My first Dylan show was 1988: my Dylan concert-going experience is entirely of the Never-Ending Tour. Twice in ’88, once in ’89, then not again until ’97, just before Time Out Of Mind came out. Saw him in Japan in the spring of that year, David Kemper’s first tour. Then not again until 2000. It was geography, certainly not apathy, that intervened. And from 2000 through 2005 I saw him over a dozen times. And then again, geography intervened, and I hadn’t seen him since spring of 2005 – until Thursday night in McArthur Court at the U of Oregon in Eugene.
For a good six years there, I got to watch the NET evolving up-close and in real time. I saw the Kemper/Campbell/Sexton band enough times to notice the difference when George replaced David. I got to see Freddy’s lineup, Hello Pork-Pie Hat. Ran into Larry Campbell in a diner on Charles Street in Boston (didn’t accost him). Got to see Stu’s first tour. Saw the six-piece band in a theater: missed Larry, but liked the new nuance of the larger outfit.
I’ve seen Dylan in an SRO nightclub, in a hockey rink, in outdoor sheds, at a county fairground, at a minor-league ballpark. But most of all, I’ve seen him in college basketball courts. Six colleges in four states on both coasts and in the middle. Two colleges I was actually connected with at the time. Six times I’ve seen him transform a big exposed-girder metal box, with ancient championship banners and brand-new Budweiser signs, sweat-soaked floorboards and dusty seats, into – well, into a lot of things. A country barn dance. An ancient highway under the stars. A cramped big-city loft with filled with smoke and too many ideas. The Titanic. The highlands.
First of those was a road trip to George Mason U in Virginia in ’88. I was a sophomore in college. Already knew, more or less, that I wanted to be a professor – like the history prof from my school who I’d run into at my very first Dylan show that summer.
And that last of these was last night, at McArthur Court at the U of Oregon, in Eugene.
McArthur Court, where the most recent national championship banner reads 1939, and the court’s older than that: generation after generation of frat boys has tanked up on beer here and gone outside to piss it out into the pioneer cemetery across the street.
Eugene, where the hippies crawled into the hills and stayed after the furor of the sixties died down: where Tibetan prayer flags decorate every third house, where tie-dyes are more common than neckties, where there’s a statue of Ken Kesey downtown. Where Dylan and the Dead played on their six-city stadium tour in 1987: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Anaheim, and little old Eugene.
U of Oregon: where, twenty-one years after the GMU show, and ten years after starting grad school, I am finally employed teaching college classes. I’m a first-term adjunct, hanging on to the academic precipice by my fingernails. But I do get to stand in front of students and talk about the things I love.
And now here we are: me, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki, a lot of old hippies (cute, really, in their long white beards and pony-tails, their tie-dyes clean and soft from many washings, their Birkenstocks and enduring marriages), a few frat boys (current and ex-) here to see what the fuss is about, sneaking in their bourbon and diddling their Blackberries, and a whole lot of the usual inscrutable crowd you get at Dylan shows. Kids here to see history run into their history teachers; wannabe novelists hiding out as office managers run into the real thing, both real things. At Dead shows you saw a lot of closet Deadheads, and knew you were all alike, really, deep down inside; at Dylan shows you see a lot of closet Dylan fans, but wonder if you have anything in common, besides your reverence for the Word, the protean Word.
We’ve shown up early so we can get a good spot on the floor – it’s general admission. We end up about twenty deep from the stage. We sit for a while. Stand when the crowd starts pressing in. Finally the Nag Champa starts rolling invisibly out over the floor; over the course of the night this will be augmented by the scent of what I can only assume (not being a partaker of the sacrament myself) is prime Oregon bud.
The band comes out. The stage lights come up. A raunchy blues riff blasts out of the speakers. And we’re off. Watching the river flow. I’d been hoping for “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking,” new this tour, but no dice. This is good, though. Dylan on guitar, not always the case these days. He’s holding it weird, almost vertical, hugging its neck to his neck. The first of many odd, humorous physical gestures the old bard will make tonight: whoever first said he had a lot of Charlie Chaplin in him was dead on.
