A GOOD THING

Published on August 9, 2002
Author: NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC
(c) The Buffalo News Inc.

The moment can only be described as surreal.

Watching late-night television last week, I caught an ad for for the Erie County Fair. The spot was typical fair fare - shot on videotape, with quick edits between footage of folks eating hot dogs and Ferris wheels and other amusement park rides. The focus then shifted to the fair's live entertainment schedule. We were told the rather dubious double-bill of '70s rockers REO Speedwagon and Styx would be "rocking the grandstand at the fair." Footage of both acts rolled, a quick reminder of why one stopped listening to them ages ago. And then, bam, without a second's hesitation, there he was, the man who had not only stood the test of time, but had been around seemingly as long as time itself.

Sitting at a blackjack table, surrounded by tough-looking women and wearing the poker face he perfected before this writer was even born, Bob Dylan peered out from behind a pair of steely "been there, done that" eyes. "Bob Dylan plays the grandstand at the fair on Thursday, Aug. 15," went the voice-over, and though this news wasn't actually news, it gave me pause. There sat Dylan, wild bushy hair now gone gray, pencil-thin Valentino mustache lending a Salvador Dali-esque tinge to his visage, country gentleman suit replacing the disheveled ragamuffin look he wore for the majority of the time between his late '60s motorcycle accident and his early '90s rebirth. The poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to "find Jesus," who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s.

Bob Dylan. Playing at the Erie County Fair! Surely, this was the seventh sign! Fair thee well ... Dylan's appearance at the fair may seem unusual to folks accustomed to seeing him in Buffalo - where he has played fairly recently on college campuses or at Six Flags Darien Lake Performing Arts Center - but a casual glance at his current touring itinerary reveals that Dylan will play, well, just about anywhere there's electricity.

In the past two years alone, he's played such venues as a race track in Baltimore, the Outdoor Field in Fargo, N.D., and a ski lodge in Aspen, Colo., while also playing such venerable venues as Madison Square Garden. So Dylan playing the Hamburg Fairgrounds is actually par for the course. Remember, this is a guy who started out playing coffeehouses, bookstores and tents set up ad hoc during civil rights rallies.

Instead of asking, "Why the fair?," a better question is, "Who is Dylan today, this 60-year-old man who tours the world relentlessly, wins Grammys and Golden Globes, makes the Top 10 lists of musicians and critics alike year after year and refuses to offer any but the most obtuse and cryptic of interviews?" And, what does he mean now?

Come writers and poets...

More has been written about Dylan than any other artist in rock history, save perhaps the members of the Beatles. His development from "protest singer" to inscrutable chronicler of the doings of characters of his own invention - folks who could hardly be described as average or somehow representative of the "common" man - has so smitten journalists and songwriters for the sheer singularity of its accomplishment and the literary soundness of its scope that tomes have been constructed in honor of his work. There may be no more admired singer-songwriter alive today.

Yet Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever.

It's easy to believe this is exactly what the man wanted, for no artist has been quite so successful at alienating fans, shifting gears without notice and lapsing into periods of uninspired work than Dylan. In comparison, Neil Young's efforts seem rather consistent.

Though hardcore folkies never forgave him for hiring the Band and "going electric" way back in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival (where Dylan returned for the first time last Saturday), Dylan's work never faltered until more than a decade later. "Street Legal," from 1978, was a mess, and though he followed that record with the much more satisfying "Slow Train Coming" - the first of his "Jesus" albums - Dylan fans read the writing on the wall. The man was a wreck, an apparently bitter soldier, a born-again zealot who grasped tightly his religious fervor and concurrently let his artistry slip from his clutches. Though in retrospect albums like "Saved," "Shot of Love," "Infidels," "Empire Burlesque," "Knocked Out Loaded" and "Down in the Groove" had their moments, it had become increasingly clear that Dylan wouldn't be releasing an album as devastatingly astute and musically sound as "Blood on the Tracks" any time soon - if ever.

To be a Dylan fan in the '80s was to be a pillar of patience and a paragon of faith. The man had become a cartoon character, the butt of jokes about his singing, an artist who seemed hell-bent on destroying his legacy.

