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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, November 24, 2011


I'm delighted to give over this post to the writer Nigel Hinton. It seems to me to encompass all the pros and cons of current Bob Dylan  -  and to be full of humanity and verve:

Of course, so much of how one reacts to a live show can depend on circumstances and mood. My c + m on Saturday were not very good. I’m the same age as Bob and it was hard  work standing, still and squashed, for 3 and a half hours. I was surrounded by newbies agog at seeing Knopfler and Bob - "You know that Denzel Washington film about a boxer? You know, he's accused of murder. Well, Dylan made a song about him. It's eight minutes long!" "Eight? He's a legend, innit.". I also fell into brief conversation with a Norwegian guy in his fifties who had seen him over a hundred times and admitted that 60% of those shows had been mediocre at best. "But it is when he is great that makes it worth it. I think tonight he will be great."

After about four songs of Dylan's set, a young guy in his early twenties and his fat little girlfriend came back towards us - probably because, being so short, the girl hadn't been able to see where they had been - and peremptorily displaced us. The Norwegian was edged sideways to behind a tall guy where he couldn't see and me back a couple of steps where I could still see. The Norwegian leaned in and said something to the guy - I can't imagine it could have been anything other than a mild rebuke. Whereupon the young guy grabbed hold of the Norwegian by his jacket, pulled him close and said, "What? Don't fucking speak like that to me. You fucking hear? Speak nice or I'll tear your fucking throat out!" Then he pushed the guy who staggered into some other people before righting himself and trying to go on listening to the show. A couple of songs later the young guy turned again to the Norwegian who had said and done nothing and twice repeated his threat to "Fucking tear your fucking throat out". This was the end of the exchanges and the young guy continued to appear to be enraptured by the music when not necking his girlfriend who twice spent some longish time reading her text messages. He particularly responded to those crowd-pleasing, climactic build-ups that Bob understands gets the audience going and feeling that they are seeing something good and powerfully significant rather than the primitive rabble rousing which it is.

So, I was not really in the mood to enter into the spirit of what all those people round me obviously thought was so wonderful that they were obliged to record it for posterity on their annoyingly, distractingly, held-aloft mobile phones. I was feeling misanthropic. So, tough on Bob. I thought the show started reasonably - the voice was not too phlegmy and it seemed strong. Don't Think Twice was OK-ish. Things Have Changed was OK too but a bit of a blur. I was happy to hear Mississippi live and it was respectable. Then it all started to go downhill for me. Honest With Me was forceful but I dislike the song and could hardly hear a word. Then he seriously started to get into that find-a-doodle-on-the-organ-and-then-adapt-the-melody-of-the-song-to-it mode, especially on Hattie Carroll and Hard Rain. I actually was less offended by Hattie Carroll , because I thought the silly melody he found was quite pretty, though obviously inappropriate. The nadir for me was Hard Rain, where the three note baby fairground nursery jingle was completely inane. People round me went apeshit. And even madder when he whipped them into a frenzy with Highway 61. Then came Thin Man and its echo which I found sad and cheap - though he delivers it with some force. I can't even be bothered to remember the rest. Although I did notice the "Oh I am so bored" hand on hip while I play a few silly doodles with two fingers on my organ stance which I suppose other people take as charming or amusing.

So, you can imagine I was not expecting much for Monday, and Bob goes and confounds me again.

Was it me? Mood and circumstances? I was seated, so easier on my hips, but a long, long way back in the balcony and only able to get close through the use of binoculars. And seated or not, I was still depressed by much of humanity, and still prey to murderous thoughts as people bobbed up and down and shuffled along rows to get their drinks - is it because they were demand fed as babies that they can't last 90 minutes without shoving something down their throat? And seemingly more intent on talking to their neighbour, or texting to absent friends - "Hi I'm on the train. Oh no I'm not - I'm at a rock concert. Freaking Bob Dylan for chrissakes", or waving their phones around recording the moment rather than living it.

Or was it him? Certainly there were none of the more grotesque manglings like Hattie Carroll and Hard Rain and much less of that doodle riff becomes doodle sung melody. And he sang Forgetful Heart and Man In the Long Black Coat and It's All Over Now Baby Blue and Desolation Row and Forever Young - and I like all those songs and haven't had them done to death.

