This was the note I wrote to myself after were returned from not seeing Bob Dylan. Well, we saw him alright, but I insisted we leave after he croaked out his first song. I say “croaked” kindly. I stomped off to the car, muttering, or not just muttering but loudly proclaiming to the only person who would listen, my husband, that the guy just needs to retire. I was really angry. Here is why.
I have loved Bob Dylan forever. When I was in elementary school we sang Bob Dylan folk songs like “Blowin in the Wind” during music class. He was right there with Woody Guthrie and “This Land is Your Land,” as it was meant to be. During the Golden Age of Radio, before music was sliced into smaller and smaller niche marketing categories, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” played along side Nancy Sinatra singing, “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” and we were okay with that. Bob was always there singing songs we all came to know, inserted into out DNA. (Thankfully, Nancy eventually disappeared.) You really could not miss his music.
But he really came into my consciousness when I was in high school and then college. I played Blood on the Tracks and Desire over and over again. I’d leave the arm up on the stereo and the record just looped (I don’t think that anyone under 40 understands what I just said.) Six hours later, we would realize that the same album had been playing all day.
The mid ’70’s was a very productive time for Dylan. His marriage fell apart and there was all that pain and anguish that had to be digested. In my opinion, Blood on the Tracks is still his best record. He will never produce anything as perfect ever again. Then came Desire. Then Bob found Jesus, another life changing moment for him, and he put out some terrific gospel records. Those three records–Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love–could not have been more fun and original. People hated that he had gone religious but I did not care. If that is where Bob was, fine with me so long as it produced great music. I embraced it. I sat in the front row for his Slow Train Coming Tour and there was Bob dripping sweat on me as he testified along with his gospel singers. On my visits home for a weekend, I’d convince my mom to skip church on Sunday and we’d listen to Dylan’s gospel records instead. Neither one of us was very religious and it was a great excuse to stay home listening to good music. I still love those records. “Pressing On” has got to be one of my favorite songs of all time.
Then somewhere along the line Bob and I parted ways. I am a tough critic. If a record is not great, then I feel free to complain, particularly in Bob’s case. He put out one or two okay records but for me the late 80’s early 90’s were a bust. He played withe the Dead and I was okay with that. I was a Deadhead at the time, so I went with it. He was part of the Traveling Wilburys, and how could you not love that? I believe I saw him in concert at some point during this time period at the Frederick County Fair, which kind of blew my mind. The County Fair? Really? Yep, there he was, strumming away and, shockingly, not too many people were interested. He had kind of fallen off the radar.
Finally, in 1997 he released Time Out of Mind. It took more than a decade but it was a great record. Why? Broken heart. When someone breaks his heart, all of the pain and heartache and feelings pour out and it is just beautiful. But his voice was really not there. Daniel Lanois did a great job of hiding it, but he does not sound great on that record. Look, he never had a great voice, but this was nasal sandpaper.
I believe that this record prompted me to see him in concert again, although my expectations were not high. In case you are not in the loop, since the 1990’s Bob Dylan has been on a never ending tour. Literally. He tours. This is what he does. He is never not on the road. So it is really easy to see him. Just wait and like the swallows returning to Capistrano, Bob will be back. He tends to show up around here in November near my birthday. So we went. He was playing with Joni Mitchell. She was great. Bob, well, not so much. The songs he sang were incomprehensible. Did I see him play the greatest hits? I suppose so, but it is hard to say. He had changed the rhythm of the songs and his voice was so bad it was almost painful to listen to. He mumbled his words. He could have been reciting the telephone book for all I know. He really was just terrible. After that show I said, I don’t ever what to see him again. It just is not worth it. I am not paying to see him just because he is Bob Dylan. I’d rather remember him in his glory.
I stuck with it, avoiding his concerts, just not caring anymore. He put out a Christmas record, which was awful. He put out a record singing the standards. Oh my, just give it up, Bob! Bob, you cannot sing anymore! But no matter what he puts on a record, some critic somewhere says, hey, it’s not so bad. Wrong. It is so bad.
Then a few months ago, I see that Mavis Staples will be in concert at Wolf Trap. Mavis. I’ve never seen her. This is great. Let’s go! Uh oh. She is opening for Bob Dylan. Seeing her will violate my vow to not see Dylan in concert. Well, it’s for a good cause. So we buy the tickets to see Mavis. Bob will happen to be there too.
On concert day there are a lot of people there with their kids, clearly bringing them to see the legend himself. There are also a lot of old people like me, long time fans. Mavis is great of course. Then comes Bob. The harsh gravel throat that sounds like he needs to clear it of about five years of tobacco tar and phlegm, the growls, the failure to find a note, any note, the mumbling, it is all there, but even worse!
I just became enraged! Here are all these people paying good money and for what? To see a legend that can no longer perform. It is kind of like people going out to see a museum piece. People just want to say I saw and heard Bob Dylan perform. And there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is Dylan pretending that this is what he is giving people. Would there not be more dignity in finding what he can do and do that? How about a talk? How about reading his songs as poetry. Anything but “sing.”
Think of it like this. Would it have been great to see a great baseball player, mabe Hank Aaron swing a bat? Absolutely. But would you have wanted to see him try it at age 70 if couldn’t even see the ball let alone hit a fly? Hank did the right thing and showed up at autograph shows, had people pay him for his signature, they had the ability to say they met him, and he made a couple of bucks. He did not embarrass himself trying to be something he was no longer and people could remember him as he was at his best.
Dylan? I don’t want to remember him like this. I understand he is who he is but at some point, you have to hang it up. What about the kids who came to see him? They are seeing someone trying to perform far from their prime and what will they take away from it? Either that it was great to see Dylan or what in the world was that about? Why is he a legend again?
Well, I once again vow, never again. One day Bob will pass away and I will be very sad. But probably sadder because in his later life, he couldn’t seem to find a new way to connect with me.