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Bob Dylan: Like a Rolling Stone, Again

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The second half opened with a five-song acoustic set by Dylan alone followed by four songs by the Band alone. Then Dylan returned and in a final set of four songs with the Band, roared to a climax that left the audience shivering and screaming for more.

The Band has never played better in person or on record. They were hard-driving, rocking, swinging accompaniments for Dylan and majestic performances on their own. Robbie Robertson played guitar obbligatos or fills when Dylan was singing that compared in emotional intensity and artistic simplicity to Louis Armstrong behind Bessie Smith. Within the total sound of the band, a pulsing, cracking, shaking sound, there was an infinity of variety and internal musical activity.

There's something which ought to be said right away about the Band and this tour. This is the largest concert tour they have ever been on in terms of numbers of people in the audience. They performed so brilliantly in Oakland – and, from all reports, everywhere they played – that I would expect they could now go out and do almost as well alone. Especially if the new album Robbie is working on has an impact, in terms of new material, comparable to what they did on this tour. The Band has really come out front with the larger audience. I think they can now do whatever they want and I hope it includes more tours with Dylan.

Dylan was in amazing form. This had been a long and tiring tour, despite every care taken by Bill Graham to make it as easy on the musicians as possible. But they rose above any physical limitations and they took the crowd with them. Dylan smiled and executed a series of bows that resembled a 17th century cavalier doffing his plumed hat with one hand and leaning on his sword with the other.

The songs that Dylan did with the Band were nearly all new in a musical sense. They all now had different tempos, new kickoffs, new arrangements, sometimes new melodic lines and new keys and new endings.

Dylan's voice is stronger now. Very sure and very flexible. Surrounded by the overwhelming energy of the Band with Robbie's guitar whipping and cracking behind it, Dylan sometimes used his voice itself like an electric guitar, screaming and soaring and changing the sound of the words by that trick of appearing to smile by the way he pronounces words.

The result of all of this was overwhelming. When he came on to open the first show, a young friend of mine said in tones of wonder, "God damn! It's really him!" and at the end of the night, two young men sat in the orchestra determinedly clapping 20 minutes after the end of the show, the sound of their hands echoing throughout the huge arena.

I went back to the album, Planet Waves, before the concert had not exactly faded from my memory (it will be a long time before that happens) and I found in it, as has so often been the case with Dylan's work, even more things than I had at first.

Dylan has by now created his own musical and poetic rhetoric which stands on its own as a vehicle for his work, much the same as Duke Ellington. True, there are occasional touches here and there of other times and other people, but it has all been absorbed, recycled and utilized again in a dramatically personal way.

There is a further point about the lyrics. It seems rather unlikely when he was growing up in Hibbing that Dylan absorbed his seminal influences in imagery, allusion and poetry by listening exclusively to Gatemouth Moore's nightly Little Rock broadcasts of American popular music, rich in the blues language though they may have been. In addition to listening, Dylan obviously read voraciously. Thus it might be that he came across and took literally Rimbaud's dictum: "The poet makes himself a seer, by long, prodigious and rational disordering of the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him and keeps only their quintessence. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and the superhuman strength and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one among men. For he drives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through these unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come: they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed! . . . The poet really is the thief of fire . . . (and) eternal art will have its function, since poets are citizens. Poetry will no longer rhyme with action; it will be ahead of it."

But Dylan, untrue to Rimbaud's prophecy, did not succumb. He survived the torture of the road, the motorcycle madonna accident and all the big money business shit. He has returned to us now with a fuller, more developed art. He always wrote love songs, but they were overshadowed by the political verse, despite the beauty and strength of songs like "Girl From the North Country," "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" and "To Ramona."

But for a time he did not. Once, during the period immediately after being booed at Newport and Forest Hills, he told a questioner, "I wish I could write like 'Girl From the North Country,' but I can't write like that any more. I dunno why." And then he denied there had been a change in his writing style. "When did I make the change? That was other people writing, you didn't hear anything from me. You know, I used to write a long time ago and it was almost the way I'm writing now."

I believe his love songs will survive above all else. Love is eternal, corny as that may sound. The polemics, for all the chains of flashing images and their ability to coalesce emotions and move the spirit, are, after all, often tied to the times in which they were written and these times are changing.

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