Bob Dylan played The Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo on Friday night, an intimate little place that appears to be better suited for a production of Macbeth than a rock concert. It's in these little places that Bob usually shines, when the sound doesn't fly around up in the rafters only to be left to die. The audience is usually more attentive, as well, & since it only holds about 3000 people, you're not usually distracted by the endless amounts of people talking through the show, playing with their cell phone or getting up to get another beer. I imagine being surrounded by professors, English & history majors. Bob Dylan has something to say about the English language & American history, too.
His show on Friday was, in a sense, a history lesson, although not a linear or chronological one. His greatest strength as a songwriter has always been to marry the universal with the personal, to take a simple idea & layer it with meaning. It's never occurred to me before Friday how uniquely American Bob Dylan is, & how infused with the American landscape & history his canon is. His vision of America is one that exists outside of or in spite of 24 hour cable news channels, Walmart, strip malls, facebook & subdivisions. It tells of an America that contains the age old struggle between men & women & all of the infidelity, the heightened & diminished expectations that goes with it. The second song, It Ain't Me, Babe wonders how much does a person have to invest when they enter into a relationship, & the conclusion is maybe you'll never get everything you want out of a relationship. In looking for everything, you are forgetting what's really there. In "Beyond Here Lies Nothing", he paints a picture of a love that leads you blindly down a dark path of trouble.
There are two songs about floods, first, "The Levee's Gonna Break". The Levee's Gonna Break was written the year after Hurricane Katrina, but could be talking about either Katrina or The Great Mississippi Flood. Bob seems to be saying there have been floods in the past, & there will be floods again. On this night, he closes the song with the opening sarcastic line, "everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make."
The second flood song of the night, Highwater (for Charley Patton) was written months before September 11. There's a little more going on with this one, the historical references to musicians, scholars & cultural places of interest where science & religion & political ideologies meet, fly by quickly. We'll start with the musicians referenced, obviously there's the great blues singer Charley Patton who's song High Water Everywhere is the precursor to this song. "I believe I'll dust my broom" comes from Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar on Highway 61 (we'll talk about that later), "the cuckoo is a pretty bird" comes from the Appalachian folksinger Clarence Ashley. "12th street & vine" is a place that Big Joe Turner, one of the earliest people to play rock & roll most likely walked. Vicksburg, MS was effected by the Great Flood of 1927, & was where people met who were displaced by the flood. Clarksdale, MS was also effected by the great flood & was where Bessie Smith died of a car accident, also on Highway 61 Revisited. Bertha Mason was a creole character from the novel Jane Eyre. George Lewes was one of the early proponents of Darwinism, "they got Charles Darwin trapped out there on highway 5" alludes to the Scopes Trial of 1925, that place in American History where science, religion & political ideology collided. Months after the song was written, the phrase "I want him dead or alive" was uttered countless times by George W. Bush in reference to Osama Bin Laden.
In addition to being one of Dylan's greatest songs of the last twenty years, it was one of the highlights of the evening. It's current stop start arrangement, with brief harmonica breaks in between, creates an incredible tension in the song that didn't exist before.
Highway 61 Revisited, written 36 years before Highwater, refers to the Highway that goes from Duluth Minnesota where Bob Dylan grew up all the way down to Mississippi. The song deals mostly in mythical characters doing all kinds of things on Highway 61. One can imagine Robert Zimmerman hearing all of the great blues musicians from Mississippi hundreds of miles away down Highway 61 & dreaming up the mythical character of Bob Dylan.
Workingman's Blues #2 is the perfect example of Bob Dylan having a pulse on what happens in America where one man's millions is just as important (if not more) as another man's next meal. Again, though, this song written in 2006 before the economic crisis hit, could have also been applicable 70 years ago. You can easily imagine "Low wages are a reality if we want to compete abroad" being uttered in every corporate board room & factory across this country. The people who say something like this know how it effects them personally, but they don't know what it means to the low wage worker. I don't believe Bob Dylan's ever really "worked" a day in his life like he sings in the song, but somehow he gets to the heart of what it means for a man to work. Work is identity, & without it he is "forced into a life of crime". He's played it the last three times I've seen him in concert, & I can see why, it is extremely poignant. Believe it or not, there's some hope tucked away at the end. They say that poor people have an incredible sense of resiliency, & Dylan gets to the heart of that too. "I got a brand new suit & a brand new wife, I can live off rice & beans." Just before he sings this verse in concert, he steps out from behind his organ to the center of the stage. It's an incredible piece of performance art as he inhabits the character of the worker as if to say "here I am, I've got nothing to hide, what else can you do to me that hasn't already been done?".
Only in America does a line like "we drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west" as Dylan does in Tangled Up in Blue. Performances like these are what keep me coming to Bob Dylan shows. Despite the roughness of his voice, & often laxidasical performances, he still can bring out a performance like this. He brings his best to the first verse, & the crowd reminds him of how good a performer he can be so it builds on through the rest of the song. It's a personal tale, but it could belong to anyone, & now thanks to performances like this, it does.
There's one song that pulls all of these songs together, When the Deal Goes Down. It combines all the joys & sorrows, the despair & the hope, the faith & cynicism of all of them & condenses it into a poetic, bittersweet little song. The song is at once my grandmother's chair, the blanket my sister quilted for my unborn daughter, & my wife at home. "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours they keep us so tightly bound". It is all the struggles & joys of a life lived together, a beautiful song & a fitting capture of Bob Dylan's patriotic rhapsody.
1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2. It Ain't Me, Babe
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
4. Just Like A Woman
5. The Levee's Gonna Break
6. Tangled Up In Blue
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. If You Ever Go To Houston
9. High Water (For Charley Patton)
10. When The Deal Goes Down
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Workingman's Blues #2
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
16. Like A Rolling Stone