This has been a perplexing year for a lot of us Bob Dylan loyalists. We aren’t sure what to make of our hero.
I spent a lot of 2010 and 2011 thinking, talking with people and writing about Dylan, as preparation for my book, “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution” (which Penguin published on Aug. 7).
I came to the coclusion that Dylan had accomplished so much, on his terms, over his brilliant 50-year career that he could serve as more than a model musician, songwriter or performer.
He struck me as a classic role model, in the traditions of war heroes, presidents, inventors, explorers, athletes and billionaires. He means so much to plenty of people. We can learn from his example. I sure learned a lot of life lessons, and I put them in the book.
Over the summer, I heard “Tempest,” Dylan’s latest (and 43rd!) studio album. I enjoyed it, especially his tribute to John Lennon. It’s a moving homage to a fellow traveler. I always had the feeling that Lennon and Dylan stood above all of the others (though Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are within reach), so it was interesting to recognize Dylan’s appreciation of John.
My 2012 view of Dylan was diminished by an enjoyable but ultimately sub-par concert I saw him give at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 26.
To me, Dylan seemed content to mail it in that night — a startling development from someone who takes as much pride in his concerts as Dylan. I was excited at the prospect of seeing Dylan perform in his adopted hometown at the legendary venue.
But Dylan let me down. No, I didn’t feel a need to change my belief that Dylan could represent a terrific role model. I DID feel extremely disappointed by what I perceived to be a lack of interest by Dylan in the audience. He didn’t sing with a lot of feeling. He didn’t play any of his new songs. He went through the motions of playing songs I’d heard many times before — but this time, because of his lethargy, they seemed like albatrosses, not classics.
I saw The Stones perform at the Barclays Center — and they were excellent — it reinforced my notion that Dylan didn’t seem to care about his audience.
By contrast, the Stones played all of their great songs with gusto. They smiled. They bothered to thank the audience. Mick Jagger actually deigned to talk to us and thank us for being there.
The Stones clearly wanted to be there (you can say they cared only about the money but I think it was more than that. True, they were playing what amounted to a one-off show while Dylan was already deep into seven-week tour. Maybe Dylan had a toothache. Maybe one of his grandchildren had the flu. Maybe he had other things on his mind. Maybe I am completely wrong and alone in my point of view.
Perhaps Dylan tours too much to make each show a special event. And face it, we expect special accomplishments from the man. Maybe it isn’t fair of me to ask for so much.
Maybe, in the end, Dylan is simply a musician in 2012. someone who is bound to have good nights and bad on the road, who is going to put out great and throwaway songs. Fair enough.
Maybe Dylan is content, by now, to be hailed as an icon. But Dylan means more to us than The Legend. He insists that he isn’t a museum piece. I want him to continue to evolve in front of my eyes. He is on a special plane with McCartney, Jagger, Springsteen. The difference is the other performers give it their all. Dylan didn’t give it his all that night at the Hollywood Bowl.
I originally wrote an essay that you can find on my website(http://jonfriedman.net). I explained the title of this piece, noting that Dylan read a poem on stage in 1963 entitled “Last Thoughts on Wood Guthrie.” His point was that he had to break away from Guthrie in the public’s mind. He needed, probably as well, to tell himself that he could no longer live in the great shadow of his idol.
If I am guilty of asking for too much from Dylan, it’s only because he has set such a high standard.
JONFRIEDMAN.NET QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do we expect too much from Dylan? Is he by now more of a Legend than an Artist.