Me? Him? I honestly don't know. But whatever, all I can report is the effect of whatever it was, and I wasn't alone: my wife and the two friends who came with us had the same reaction, I felt privileged to be there. It was as if all the failings and inconsistencies which were still indubitably there did not matter. Somehow the overall effect reached out and touched me and evaded my critical mind. And moved me. And filled me with love and gratitude to the guy standing on stage, for all he has given me over the years.

I genuinely don't know if the show was a good show and perhaps recordings of it will sound awful and give the lie to my reaction. All I can say is how it felt for me. My heart opened. And everything – this time his gauche movements seemed to make him look like a toreador: stylish arrogant hand on hip like the imagined young bridegroom in Romance in Durango with his new boots and an earring of gold; his clumsy keyboard playing; his sudden darting leg movements; the stuttering and tentative harmonica playing; even the rabble rousing band thrashes; everything - came together and made sense (and that is definitely not the right phrase but as close as I can get). Fitted, perhaps. It came together and took me into its embrace and made me feel the vulnerablity and transience of song, and me, and Bob, and Life. The first five songs softened me - yes, even Honest With Me, yes, even Spirit on the Water from that album I dislike - then Forgetful Heart undid me and I was there with him, engaged, uncritical, open. So that by the time we got to Forever Young I was trembling with emotion and as Mark Knopfler sang the line "May your song always be sung" and gestured towards Bob, tears sprang and I was overcome with love and gratitude.

Perhaps I was in the grip of some kind of semi-religious delusion. I honestly can't explain it. And maybe someone else would have thought it was a shit show and I wouldn't be able to argue with them. All I can say is that I have reported accurately what, inexplicably, happened to me. He's done it to me before, of course, in whole shows in 78 and 90, in some songs on other tours, and so many times on disc - lifted me to somewhere that is not ordinary, into a kind of ecstatic state. Where involuntary moans or sighs or little bubbles of joy are jolted out of you because he has touched you with his genius, a touch of genius which has, you suspect but can’t be sure, given you a glimpse of something beyond. Truth and Beauty. Something ineffable.

But who would have thought he could do it to me now? Not me.

So, him or me? Perhaps it was both of us. For,compared to those other times in the past, I've not known before such a feeling of fragility and kinship with him.

Like two old men, I guess.


Anonymous John Carvill said...

Thanks for sharing this. Worth it for this line alone:

"Where involuntary moans or sighs or little bubbles of joy are jolted out of you because he has touched you with his genius, a touch of genius which has, you suspect but can’t be sure, given you a glimpse of something beyond."

As for that bloke and his fat little girlfirend,I think what really jars when you encounter arseholish behaviour at a Dylan gig is that it's *at a Dylan gig*. You somehow expect a lower arsehole count at a Dylan show. So it does sound like circumstances conspired to wreck the first night. An interestng downside to teh perennial argument that "yu have to be there": sometimes it'd have been better had you *not* been there.

Also, let's face it, we go to see Bob now beacuse (among other reasons) every time now feels like it could be the last chance, so how can we pass it up?

2:50 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

What an interesting post by Nigel Hinton. It captured beautifully the agony and the ecstasy of following Dylan over the decades.There certainly is something inexplicable in the way Dylan can, in a moment, soar from mundane cacophony to something truly sublime that lifts the soul aloft with it.

I completely understand Nigel when he writes about the sense of privilege and gratitude he felt. I felt the same at the recent Bournemouth concert I attended. It was not a great performance by any means, but I was very glad to have been there.

As for the 'arsehole count', to use John Carvill's phrase, to my mind this has been at quite a high level since the mid-eighties, especially in the bigger venues. But then I suppose that listening to Dylan is not necessarily a transforming experience. I have met, in my career, many graduates who sat at the feet of F.R. Leavis, and it has always surprised me how many have somehow failed to succumb to the transformative powers he claimed for literature.

But back to Nigel Hinton: thank you for the open and moving way you wrote about your two concert experiences. I recognise so much of what you said.

9:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Perhaps I was in the grip of some kind of semi-religious delusion. I honestly can't explain it."

This is exactly the point I have tried to make in my earlier comments on this blog. The gratifying thing is that it is from someone like Nigel Hinton, who is obviously more cautious in his praise of current live Bob, rather from than one of the Bob can do no wrong crowd. There is a magic that happens sometimes that is only evident when one is actually there, and which is usually absent on the recordings. Surrendering to the moment, at least in part, is necessary to the experience. Not that you have to put aside your critical judgement altogether. But you do have to let your guard down somewhat. The mystery, as Nigel suggests, is how much a great live show depends on our own response, on our willingness to be spellbound and swallowed up by the art, and how much comes from the art itself.

