He could almost have stepped off the cover of Blonde on Blonde. Lean, lithe and bushy-haired, wearing skinny sunglasses, scuffed-up brown trousers and boots, Bob Dylan certainly didn't look forty, and he didn't sing like it either. If anything, his voice was stronger than ever: a keening, nasal, folk-blues holler capable of insinuating three or four different emotions into a single phrase. And it was the power of this voice that made Dylan's first New York area appearance in three years a fascinating triumph.
Dylan's twenty-two-city tour began in Milwaukee in mid-October and was scheduled to wind north through Canada for four dates, then back to the States through the Midwest and into the South, ending in Tallahassee, Florida, on November 22nd. Though not all of his shows were sellouts, Dylan's appearance at the Brendan Byrne Arena — located half an hour outside of Manhattan in East Rutherford, New Jersey — drew a capacity crowd of 20,000.
Whereas Dylan's 1978 performance at Madison Square Garden, following the release of Street Legal, was described by some observers as his "Las Vegas" show, the Dylan of 1981 seemed gracious, almost humble, onstage, as he and his six-man band ran through a twenty-seven-song set, beginning with a ragged "Gotta Serve Somebody" and culminating with an incandescent rock-reggae version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
In between, Dylan and the band — Al Kooper on keyboards, Jim Keltner and Arthur Rosato on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, Steve Ripley and Fred Tackett on guitars, plus backup singers Clydie King, Regina McCrary and Madelyn Quebec — touched on every phase of the artist's career. As if to emphasize that his history has been a constant series of abrupt changes, the current versions of many of his most beloved songs were startlingly altered.
Dylan now sings mainly at the top of his register and in an accelerated delivery that drives the torrential language of some of his classics with a speed that makes them practically unintelligible. "Like a Rolling Stone," which he offered in a feverish, high monotone, wasn't sung for its story value but for the sheer hurtling momentum of the syllables themselves. No longer a sneering, knowing challenge, the song became a sustained burst of excited supplication. "I Want You" was drastically sped up, with all of its erotic implications stripped away so that it suggested a furious rush of spiritual urgency. The sullen, hired hand who used to growl "Maggie's Farm" had changed into a martial evangelist.
It was surprising to discover how many Dylan songs from all periods could be read as fundamentalist parables. And those that Dylan didn't choose to read that way were read for humor or for pop music schmaltz. Given a new melody and sung in a syncopated mariachi style, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was almost completely disguised. Was Dylan mocking it, or trying to see if it would work as a Mexican folk hymn? It was impossible to say for sure.
Viewed as a whole, Dylan's revisions were characteristically paradoxical. They obscured the past as though he were either ashamed of it or unable to relate to it; at the same time, they suggested whole new interpretations that were still in the process of development. The Dylan of 1981 clearly doesn't have as many axes to grind as the surrealist beat troubadour of the Sixties, and there was none of the hip, vengeful irony that ran through even such a relatively recent masterpiece as Blood on the Tracks.
Dylan was the least ambiguous in the gospel-blues numbers: "Slow Train," "Solid Rock," "Dead Man, Dead Man" and "Heart of Mine." And you didn't have to be religious to be stirred by Dylan's brand of gospel. With its harsh blues roots, its vestigial Semitic modality and Spanish folk inflections, it is really the first signature sound that Dylan has discovered in his endless quest for a personal style that both bolsters and contains his sensibility. Cutting through the band's rough, bluesy arrangements and wailing in a primitive call-and-response with his wonderful backup trio, Dylan was as much in his element as he has ever seemed — intense, inscrutable and electrifying.
This story is from the December 10th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.