Woodstock (even though Dylan missed it) Nation still is, as Abbie Hoffman described it, not a place, but a state of mind.
But Dylan, as Joan Baez recounted in her recent performance of Diamonds and Rust at the Queen Mary Concert Series I reviewed last week, is not nostalgic; he is very much focused on America in the here and now, in particular our broken economy, as graphically portrayed in his new song Working Man’s Blues #2 (a tip of his white cowboy hat to country veteran Merle Haggard’s song):
They say low wages are a reality
If you want to compete abroad
…Some people work hard all their lives
…sometimes they want what you got
And sometimes you can’t give it away
And other people never worked a day in their lives
They don’t know what work really means.
The inequities described in those telling lines are encapsulated in Dylan’s unflinching use of Marx’s now old-fashioned word to describe the working class-the proletariat. It demonstrates for anyone who hasn’t been listening that Dylan still sees the world in political terms, despite his long ago renunciation of what he dismissed as "finger-pointing songs."
He may not write them in quite the same magical way he once did, but recent songs like Political World, It’s All Good (a scathing satire on America’s new generation of what my old history professor at UCLA Donald Meyer first analyzed in The Positive Thinkers), and this powerful rally cry for what Michael Harrington called The Other America-former industrial workers dispossessed by the global economy that exports American jobs off shore for dirt cheap labor in the Third World, show in the most direct possible way why Dylan’s audience out in the hinterlands of the melting highways and back roads that were once able to support a family on a good union job are still hungry for his songs and keep him on the road as a performer who just turned 69 last May 24.
Simply put, no one else is still writing and singing songs that shine a bright light on the darkest corners of this shaky empire-not just odes to the working man and woman, but angry, prophetic out cries against misguided wars that spend trillions of tax dollars abroad, kill 4,415 brave young American soldiers in Iraq, bail out Wall Street hustlers, and can’t prevent one home foreclosure on Main Streets all across America.
No wonder they pack out of the way basketball arenas like this one in Ontario, to be reminded that-if not the president-someone is listening.
Forty-eight years after he made his first record, Bob Dylan still speaks truth to power, and is still a voice for the outcast and, as he put it in Chimes of Freedom,
every hung up person in the whole wide universe.
For despite the fact that Dylan could, as one reporter mentioned in his review of the show in Billings, Montana, make a good living "just singing in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles," he feels deeply connected to these places that are barely more than a dot on the map, for he came from one of them-Hibbing, Minnesota on the northern iron range. His early song North Country Blues remains as powerful a portrait of small town America with a gun to its head as any by Joe Hill or Woody Guthrie:
Come gather round friends
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron ore pits ran plenty
But the cardboard filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty
…They complained in the East
They was paying too high
They say that your ore ain’t worth digging
That it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.
There is a direct line from that grim account of his own boarded-up home town from The Times, They Are a Changing album in the 60s to Union Sundown in the 90s, with this stark chorus,
Sundown on the Union
Made in the USA
Seemed like a good idea
Till greed got in the way,
to his recent Workingman’s Blues #2 from Modern Times.
What sets Dylan apart from the many would-be Woody Guthries is that he is not just speaking out of a sympathy for the downtrodden-he does not see them from the outside looking in-they are a part of his DNA as a songwriter; and in his moments of transcendence he has created a fellowship out of these portraits of individual isolation, that allows him to tell his audience, from that very first song, Rainy Day Woman 12 and 35,
You must not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned.
As the concert drew to a close, and he gave many of us what we came for with his first encore, Like a Rolling Stone, the lights went down and left his thin silhouette rising high above the keyboards, framed against the backdrop of a dark blue curtain, with his cowboy hat looking like he might be riding-on the unseen image just beneath the frame of this unforgettable picture-on horseback, off into the sunset from the town he had just saved.
And like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers he was still singing-indelibly now, not some cheerful farewell like Happy Trails, but the song Jimi Hendrix made famous, All Along the Watchtower, reminding his audience of what they knew all along, that "the hour is getting late," so "let us not talk falsely now." And after a nearly two-hour concert without a false note, it was somehow reassuring to hear this elliptical tale of "the joker and the thief" that underscores why he still matters as an artist, because he is still up on that watchtower, and nothing escapes his attention:
Businessmen they drink my wine
Ploughmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
…and then he practically spit out each word of the final line,
know what any of it…is…worth.
As the rest of the stage descends into darkness, one image remains reflected at the center of that blue curtain backdrop: Dylan’s trademark, a single eye, with a crown set atop, staring out of the darkness. And next to me, in the last row, a young student who had been standing and swaying to the music for both encores, suddenly shouts out, over the swelling standing ovation chorus of applause, "Thank you, Bob!"
Ross Altman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His Ph.D. is Modern Lit. Ross will be playing his 30th annual Labor Day Sunday show at the Church in Ocean Park on Sunday morning, September 5, 10:15 AM. It is free and open to the public, but they take up a collection about half way through. 310- 399-1631. The Church is located at 235 Hill Street in Santa Monica, between second and Hill.