But the first thing I’m feeling is the shock of remembrance of how much I love the rhythm section of Tony Garnier and George Recile. I have my issues with live concert sound – seldom attend rock shows because you can never really hear what’s going on musically – and Dylan shows are no exception. That said, Recile’s a superman on the skins – not a madman, but a superman, hitting everything right, hard, also subtle, giving the groove that little New Orleans goose when it needs it, but letting it saunter unmolested down the middle of the sidewalk when it needs too. And Tony - well, someday someone’s going to write a Dylan biography that gives the Never-Ending Tour its due, and Tony’s going to emerge as the real unsung hero of the man’s career. Twenty years on the tour. Nobody but nobody has played with Dylan anywhere near as long. If Dylan’s razor-toting, gunslinging, tire-chain-swinging live poetry over the last two decades has meant anything (and it has), it’s in large part because of Garnier’s unimpeachable solidity at bass.
The river flows, flows to the sea. Song ends, we’re in recession America, where capitalism is broken, not to mention above the law, recession Willamette Valley, where for a lot of people there’s nothing left to do but sit on that bank of sand and watch the river flow. But this is Oregon: people have learned how to make do with little in the way of worldly goods, making up for it with, you know, Tibetan prayer flags, bud, and love. And what’s wrong with that?
“The Man In Me.” Dylan on keyboards. An almost (almost) funky groove, Dylan singing very rhythmically. He’s in good voice tonight: gruff and sepulchral, just like on Together Through Life, but also just as conscious of timing as he is there. The rest of the band: Charlie Sexton’s new on guitar, an old friend back for a second go-round. He still looks like a magazine-cover boy gone to seed. Stu Kimball is still around on second (or third or occasionally fourth) guitar, and I still can’t really tell what he brings to the band. Only occasionally can I pick out what he’s doing tonight, and unfailingly when I can, it’s at a moment when I can’t tell what Donnie Herron’s doing – meaning one of them is unnecessary. And Donnie at least can play wild-card instruments.
Trumpet, for instance, like he does on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” First TTL song of the night, and a beaut. The trumpet’s pretty much lost in the mix, but I appreciate the gesture. The song is a perfect opener on the album, but it’s also perfect in third slot: after the jump-starting opener and the cruise-altitude second number, now we can start getting down to (as another Man says) what’s really real, really real, really real. Which is the deep, dark groove that’s going to dominate the night’s proceedings.
But only after a brief break for a light-hearted “Don’t Think Twice.” Dylan’s on electric here, and: well, what can you say? After all these years the guy still can’t play lead guitar worth a damn. At least that’s the first impression. He’s still holding it vertically, and this time he’s playing at least as many bum notes as right ones. Really loud and obvious clangers. It’s like me on Guitar Hero or something. Which is actually kind of funny, and what makes it funnier is that Dylan and Sexton, a real live guitar hero, and therefore of course underutilized tonight, keep mugging at each other, lining up as if they were Keef’n’Ronnie practicing the Ancient Art. …Well, the joke’s on me, because oddly enough Dylan’s second solo is actually pretty decent, and by the end of the song he’s playing, not virtuoso leads, but something like his harp solos, proficient enough to get his ideas across, and then those ideas are idiosyncratic enough to do the rest.
But now it’s really down to business. The next five songs are just bruising, each one blacker and bluer than the last, all of them finding Tony and George digging deep like gravemakers, Charlie hammering together the pinewood box, and Stu and Donnie tossing roses on the top. And Bob? Bob’s reading out the sermon.
Which says: America, till I fell in love with you it seemed like you’d go your way and I’d go mine but now we’re stuck in it together like it or not I’m married to the daughter of the devil and I like it it’s liberating and scary all at once and most of all it’s reality but I said that and that’s how I ended up being run twenty miles out of town tied to a humming steel rail. Or something like that. Something like that that finds triumph in despair and despair in triumph, and all sorts of other Derridean tandems. Deconstructing blues and pop and poetry. Listen to Dylan’s voice, floating like a lead butterfly, stinging like Bactine on a beesting: that’s the hobo’s lullaby.
