A Tale of Two Dylans:

CONCERT review:

DYLAN AT THE Santa Monica Civic Auditorium

- September 3, 2008

By Ross Altman


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times-a time to kill, a time to heal, a time of war, a time of peace-a time to be reminded of the greatness of Dylan's catalogue of songs, the songs that have earned him the title of "poet laureate of rock and roll," and a time to wonder whether his recent persona of rocker at the keyboards really does those songs justice.

It was the best of Dylan; it was the worst of Dylan. But first the bad news: for those who remember Bob as the guitar-slinging, harmonica blowing troubadour of times past (extending all the way into the 90's-which is the last time I had seen a live performance) that Dylan is long gone. He has a great five-piece band, including two first rate guitarists, but at no time during the show did Bob himself pick up the instrument that defines both the folk and rock troubadour of his early and middle periods.

And this despite the fact that throughout the two hour show I kept staring at an unused single floor mic at the very front of the stage-where the old (i.e. younger) Dylan would have positioned himself. I kept staring at it hoping that for Dylan's final encore he would pick up a guitar (preferably an acoustic guitar) and come out to the floor mic for Blowing In the Wind or Masters of War-both of which, according to his web site, have been shuffled into his constantly changing set lists during this tour.

It was not to be-he stayed behind the keyboards for the entire show. It put me in mind of Chekhov's advice that if a playwright puts a rifle on the wall in the first act of a play, it better go off by the end of the third act. The rifle stayed on the wall-the mic remained unused.

All of which would have mattered less to me if I had been able to understand more than a few of the words by rock's poet laureate during each song. Because I know his songs so well I was somehow able to identify most of the titles by the repeating refrain which most of them have-only missing a few of the most recent songs. But that was really all I could understand, and though I sang along on some of them, it was to the songs in my head-not the ones I was hearing from the stage, which were for the most part incomprehensible. This was due partly to Dylan's highly idiosyncratic phrasing, his register, which rarely rose above a guttural snarl, and partly to the sound mix, wherein his voice was competing with the ear-splitting electric guitars that carried the arrangements. And finally, for those who were hoping for some kind of acknowledgement of the audience's presence, except to introduce the band, he never said a mumbling word.

I won't dwell on the fact-though it does bear mentioning-that the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium had ripped out all the floor seats so that a general admission ticket-which is all they were selling except for VIP packages-only bought you the space to stand in an over-crowded mob of hearty fans who were close enough to the stage to feel-not just hear-the thudding bass guitar and drums coursing through your body like an electric current shock treatment. I think that's what they call a rock concert-and as the souvenir advertising card for his next soon-to-be-released official bootleg album, which they handed you on your way out the door, said in bold letters: I Was There.

Yes I was, dear reader, and since I don't want to be The Wicked Messenger, who was told in Dylan's old song, "If ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any," now I want to bring you the good news. Despite all of my niggling criticisms, this was a great concert. It was indeed also the best of Dylan. You didn't need to hear all the words-they were already burned in your soul-a part of your DNA.

I had seen Dylan at the Civic once before-in 1963 when he did his first solo concert in Los Angeles, and I managed to sneak into the sound check in the afternoon and listen to the then 22 year old wunderkind from New York City who was bursting at the seams with talent sing The Times, They Are a' Changing just for me.

But this was forty-five years later and Dylan is now 67. You don't do what Dylan has done for forty-five years on just talent-as George C. Scott's agent Burt in The Hustler says to Paul Newman's pool shark Fast Eddie, "Everybody has talent-I got talent-you think Minnesota Fats [played by Jackie Gleason] shoots straight pool for 18 hours on talent? It takes character. And he's got more character in his little finger than you got in your whole body."

Similarly, Dylan hasn't lasted for forty-five years because he has talent-he has endured because he has character-the kind of character that has saved him from being a nostalgic act for aging hippies and 60's movement folkies like myself. He's still out there on his "never-ending tour" challenging us-doing it his way just like Sinatra-relying on phrasing when his voice is no longer able to carry the high notes of his early recordings.

What Dylan at his best brought to the stage Wednesday night was really another country we used to call America, before it got disfigured and distorted by eight years of the worst president and vice-president in U.S. history.

It was a tale of two cities. In St. Paul, Minnesota the Republican Party broadcast one version of America on TV; at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Bob Dylan's traveling road show put on a very different version.

In contrast to the clanking militarism and pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war celebrated in St. Paul, Dylan retold the ancient biblical story of Abraham and Isaac: "God said to Abraham kill me a son/Abe said, Man you must be putting me on/God said Abe/Abe said what/ God said you can do what you want Abe but/The next time you see me coming you better run/Abe said where do you want this killing done/God said out on Highway 61." With snarling sarcasm Dylan spoke up for the sons and daughters whose sacrifice is exploited for political gain.

To those on the Republican stage who belittle and condemn the life of a black community organizer from Chicago who dares to run for president of the United States, Dylan says, "Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?"

To those in St. Paul who want to ram another four years of Bush Light down our throats in the guise of a senator who wants to stay in Iraq for another hundred years, Dylan says, "Here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice."

And to those on the Democratic side who now advise the antiwar candidate Obama to run toward the center and show that he can out militarize McCain by promoting the good war in Afghanistan over the bad war in Iraq, Dylan revives the old debate between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, to ask how much of a difference there might really be between the two major parties.

To underscore the potential pitfall of the Democratic anti-warrior trying to out McCain McCain-out in the parking lot there are 3rd party volunteers handing out leaflets telling Dylan fans to "Defeat the Masters of War-and vote for Nader/Gonzalez."

Forty-five years after Dylan sang The Times, They Are a'Changing at the same venue, Dylan is still the real change you can believe in, the troubadour of a compassionate America, who ended his show still standing on that Watchtower-saying, "There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief/There's too much confusion/I can't get no relief/Business men they drink my wine/Plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line/Know what any of it is worth."

To those of us who live in Bob Dylan's America, it was inspiring to see our president come to town again, on a campaign stop for a better tomorrow, based on fundamental American values-the same ones Dylan has been preaching since leaving the very state the Republicans brought their phony patriotism and jingoism to this week. Dylan may have left his fellow Minnesotans behind when he went out on the road, but he brought their stories with him-the North Country Blues about the woman who's son could no longer make a living in the iron mines that had once supported her family-and the displaced middle class thrown out of their homes who now have no direction home and are completely on their own, like a rolling stone.

Those are the forgotten Americans-the ones you never hear about at the Republican National Convention-the ones Barack Obama left a lucrative east coast law practice to help organize on the south side of Chicago. Bob Dylan remembers them today and because of his incomparable music, for one night at least, we did not feel so all alone. 


Author's note: Dylan will be in concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday, Sept 7, 2008.  Tickets are still available at Ticketmaster, or at www.bobdylan.com

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com.