Saved

Enter producer Daniel Lanois, riding high on the success of his work with U2. Out of nowhere, Dylan, Lanois and a host of session players released "Oh Mercy," Dylan's best work in more than a decade. Yes, the music was better, aided by Lanois' cinematic production ethic. Yes, the singing was stronger, more passionate, more melodic, more soundly phrased. But the real testament to Dylan's return to form could be found, not surprisingly, in the lyrics.

Gone was the dogmatic diatribe, the zealot's fervor, the frustrating bloody-mindedness of the convert. Returning was the rich imagery, the Bible-as-literature metaphoric quality, the sense of myth, of history, of the ancient. And perhaps more than anything, of the inevitability of loss.

"There are no mistakes in life some people say/and it's true, sometimes you can see it that way/But people don't live or die, people just float/She went with the man in the long black coat." ("Man in the Long Black Coat") Ah, yes, this is the Dylan we wanted to hear. Dark, near-gothic, poetic, equal parts vernacular and high-falutin'.

"Oh Mercy" was a triumph, in many ways a true return to form. Naturally, Dylan followed it up with one of the worst albums of his career, the rather tuneless "Under the Red Sky." Then he hit the road and provided the faithful with some of the spottiest, least-inspired shows he'd ever played, during which he rarely acknowledged the audience and by all appearances seemed generally miserable.

So much for a comeback.

One step up, two steps back

In the early '90s, Dylan released two low-key albums of traditional folk and rural blues songs. "Good as I Been to You" in 1992 and '93's "World Gone Wrong" made brief appearances in the Top 100 but disappeared quickly. Both records were comprised of solo Dylan performances of such "public domain"-type pieces as "Frankie and Albert," "Sittin' on Top of the World" and "Stack-a-Lee," all traditional songs treated to new arrangements by Dylan.

Many posited the notion that Dylan had finally run out of ideas, that by going back to these old-school country blues laments, he was offering his final wheeze. But just as many saw these two records for what they were; representations of Dylan re-learning who he was by digging deep into the past, finding the timeless in the work of others.

Bad TV, great tours

All of this was by way of reconnecting to the timelessness in his own writing, as listeners would soon see when Dylan released his true comeback album in the form of 1997's "Time Out of Mind," again the result of a collaboration with Lanois and again a triumph of songwriting, performance and production. Critics also noted that Dylan's live performances in recent years had become more inspired - although his periodic television appearances remained uneven at best.

If his previous two cover albums had been attempts on Dylan's part to reconnect with his muse, they had been wholly successful. "Time" reminded us why we loved Dylan and also hinted that his future was wide open.

The album introduced us to a yet-again "new" Dylan, a songwriter drenched in heartbreak and heartbreaking pathos and a singer with an entirely new sense of phrasing, timbre and inflection. The wrecked voice was no longer a weakness, but rather, an instrument to be subtly manipulated by its master and a tone capable of deepening the world-weary lambency of the album's songs. "Love Sick," "Standing in the Doorway," "Not Dark Yet" and "Can't Wait" weren't just the best songs Dylan had written in the '80s and '90s - they were among the best of his career.

Not surprisingly, Dylan hit the road, but this time, with a renewed vigor. Critics and fans alike were calling these his best shows since the early '70s. On the dark day of Sept. 11, Dylan released another masterpiece in the form of "Love and Theft," an album that traded "Time's" spooky ambience for a crisp, clean and band-oriented collection of songs that offered a virtual tour of both Dylan's musical history and the history of American music in the 20th century. Critics drooled, fans cheered, and Dylan hit the road again, this time with the strongest backing band he had employed since the Band all those many years ago. Dylan and his band have been on the road virtually nonstop for years, and notices have been favorable, particularly since "Love and Theft's" release. And though, in a sense, Dylan lives in a universe of his own creation, a world of song that has little, if anything, to do with the "modern" music being created around him, it's enough for us to be able to catch him during the work-in-progress that is his career.

When Dylan plays the fair, we'll be seeing an artist still in the process of evolving. After some 40 years, it is remarkable to be able to make such a statement.

Perhaps when assessing Dylan's worth, we should fall back on the words of the man himself: "Don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin. . . ."

Associated Press
Bob Dylan For some four decades, Bob Dylan has been perhaps the most admired singer-songwriter.

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