“Till I Fell In Love With You.” New groove, at least since I last saw it live. Lots of tension here, and little release. A scream, not a seduction. Dark. “Most Likely You Go Your Way.” Perverse: he’s got the trumpet in the band, why not use it here? I find myself thinking of the first time I saw him play this, back in ’89 – I have the bootleg – the beat got turned around for most of the song, but somehow that just added a lurching, pissed-off power to it. I’ve always liked that version.
“My Wife’s Hometown,” second TTL song of the night. An obvious blues, but they play it so well. So gently and ominously. It’s a midnight blues (the lighting crew gives us a starry sky to point this out). Charlie, by the way, seems really happy to be there, and onstage he seems to have assumed a central role in the band – of everybody he’s making the most eye contact with Bob, and every time he does, he turns around and conveys something with his eyes to Tony and George. He’s smiling a lot, sinking to his knees to squeeze out riffs, and playing chief foil to the song-and-dance man on stage left.
“Desolation Row.” I’ve never seen Bob do this. I’m thrilled when I hear that opening guitar figure. This version, with Dylan on organ, is as much 1994 and MTV Unplugged as it is 1965, and I mean that as a good thing: I’ve always loved the chill wind Brendan O’Brien blew into that version, and Dylan seems to be trying to channel that tonight. It’s effective. What’s more effective is when he gets to the last verse and, having found a simple singsongy keyboard riff he likes, he proceeds to adapt it as a vocal melody, delivering the final lines in a flat, evenly-timed, descending figure that has nothing to do with the original melody, and is cool because of it, driving home the song’s message of alienation and liberation. He almost sounds bored (almost: I’ve heard him when he really sounded bored, and it was different): theatrically bored, blasé about the nausea of existence.
“Cold Irons Bound.” The Time Out Of Mind raver. Twelve years old now, if you can believe that. Dylan leaves his keyboards now, doesn’t pick up his guitar: stands alone at the mic and sings, something he never used to do until comparatively recently. It’s a dashing move, like suddenly he’s embracing the crooning side of his art. There’s the Chaplin thing again, one hand flashing a harmonica, the other held in a pose that could either be fey or arthritic.
“I Feel A Change Comin’ On” lightens the mood a bit, and the crowd seems to sing along. But it’s only a deep breath before the plunge: “Highway 61” puts the pedal to the metal, and does what this song always does, or at least has always done since it awoke to its true nature sometime in the mid-‘90s, which is to burn down whatever barn is handy with the sheer heat of its exhaust.
And then (killer) they follow this up with “Po’ Boy,” an absolutely heartbreaking rendition. This is emotional whiplash in the making. This one’s got jokes in it. Can we handle any jokes at this point in the night? At this point in 2009?
Then it’s the Alicia Keys number. Old hat to everyone, but new to me, since I never saw any of the Modern Times shows. I’m glad he tossed in one of its numbers. Yes, it does pretty much what “Summer Days” used to: or rather, exactly what “Summer Days” used to, now, which is give Sexton room to fly.
Then – then – then. “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” To close the main set. With Dylan, not at the keyboards, but standing solo in front of the mic again. Lights from below throwing big shadows on the scrim. I repeat: he closed the main set with this. Good lord. By this point the nerve endings of your intellect are raw and exposed (“you’ve been with the professors” he sings, to a college audience, for the millionth time), and maybe you’re ready to admit, in front of the Pac 10 banner and everybody, that you don’t know what’s going on.
And we take a little break. Screaming in the dark. The springy floorboards are good for stamping on, so we all do. Encore, please. Redemption.
“Like A Rolling Stone.” As sweet as ever. This was always a hymn, of course.
“Jolene.” A little good-time music to take us off of the dark highway and into a clean, well-lit roadhouse (well, cleaner than that road-kill-filled highway was). The equivalent of the “Sally Goodin” Hank Williams used to send us home with.
“All Along The Watchtower.” There must be some way out of here. He sings the last lines as a musical mirror image of the last lines of “Desolation Row,” an even-timed ascending figure in a rich resounding baritone, a new melody, playful and striking.
Bob Dylan is the greatest living American artist. No one else even comes close.
As always, the lights stay down for a while after the band leaves the stage. I know he won’t come out for a second encore. He never does. But they always leave the lights down for a few minutes, and I always stay and scream and stamp. I do this time, too. He doesn’t come back.