Expectation and mirage trump reality during Dylan's set at the second Isle of Wight Festival
You might see me on your roads
When I'm a-passin through
Remember me how you wished, too,
As I'm a-driftin from your view.
—"Long Time Gone," David Crosby
Bob Dylan has been passing through people's minds more often than he's been in view. Abbie Hoffman saw him in Woodstock. A. J. Weberman sees him almost anyplace, anytime. Dylan, in fact, has become an archetype – the hallucination publicitaire of millions of Dylan acolytes.
People resent A. J. Weberman not so much because of what some think is his self-serving parasitism, but rather because he thinks he has decoded and "mastered" Dylan, murdering to dissect in an act of self-appropriation. "I'm not Dylan, Al," Bob told A. J., "you're Dylan." And everyone wants to have the option of seeing the Dylan that's himself.
With everyone trying to absorb him, it's not surprising that Dylan, in order to make some space for himself, became a bit of the archetypal Trickster. Someone tells of seeing Dylan in a Boston supermarket, leaning on a shelf of canned goods and jotting down notes. "Hi," the guy said. "Ho," Dylan responded. With too little room in which to exist ("What's worse is this pain in here, I just can't stay in here"), Dylan has often emptied himself out, "evaporated," as he says in one of his songs, only to come back in new suits and trappings, but very much in his wits. Dylanophiles, meanwhile, hang onto reassuring categories – pre-and post-accident, "new" and "old." The underlying fear is: What if Dylan just goes away? So people see him everywhere.
Since his accident in 1966, Dylan has made only four concert appearances: the Woody Guthrie benefit at Carnegie Hall; a concert with the Band in Edwardsville, Illinois; the second Isle of Wight Festival; and now the Bangla Desh benefit. His feature appearance at the Isle of Wight before 200,000 persons seemed like a mirage. Dylan came on stage and backed by the Band, sang for an hour, then disappeared. One reporter wrote that Dylan wore a green shirt; another, a yellow one. One critic heard him sing "Baby Blue"; another, "Positively Fourth Street." (He sang neither.)
Dressed in a white linen suit, a bit nervous and edgy but looking as if he had just put down a glass of mint julep, Dylan sang with his new "tonal breath control" – musically accenting every word of a song so that lines like: "Bow down to her on Sunday/Salute her when her birthday comes" were no longer phrased de dah de dah de dah-dah (iam-bically) but de de de de de de-de – like a person dancing very small steps.
In that concert, Dylan slid on one line from major to minor and back again, and when singing by himself, telegraphed harmonies so that omitted modulations created new melodic lines. Although Dylan ended his solo numbers, as of old, strumming while backing up from the microphone, you felt that he remained outside of the song, viewing it from a nearby distance. Sometimes he lingered on a note, furnishing it with the lightest of melismas, vocalizing and decorating one syllable. Dylan drew out and softened his lines while the Band musically pared down the rhythm, subdividing beats. Robbie Robertson added functional – not decorative – guitar solos, illustrating what Dylan must have meant when he described Robertson as "the only mathematical guitar genius I've ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound."
Their version of "Lay Lady Lay" was charged with a more urgent weight than that heard on Nashville Skyline. And this particular aura and those magnificent musical confines within which the Band surrounded Dylan strangely seemed to detach him from his material further than he might have felt towards it. Or felt that night. People expected Dylan to embody musically those rattled experiences which his older songs spoke of, whereas Dylan just sang his songs with a clarity that radiates from inside the lines, lighting up the words like eyes: "Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand/Rivers that ran through every day."
Which all goes to say that the Isle of Wight Festival enabled you to eavesdrop on Dylan playing with the Band one summer evening. To people who thought that Dylan was themselves, the event entered consciousness as the mythical Return of the Hero from the Dead. But this Return was merely the symbolic substructure underlying a lovely concert – with a few flat notes – by an extraordinary artist.
Sometimes you find yourself sinking through memories like water, imagining it's yourself you're discovering. At the bottom of the wishing well, you see only what you wanted to find – an Idol mirroring your fantasy of him. But Dylan never accepted himself as someone's mirror. He told how Woody Guthrie was his first and last idol, "shattering even himself as an idol." And he once wrote: "I will never chase a living soul/into the prison grasp/of my own self love."
From the start, Dylan invited you to share his dream: "You can be in my dream, if I can be in your dream – I said that." The dream is that of self-realization. He never meant: "Pilfer me, become me." So at the Isle of Wight he raised his hand suddenly at that moment in "One Too Many Mornings" to emphasize the line: "Everything I'm saying you can say it just as good."
In a sense, Dylan puts on his various selves as easily as most people put other people on. There are three words in the Book of Job translated as: "For the fainting – from his friend – loyalty." At Madison Square Garden, Dylan was loyal not so much to the expectations of his admirers as to the meaning and beauty of his songs. There was no forcing of rhythms, no Isle of Wight "invention." He sang as effectively as he ever has, and probably improved on "Love Minus Zero" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh."
He appeared on-stage in the dark: curly hair, Levi jacket, guitar and mouth harp. People cheered, but they didn't believe it, responding the way one does after having obtained something deeply hoped for with a kind of passionless disbelief.
"Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son?" Dylan began. Why was he taking us back? Just when we were getting used to A. J. Weberman's business exec-sometime record maker, out came the freewheelin' 1963 Bob Dylan, singing more beautifully than ever, his voice suggesting Hank Williams' intensity, Roy Acuffs vocal coloration, and the famous Dylan phrasing – all of this blended into a controlled, deep-flowing lyricism, balancing the expressiveness of Blonde on Blonde with the elegance of Nashville Skyline. What was this new incarnation? Lazarus rising from our dead memories? Coyote impersonating some highway rambler? Was he really singing the lines no one ever expected to hear him sing again: "How many years can some people exist/Before they're allowed to be free?"
Like John Wesley Harding, Dylan can't be tracked or chained down. And he doesn't make foolish moves. Perhaps Weberman's "cop out" imprecations had gotten to him. Perhaps Dylan chose at least two songs that literally express his feelings about Bangla Desh ("Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten" – "Hard Rain" or "How many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?" – "Blowin' in the Wind"). One wondered whether Dylan had reached a level of consciousness where, in Jung's words, he could "detach the earlier state from himself and objectify it, that is, say anything about it. So long as his consciousness was itself trickster-like, such a confrontation could obviously not take place." Or perhaps Dylan simply decided to reappear in the guise of the person who used to sing at civil rights benefits in the early Sixties.
"He's an inscrutable cat, man," one of Dylan's friends said the day after the concert. Anyone who thinks that Dylan will now start writing more "protest" songs had better wait and see what self-portrait he draws next. Behind all his protean changes and disguises, it's possible that Dylan, as one person commented, was singing his older songs because Leon Russell just happened to like them. As Dylan waved so long to the crowd, you sensed that this might just be his way of saying goodbye to New York City once again, looking a lot the way he did when he was living on Fourth Street almost ten years ago.
This story is from the September 2, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.