I find it very distressing that a fan could act so aggressively in a Dylan concert. Has something changed? Is it part of his move over to the mainstream, so that the worst kind of rabble now come to see the legend in action? I can't imagine, when I saw him all those moons ago in Hammersmith (it was 1990 to be exact) anyone displaying that sort of attitude. The crowd, back then, seemed to be the sort of crowd who would attend a play or a classical performance. Perhaps I just thought it was so.

10:16 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

"I find it very distressing that a fan could act so aggressively in a Dylan concert. Has something changed?"

I don't think so. It's always shocked me that Dylan audiences include overtly aggressive, stupid, slobbish people. But I'm guessing that it's become worse as the venues and those running them have become more uncivilised. Arenas where the only food and drink is gristleburgers and lager in plastic glasses, and where the "security" guys are obnoxious and unco-operatve - these conditions don't encourage civil behaviour.

One of the great benefits of seeing Dylan at Portsmouth Town Hall in 2000, along with the comparative intimacy of the place, was that the audience was rightly treated as paying customers, given seats and an unobstructed view and we had all been able to stroll in from the city streets, and from real bars and restaurants. It was civilised, and automatically we were more inclined to be that way ourselves.

In contrast, there was the horrible experience of going to see Bob at the Dutchess Baseball Stadium in New York State four or five years ago, when the staff on the gates were joyless jobsworths practising a rip-off: that is, on the pretext of Health & Safety, we all had our bags searched and things like small telescopic umbrellas were taken off us and thrown in a pile - it was claimed we'd be able to retrieve them on the way out, but of course by then they'd vanished. Plastic drinks bottles were also seized in this peremptory way - yet once inside they were selling beer in glass bottles... and then standing down reasonably near the front, I had the equivalent experience of Nigel's Norwegian. A short, tubby bloke in front of me kept leaning back against me and then turning round belligerently to accuse me of leaning forwards into him. Naturally there were not many available inches behind me to step back into for the sake of appeasing the little shit. Eventually I had to hold to my own position - and a few minutes later, without a word, he just jabbed his elbow backwards with great force into my stomach. It was painful, but more of a shock: and then his girlfriend turned round and started badmouthing both Sarah and me. It wasn't much of a performance from Bob either, but it would have spoilt the remainder of the concert in any case.

I also share Nigel's mystification about people streaming in and out mid-performance to get drinks; again, I think this is no recent thing. It's always been the case that if someone sends you a bootleg audience recording, you can tell immediately whether it's from an American or European show because if the former there's a constant audible shouting back and forth about hotdogs. Yet I know too that at Hammersmith in 1990 there would always be some yahoo pushing past right in the middle of some exquisite, quiet Bob song-performance, to go for a pee...

So yes, John, I still "somehow expect a lower arsehole count at a Dylan show" but based on experience I shouldn't.

2:32 pm  
Blogger Debra Jo Whitcomb said...

Thank you to Micheal Gray for this blog and to guest post by Nigel Hinton as well as the comments by John Carvill, Pope Leo, and Anonymous. While my experience is somewhat different being a relatively new Dylan fan (2 years) and not having the history that is referenced in the various comments, still I was able to relate to a lot of the comments and so appreciate the articulation of the experience of the 2 nights of concerts that Nigel Hinton shared. I have seen Dylan 6 times in 2 years (3 of them being 3 nights in a row New Orleans, Pensacola, and Atlanta in July this year and then Boston in August this year). I can only describe these past few years as some kind of enchantment, if you will, that is a factor, as Nigel Hinton talks about, of both myself as well as Dylan and his music. It is truly like some kind of spell has come over me. So it is helpful for me to understand my experience when I hear the experiences of others. Thank you all for what you have shared of your experiences and thoughts. It is much appreciated.

3:23 pm  
Anonymous Jazrick said...

Nigel, thank you for the post about your experiences of Bob at Hammersmith.

You expressed something that I can absolutely relate to in years of watching Dylan. I first saw him in Edinburgh in 1966 and experienced then something close to what you describe of your second Hammersmith show. It obviously doesn't happen every time I see Dylan but it did happen at the two Glasgow Braehead shows and the two Hammersmith shows that I saw. (I was unable to get to the final Hammersmith show, alas!) On Saturday night I was in a circle seat and that powerful feeling was somehow just as strong as on Sunday night when I was standing three people back from the rail.

