However much they may offend purists, these latest live versions of his old songs have the effect of liberating Bob Dylan from the originals. And the originals — however lasting, however beautiful — constitute a terrible burden. The effect of Dylan's revisionist efforts, beginning at the time of the 1974 "comeback" tour with the Band commemorated on Before the Flood and now reaching a giddy crescendo, has been to make one realize how extraordinarily lucky Bob Dylan was as a young man.
It doesn't denigrate his brilliance to say that he happened to be in the right place, of the right age, at the right time. Nor does it bode badly for his future to suppose that circumstances may never again conspire to make his voice so perfectly representative, so widely heard. His talent has changed, evolving into something more supple, less stubborn, more musical, finally leading toward an odd and private synthesis of the visionary and the mundane. Considered fairly, removed from the shadow of his past achievements, Dylan's new songs are often as lovely as the old ones. Bob Dylan at Budokan comes as a shock, a sacrilege and an unexpectedly playful bonanza. The illumination it offers is long overdue.
Bob Dylan at Budokan is also a marked departure from the live LPs that have preceded it (and the very volume of this material — three albums, five records in all, in as many years — betrays a regrettable nervousness about breaking new ground). Before the Flood was caught up in keeping the legend intact, in proving that the old lion was alive and ready to roar. Virtually every arrangement there strained to sound fierce, to beef up the old songs without really changing anything. The mood was emphatic at all costs, and sometimes — with Dylan and the Band chanting "How does it feel?" over and over in "Like a Rolling Stone" — genuinely triumphant. Later, after Before the Flood's corrective surgery removed that great big chip from his shoulder, Dylan's approach to his old songs began to sound more random, almost petulantly so. Hard Rain, the soundtrack LP from his TV special, seemed to come at a time when the Rolling Thunder Revue, so joyful and electrifying in its first performances, had just plain run out of steam.
But this time the old songs have been recast sweetly, without that self-defeating aggression, in what sounds suspiciously like a spirit of fun. The sanctimonious, Las Vegas-style bastardization of "Blowin' in the Wind" and the wise-guy tenor of the liner notes (he thanks "that sweet girl in the geisha house — I wonder does she remember me?") echo Dylan's old evasiveness, even though what used to pass for mystery in him has the look of cowardice now. But most of this two-album set is forthright, astonishingly so. Can it really be that Bob Dylan had to go all the way to Budokan, to Japan, to find an audience with a short memory, a crowd that didn't think he had anything to prove? In any case, the jig is up: he's given up trying to outdo himself and begun something new.
A lot of the older songs sound changed just for the sake of tinkering. Many of the more recent ones, like "Oh, Sister" and "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" and "Shelter from the Storm," are vastly improved, as if, when they were first recorded, they hadn't been fully thought through. "Is Your Love in Vain?", by no means the prettiest song on Dylan's much-underrated Street-Legal, is prettier still.
The method here is hit-or-miss, and the results are correspondingly spotty. "Going, Going, Gone" didn't need to be speeded up, and "I Want You" didn't need slowing down. This version of "Like a Rolling Stone" is too readily comparable to the Before the Flood track, to which it can't hold a candle. The low point of the set is "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which Dylan introduces by saying: "Thank you, you're so very kind, you really are. We'll play you this song — I wrote this, also, about fifteen years ago. It still means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to you, too."
A lot, yes. But not so much that it need be crippling. The fire and brimstone are behind Dylan, if only because his adolescence, and that of his principal audience, are things of the past. This hardly means the fight has gone out of him: Bob Dylan at Budokan is a very contentious effort — and, for the most part, a victorious one. On the evidence of the renewed energy of his new material since Blood on the Tracks, Dylan sees a world in which nothing is simple anymore, however hard (as in songs like "Hurricane" or "Joey") he tries to populate it with heroes and villains of the old school. He also has at his disposal, as demonstrated by the best songs he's written since then, the strength and artistry to grapple with his visions. And if the premature embalming properties of his fame have been an obstacle to his progress, he's done battle with those, too. Bob Dylan at Budokan clears the way.