With Bob Dylan touring Oz, Tom Jacobs muses on what it is about Dylan and his enduring fan-base that keeps him coming back time and time again.
In the opening scene of Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, Allen’s character tells a joke about two elderly women having dinner in a resort.
“The food in this place is really terrible,” one of them says.
“I know,” says the other “and in such small portions!”
In a week or so, Bob Dylan will be performing at the Sydney Opera House, a venue that, according to actor John Malkovich, “has acoustics that would do an aeroplane hangar a disservice.” But, when it comes to sound, I don’t think the Dylan fans care. This will be his first time at the Opera House, and the seventh time I’ll be seeing the man live on stage. However, I use the word “live” very loosely. I’ve never sat in the audience during a Dylan show and felt like I was being entertained. It’s usually a disappointing experience, but every 4-5 years, when his booted heel hits our shores, I’m always in the audience along with his other devoted followers.
Last year I had the opportunity to see Black Sabbath play their only Sydney gig. When Sabbath took the stage and opened with my favourite song “War Pigs,” my attention was momentarily taken by a fellow standing in front of me. He wore a shirt with “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath” written on it above a series of concert dates from the ’70s. His hair was grey and thinning but long, as it drooped like wet clumps of string below his shoulders. This was a true Black(belt) Sabbath fan who’s been seeing the group since before I was born, so he should look more at home here than anyone else in the crowd. At the same time, the fact that he was the only person I could see that had grey hair and wrinkles amongst a sea of thick flowing hair, taught skin and pimples, also made him look so out of place. When the young group of guys next to him began to spin their heads around, making their long locks look like helicopter propellers cutting the air, this old guy joined in – doing one enthusiastic 360 degree swirl of his head, before grabbing his neck, giving it a little massage and exhaling a painful tobacco smelling sigh that was inaudible over singer Ozzy Osbourne’s screeching.
I’ve been to many Bob Dylan gigs and I’ve noticed that the neck bones of the obsessive Dylan fan, wearing the gypsy shirt printed with a list of tour dates from the 60’s, appears to be far creakier than our Sabbath friend’s. I’d be surprised to see an enthusiastic 360-degree roll of the head/propeller-swirl of the hair from one of these people in the crowd; you’re more likely to see them make a stiff 180 degree turn of the head, scouting the nearest exit, so they can get to their car as soon as it’s over to avoid the traffic.
In 2007 I was standing behind the Sydney Entertainment Centre a few hours before a Dylan gig when I was approached by a 30-something-year-old guy in a leather jacket.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Hoping to get a glimpse of Bob,” I said.
Leather-Jacket-Man said he had just flown in from Brisbane that morning, as he was following all the Dylan gigs around the country and in New Zealand.
“That’s dedication,” I said. “How have the shows been this tour?”
“Oh. Are you looking forward to tonight’s show then?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” he said.
Like the Sabbath gig, the Dylan audience is a mix of ages; there are those old fans who you’ll hear saying, “It’s his words that you have to listen to. His lyrics are what we came for.” Then there are the disappointed young fans that are new to Dylan who say, “But, I couldn’t understand the lyrics. He mumbles.”
Leather-Jacket-Man told me about a Dylan gig he had been to a few years earlier in England. A young man was seated in front of him and appeared to be sobbing.
“At first I thought it was that elated sobbing that those Beatles fans did when they saw them stepping off the plane. But, it turned out to be tears of grief. He was hoping for edgy cool sixties Dylan, instead of this stuffy old guy on stage!”
Bob Dylan is now 73 years old and people still go to his shows expecting to see that protest song singin’, guitar wieldin’ folky from the ’60s. Some go hoping to see that love song singin’, painted faced gypsy from that ’70s Rollin’ Thunder Revue. Maybe even one or two people go hoping to see that born-again Bob from his Christian era (error?) who only sang gospel songs. Whatever Bob you want him to be, you probably won’t get it. What you will get nowadays is a guy that doesn’t stand front and centre of the stage. 73-year-old Bob stands to the side of the stage and sideways to the audience so that he can face his band, who he orchestrates like a conductor, but through a series of subtle nods. He doesn’t play guitar anymore either. Instead, he stands there bashing away on a small church organ. His rigid movements making him look like a Thunderbirds puppet. On those few occasions when he does move to the front of the stage, it’s with the gait of an arthritic duck, which makes you think his puppeteer is drunk on the job.
His voice has become so gurgly now that’s it’s hard to distinguish the lyrics of Like a Rolling Stone from him clearing the phlegm from his throat. Sometimes you won’t know what song he’s singing until the chorus.
So, after this giant “put down” of a much loved icon… do I still see Bob?
For me Bob’s shows are always enjoyed in retrospect. I’ve never mourned the two hundred dollars spent on seeing the show. During his gigs I might feel that way to some degree, but on my way home from the gig I’ll have a Dylan song playing through my headphones. It’s then that I’d feel… great about things. I just saw this guy on stage. The guy that’s singing that ’60s anthem, The Times they are a-Changin’, was a major part of the civil rights movement. He’s always done things his way, and his audience always had the choice to either go along with it or to abandon him. When he gave up his acoustic sound for electric, he lost a lot of fans, although I think those people eventually found their way back to him. He has been called “Judas” by his audiences. He has been asked “What happened to Woody Guthrie?” by fans wanting to know why he no longer played the folk songs that made him famous. But, in all of his constant changing, one thing that he has stayed true to is his dedication to never doing what we wanted him to do.
There’s another joke in Annie Hall that appears at the end of the film. A guy says to a psychiatrist, “Hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken!”
The doctor asks, “Why don’t you bring him in so I can fix him?”
The man says, “I would, but I need the eggs!”
I keep going back to Dylan, because… well, “I need the eggs.”
However, I think Dylan said it best in his lyrics from The Times they are a-Changin’, when the then-23-year-old folky sings, “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand.”