It may be an old geezer thing as you say, but that ecstatic feeling that overwhelms comes from the music being created but it is also seeing physically present the man to whom we have had a connection for decades. It's a deep love of the man and a recognition of the beauty of his art happening simultaneously. Despite all the distractions of the standing audience with its quota of fools with mobiles, drinkers and girls who want to push in, somehow it is possible to be 'locked in tight' with Bob's performance - and I'd been queuing since 4.30 and ached in plenty of places. You do need to see his face though, particularly as he is being so expressive these days. It is our good fortune that a recent number of audience videos on YouTube in HD (and those Paolo Brillo photos) give us some great close-up images of that amazing face.

Talking with some of the people at the front on the second night, they said that the sound on Saturday downstairs was poor for the first half and they couldn't hear Bob clearly, whereas for us in the circle every word could be heard. They agreed that on the second night downstairs the sound mix was much better. As is often the case, our experiences differ widely depending on position and we should never expect the bootleg recording to reflect accurately what we heard and felt.

2:55 pm  
Blogger Singing Bear said...

"I genuinely don't know if the show was a good show"

I believe this to be the case 90% of the time for 90% of Bob's fans. When attending one of his gigs, all critical faculties seem to be lost. I know he's been the greatest song-writer of the last 100 years and has released the most important albums of all time (in my opinions, at least) but the reality is that his shows aren't very good any more and people don't go to hear music but merely to stand in his presence. This is just an adult version of teenage hysteria and a bit sad. He's Bob Dylan, song and dance man (so he said) and if you judge him on those terms the people attending are being short-changed.

9:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very perceptive piece. I too go back to the 60's, my wife was lucky enough to see him at the Albert Hall in those days and we've been to most of his appearances in the UK since the Street Legal tour started off the modern UK tours..(queued for 8 hours(!) at the Colston Hall in Bristol and still didn't get tickets..luckily walked into Keith Prowse in Oxford St the next day and got pretty well the last ones). Anyway, it's always a gamble, as well we all know...we actually walked out of the Tom Petty/Bob gig at Wembley on the night of the great hurricane, those were the days of dire sound, dark stages, no face lighting..a real nadir. We stuck at it though, until hitting gold with the Roundhouse..for the first time we were within spitting distance of the man and all was true..the engagement, asides, looks, absolutely amazing. I didn't think that could be topped, and was slightly reluctant to go for the Hammersmith show..but the old finger hovered over the "buy" button..and suddenly it was more gamble. And what a night. Up there, comfy in the circle, also irritated by the inexplicable serial texting going on all around, but, wow, the music. I was genuinely moved to a tear at MK's gesture to felt like it was done on behalf of all of us, who have stuck it through thick and thin times, to the old bugger. I really daren't think about the next could be a disappointment...but then again..maybe, just one more time.

12:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

beautifully described
and my experience at these two shows was exactly the same as yours

2:26 pm  
Anonymous RR said...

"It's always been the case that if someone sends you a bootleg audience recording, you can tell immediately whether it's from an American or European show because if the former there's a constant audible shouting back and forth about hotdogs."

On bootlegs, I always liked the polite, sibilant whispers of Dutch audiences between--only ever between!--songs...

3:30 pm  
Blogger rwellsrwells said...

Thanks for the great, and honest post.

I've been lucky, Dylan's never disappointed me. My first show was his "Budokan" tour, and I've caught him every couple of years since. I stopped going after the Merle Haggard tour, though. Too expensive, and his voice was getting worse and worse.

As to the audience: when he was playing colleges the crowds were pretty good, theaters and fairs always brought out a mixed, and sometimes rowdy bunch. I haven't seen a show since the advent of the unholy text message phenom, but it does seem that the young have given up on the moment.

7:10 am  
Blogger SG said...

It's a small world - probably not as we all move in the same circles....
Anyway, being the Norwegian referred to by Nigel - I like to say thank you for making your words mine; Saturday was spoiled by the aggressive young guy - my focus was gone after the second encounter - and being very dis-comfortable with the situation I left somewhat early - but it was all straighten out by the Monday concert.
Tears to my eyes....
Btw I'm not in my 50'ies but 60'ies - "still tears to my eyes" when Dylan really do the two or three interpretations that make us come to concert after concert.
Nigel, good meeting & talking to you, reading your sharp review and realizing at least 2 old men had the same week-end experience - Sunday also hat it's moments.
All the best Svein

4:21 pm  
Blogger Elby the Beserk said...

