Bob Dylan, it has been said, was the person most responsible for ending the Vietnam War. Twenty-five years ago, it would have been heresy to predict that he would sing at the United States Military Academy – to an enthusiastic sellout crowd, no less. But the world is a much different place than it was when Dylan first sang protest songs, and Bob Dylan is a much different man. So maybe it made perfect sense for him to play at West Point and to reveal yet another side of Bob Dylan after all these years. Maybe.
The Eisenhower Hall Theater sits next to a field house with SINK NAVY painted on the roof, and on the rainy night of October 13th, it was the site of a Bob Dylan concert and a local arts and crafts fair. Broadway posters ringed the 4300-seat theater, and well-scrubbed cadets served as ushers. Inside, the first ten rows were filled with cadets in dress grays. But as astonishingly surreal as these trappings were, they weren’t the whole story. West Point is also a short drive from Dylan’s old digs in Woodstock, and there was a very visible contingent of upstate ex-hippies and their children in attendance; by show time, tie-dyes and brush cuts were running neck and neck.
Dylan, who started the show tentatively, with a sped-up “Tangled Up in Blue,” seemed concerned about how this unlikely crowd would take to him. But encouraged by the response, he quickly settled in for a loose, warm (by his standard) evening. The West Point show was one of the last for Saturday Night Live guitarist G.E. Smith, who has been in Dylan’s touring band for the past two years. Joined by little-known session guitarist Stephen Bruton (whose credits include work with Carly Simon and Kris Kristofferson) for this transitional period, the band had a ringing, Byrds-like sound.
A chilling, march-time “Man in the Long Black Coat,” from last year’s Oh Mercy, was the show’s early highlight. Dylan’s voice was high and plaintive, remarkably clear and melodic in a rare display of enunciation. “Masters of War,” his most vicious anti-military song, made for a decidedly uncomfortable moment; while the band ripped into a blazing arrangement, Dylan seemed to swallow the lines “I hope that you die/And your death’ll come soon” in the face of real-life aspiring masters of war. The song met with a cool response from the cadets down front.
With that requisite protest filed, Dylan moved into the show’s strongest segment. Rather than performing the “acoustic” portion of the program solo, he worked up new arrangements for stand-up bass, acoustic guitar and brushed drums. The resultant countryish shuffle, reminiscent of the John Wesley Harding era, gave a new charge to songs that had recently been sounding tired. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” acquired extra verve and defiance with this lineup, while “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” flirted with rockabilly rhythms and ended with a raucous, hilarious harmonica coda.
Unfortunately, when the electric instruments came back out, the show started to run out of steam. Two tunes from Dylan’s lame new album, Under the Red Sky, couldn’t keep the audience’s attention, and the familiar greatest-hits windup, except for a careening roadhouse rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited,” was professionally perfunctory.
Whatever incongruity there was in Bob Dylan’s singing at West Point seemed totally lost on him. He was exceptionally comfortable on this stage, smiling and dancing and singing even his angriest songs with no hint of irony or contempt. One could easily assign great significance to some of his selections in this setting – “Gotta Serve Somebody,” indeed – but it would be ultimately fruitless. Dylan has become so willfully perverse, so completely unreadable, that even playing “Masters of War” may have been a coincidence (although the fact that he opened his next show, at New York City’s Beacon Theater, with a quick, instrumental version of “The Marines’ Hymn” might indicate that he knew exactly what he was doing).
Of course, Bob Dylan is clearly no longer the voice of a generation, the way he was for some of these cadets’ parents. It often seemed that, to this crowd, he was just an old rock & roll star kept alive by classic-hits radio; the words ceased to matter long ago. Then again, maybe the sight of young men and women with eyes anxiously fixed on the Middle East singing along passionately with “Blowin’ in the Wind” can only mean good things. After all these years, one can’t be sure just where the chimes of freedom are flashing anymore.
This story is from the November 29th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.