The Thin Man Goes His Way
Bob Dylan and The Band at Boston Garden January 14
AREFLECTION on Bob Dylan's return to Boston must account for one fact--his near-Messianic hold on the 31,000 people who made it to either of his two concerts last Monday. His music can be judged. His words will be analyzed. But that analysis should add up to an explanation of the central phenomenon: After nine years away from Boston and roughly three years since his last album of original songs (not counting the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or Columbia's recent collection of rejected tapes from Dylan's Self-Portrait sessions), Dylan scored a triumph. Two packed houses rose to sing "Like a Rolling Stone"--nine years after Dylan inaugurated folk-rock by playing that same song at the Newport Folk Festival, nine years since people first cried that he had sold out.
That the audience loved his music is easy to explain. The Band, probably the most talented American rock group, again proved its discipline, energy, and versatility. The group's lead and bass guitar playing, the keyboard work, and particularly the singing of Levon Helm were outstanding. In the evening concert, Dylan fit in easily with the group, coordinating his rhythm guitar with the Band better as the performance progressed. During their two solo sets, The Band played mostly old songs. "I Shall Be Released," which Dylan wrote, and Robbie Robertson's "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" were outstanding.
Dylan's skill and judgment were spectacular. His set on acoustic guitar was disappointingly short, but he paced the concert perfectly. In a fairly smoothed-out version of his old-style folk-blues voice, Dylan sang forcefully, sometimes threateningly. He must have spent some of his time in Wood stock practicing harmonica, because his accompaniment to "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" showed more skill on the mouth harp than anything he has ever recorded. Even Dylan's single piano solo was dramatic: "Ballad of a Thin Man" was one of the evening's most striking per formances.
But it was not music alone which won the audience. Dylan earned his first standing ovation before he played a note. Ten years ago, Dylan stood for a potent strain in the American mood, a libertarian current last exemplified in folk music as forcefully by Woody Guthrie. Today, Dylan stands for essentially the same thing; it is only that the times have changed so that people appreciate him more.
BECAUSE DYLAN emerged during the peak of the civil rights movement and began to hit his stride at the time of such breakthroughs as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, his pacifism and libertarianism were automatically identified with the left. Those were friendly days when whites still worked with SNCC and the distinction between political and cultural radicalism was hazy. Singing songs then seemed a political act --if enough people sang, blacks would withdraw have social equality, U.S. soldiers would withdraw from Vietnam. Smoke-ins looked like acts of political defiance and demonstrations liberated the spirit as much as they dramatized demands.
But Dylan's songs were never expressly political. His evocation of the image of Guthrie, whose leftism was also more a matter of moral common sense than of specific tactics, was embodied chiefly in an imagery of highways and railroads. Dylan had to construct his own hard times to live through:
I was making my own depression
I rode freight trains for kicks
An' got beat up for laughs
Cut grass for quarters
An' sang for dimes
The oppressiveness he sang about was not the misery of poverty but the stifling complacency of middle class comfort:
'Cause you can't find (hope) on a dollar bill
And it ain't on Macy's window sill
And it ain't on no rich kid's road map
And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity(house
Above all, Dylan never pushed for group action or mass liberation. Each person had to be free by himself to walk his own lonesome road unfettered.
That record companies and pop magazines pushed Dylan as prophet was natural. If Dylan did not strenuously reject the title, he did not truly claim the mantle either. As early as 1964, Dylan could write songs like "My Back Pages," caricaturing his earlier moralism as over serious self righteousness:
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.
After "Like a Rolling Stone" the Newport fiasco, and his motocycle accident, Dylan hibernated, his resistance to being claimed by the Movement looking suspiciously like paranoia. He wrote two of his clearest statements during the early part of that period, "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Ballad of a Thin Man."
Both those songs were accented Monday night. Dylan sang his "Ballad" as though by now people would finally know what he meant:
...someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax deductable charity organizations
And the audience cheered parts of "It's Alright, Ma."
Nevertheless what was perhaps most haunting in the audience's response to the second song was the selectivity of its applause. The sound system probably limited which words people heard, but still the audience seemed to hear or at least anticipate those lines with fairly consistent political meanings: "...others say don't hate nothing at all/Except hatred" "It's easy to see without looking too far/That not much/ Is really sacred." "But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/to stand naked." These are the apparently defiant lines, the pacifist lines, the moralistic, political lines. But the song goes on:
While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him.
The political thrust of this message rings just as clear: Don't join. The Movement's an illusion, a fan club. Nothing's changed, and you're not going to be the one to change the world now.
Left with these contradictory moments, an audience's response to Dylan is bound to be ambiguous. Is it just people's frustration with the politics of a movement that has not yet succeeded that generates their appreciation? Is it that Dylan continues to sing in the comforting voice, however poetic, of the middle class white man? Does his message lie in the passivist, more than the pacifist strain in his music? Or does Dylan's appeal still lie in the undercurrent of moralism, the attractiveness of a message like that of "Blowin' in the Wind," the song with which he chose to begin the evening concert's second half? The one time Dylan attempted manifesto was two years ago with "George Jackson," a song which for blandness alone deserves its present obscurity. But the plea for freedom still rings powerfully, even if in middle class, individualistic terms.
One thing the audience was happy not to do was pass definitive judgment on Dylan's politics. Virtually all his songs were meant to stress the theme of individualism. Maybe Dylan has moved emotionally from "Don't Think Twice" to "If Not for You," but choosing to sing only the first song this week was deliberate. Indeed, if anything, his stunning performance seemed a conscious attempt to prove that being himself, for Dylan, is a helluva lot to be. The audience seconded that judgment.
Where Dylan will go now is, as usual, uncertain. From his reaction to the audience, what is hardest to imagine is how a man who enjoys performing so much stayed in hiding so long. Advance reviews of his soon-to-be-issued album are raves, and he will reportedly net a million for himself from this tour. His political contribution notwithstanding, Dylan seems satisfied he has not been imprisoned by his money or his image as anti-middle class poet. Monday evening, he offered as an encore the same song he started with, a song which pointedly expressed his relationship to the audience:
I'm just gonna let you pass,
Yes, and I'II go last.
Then time will tell who fell
And who's been left behind,
When you go your way and I go mine.