I'm 60, brought up with Dylan. When he starting touring all the time, the reviews and reports from friends were so uniformly awful, I didn't bother. 2000 came, and it was clear he had a great band. Went to see him in Cardiff, with one of my kids, and some long term Bobcats. We got in early, and we maybe 4 or 5 yards from centre stage.

Bob was - is - charismatic. I couldn't take my eyes off him. The band were fantastic - total headfuck rock 'n roll of the highest quality. Sure, it took a while to work out what some of the songs were - maybe 2 minutes, when my son Tom turned to me and said - Tombstone Blues.

My Bobcat friends both told me that was the best show they had ever seen him play. Ah, I said - he was waiting for me.

Saw him once more, Cardiff again, 2002 I think. Good, but not as good as the 2000 show. Maybe. maybe won't go to see him again. He is, after all. a living legend, FFS. But that show in 2000 I will treasure for the rest of my life. We got him on a really good night, and the whole auditorium was with him and the band. Magic.

3:06 pm  
Blogger Elby the Beserk said...

On the arsey twat at the show. I've had a similar experience, in a packed Fleece and Firkin in Bristol, watching a rejuvenated Arthur Lee (RIP) a few years back. Having been shoved hard from in front, to be moved from my place, I tapped the guy on the shoulder.

He turned, clearly ready to sock me, to find 6'6" of mean looking bastard eyeing him. He was maybe 5'4". Move away, I told him. He did. I'm a total pacifist, but it's handy to be able to look mean. WTF is wrong with people who go to shows looking for a fight?

3:19 pm  
Blogger Singing Bear said...

To follow up on the subject of arse-holes at shows, I had a horrible experience the last time I saw Bob in Cardiff in 2009 (which is perhaps why I couldn't be bothered to shell out £60 to see him this time around). It has been my custom to get as close to the front as I can at most of Bob's gigs I've been to but for the 2009 show I decided it was time I took it easy and got some seats at the rear of the shed that is the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena. This was the first time I had attended a Bob concert with one of my kids, so it was extra important to me that we had a good experience. Within a few minutes of the concert starting it was clear that things may not work out as planned as our seats were by a gangway that was filled with young, studenty types who were standing and intent on shouting,chatting and texting all the way through the show. The stewards clearly couldn't give a toss. I snapped when they decided it was fine talk endlessly through even the gentlest acoustic moments, which us real fans were trying to concentrate on with every fibre of our music loving souls. I asked these folk if they wouldn't mind keeping the noise down as we were here to listen to Bob and had payed good money for our seats. All I got was a tirade of abuse and veiled threats from these fellow 'music lovers' and no support from any of the other people around. In the end, as the racket continued, we left our seats and stood at the back with distracted and disappointed hearts and minds. I'd like to know why the hell these idiots go to hear and see the greatest songwriter of the past 100 years with no intention of paying him any attention. This is becoming more and more common at all sorts of shows and is putting me off from bothering to attend. The prat quota in this world grows by the day.

8:20 am  
Anonymous Daniel Fugallo said...

I also enjoyed the Saturday,and particularly the Sunday night concerts - the cowboy arrangement of Blind Willie McTell being much more pleasing than the one he co-opted from The Band.

But who are these people who, for example,sit in the front row of the balcony and check their emails all through the show until,mercifully, they get bored and leave? Not exclusively, or even, from what I saw, primarily young people.

It is well known that far, far more people go to see live bands than ever did before. I'm not sure why that is. It's certainly very obliging of the general public, given that artists can't make much money from record sales any more.

These swollen numbers seem to include, as perhaps one should expect, a lot of people who really don't enjoy live music at all, who perhaps have not listened to music as a singular activity for many years, if they ever have.

And mobile phones seem to have destroyed all possibility of concentration, let alone a sacred space. Forget about Bob Dylan, a very great artist, at a relatively intimate venue like the Hammy O - I experienced a more respectful, attentive atmosphere when I saw Queen in 1986 at Wembley Stadium. (I was only 14 and hadn't discovered Bob yet - if you were a teenager in 80s Britain he took some finding. Oh Mercy helped a lot and I'll always have a special affection for that record.)

For all that, it was infinitely preferable to see Dylan here, than at some enormodome, and Trying to Get to Heaven gave me an intimation of the transcendence Nigel so movingly describes.

2:25 pm  

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