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- Name: Michael Gray
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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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.