a close encounter with Mr Dylan

Finsbury Park, Saturday 18th June, 2011.

There are very few singers or musicians that could draw me out of my fen-edge retreat these days to make a special journey to see them in the flesh. And most of those are dead anyway. But when I learned that this was to be his only UK concert this year (possibly his last ever here, it was rumoured) and that he had just turned 70, and the fact that I had only ever seen him perform once, 42 years ago (from a very great distance, at the legendary Isle of Wight Festival in 1969), I decided to go and pay my respects. It was probably the last chance I’d get. So on D-day I jumped on a train with Absolutely Sweet Marie and travelled to Finsbury Park to see and hear, up close, the Joker Man, Jack of Hearts, the Song and Dance Man, the Señor himself.

I remember clearly when I first heard Bob Dylan. It was 1965 and I was 13 years old. I was at boarding school in the bush, miles from anywhere, in what was then Southern Rhodesia. I had my illicit transistor tuned to the shortwave music station LM Radio which broadcast out of Lourenco Marques in Mozambique, the Southern African equivalent of Radio Luxembourg at the time. Out of the airwaves one morning came a thin, reeling, jingle-jangle sound, with bursts of skirling harmonica and a feral voice that seemed very far away, from a long place ago, time out of mind, singing out a song quite unlike anything I’d heard before, whose mysterious lyrics I didn’t quite understand but which were utterly thrilling and somehow subversive. The song was ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, and that strange wizened voice has been with me ever since. For nearly fifty years I’ve had a soft spot for Mr Dylan – through all his changes and mine.

This was an intimate gathering, as weekend festivals go, with a county fair atmosphere and a surprisingly eclectic audience. There were, naturally, a fair number of old codgers about, veterans of the sixties, Dylan contemporaries, but also quite a few kids running around, and adolescents, and masses of garrulous London Irish twenty-somethings each clutching a bucket of Guiness (it was billed as a festival of Irish music). Come to think of it there were just as many mid-lifers, and foreigners too. Dylanists of all ages, from all walks of life, all afflicted to a greater or lesser degree. Knowing that his recent performances have sometimes been less than inspired, and, on occasion, downright dreadful, we were somewhat trepidacious. As the hour approached, the crowd thickened and grew restive. It was cheek-by-jowl standing room only near the front. We had endured the queues, buckets of rain, unspeakable toilets, jaw-dropping food prices, and (in our case) hours and hours of standing, so when Mr Dylan and his 5-piece band walked out onto the stage more or less on time and launched, without ado, into the rather plodding, pedestrian 12-bar gospel blues of “Gonna change my way of thinking/Gonna make myself a different set of rules”, we were in thrall, of course, but hardly exhilarated. It wasn’t a great opener for a somewhat chilly, sodden, cloud-flung Finsbury evening. It was going to be a slow train coming.

Mr Dylan at 70 seemed on good form and in good shape. Dapper, distinguished even, in a sharp black suit, with a broad white stripe down the trouser, and a white Cordobes hat floating above a poker face, hooded eyes, pencil moustache, and the barest of greying goatees. No shades. Part Durango gambler, part Southern showman. Against a blacked-out stage and black backcloth emblazoned with a massive, white, fire-crowned, all-seeing eye sometimes all you could see was the hat. For a good deal of the time Mr Dylan stationed himself at his keyboard, side on to the audience, but when he did take up his electric guitar and harmonica he obligingly moved centre stage and into the light. Things improved with a reworked, almost unrecognizable ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, which left us all guessing, but when Mr. Dylan bent his knees and blew the first wailing notes on his magic harp the audience ignited and things took off. His voice, as they say, has bottomed out, but is still as distinctive and powerful as ever. He rattled, growled, hissed, snarled, spat and crooned with lip-curling intensity through 15 songs, stretching words to breaking point, running lines together in rapid staccato bursts, timing his phrasing to perfection. A very cool ‘Things Have Changed’ continued the theme, followed by a mangled version of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, sung to a different beat of the drum. It was an interesting set – old favourites like ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, and more recent, less well-known songs such as ‘Summer Days’, ‘Cold Irons Bound’, ‘Forgetful Heart’, and a rocking ‘Thunder on the Mountain’. No acoustic numbers, no playing solo, none of those famous understated bitter-sweet lovesongs. Each song reinterpreted, rearranged, sometimes in startling ways, with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton supplying some exquisite riffs and solos. It was like hearing a new set of songs for the first time. Mostly it worked and the audience loved it. The evening turned into something of a massed evangelical karaoke. Some, it seems, knew all the words. And when Mr Dylan and his band came back for an encore of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, and ‘Blowin in The Wind’ the crowd roared and hollered its heart out. He did well, and the band was great. We were satisfied.

Dylan was inscrutable throughout. Some say he smiled, but I have my doubts. It could have been the way he curled his mouth begging ’pleeeeeeeaze’. Did he enjoy it? It’s impossible to say. He’s been doing it for more than 50 years, and touring ceaselessly since 1988 on his so-called Never-Ending Tour, performing 100 plus one-nighters a year. Enjoyment probably doesn’t come into it. He’s a master craftsman. It’s what he does. Not once did he address the audience, apart from introducing his band during the encore. Remote, retiring, unsentimental, and still apparently somewhat ill-at-ease with his extraordinary gift and the fame it’s brought crashing down on his head. An anti-star if ever there was one. In the end it’s all about his songs, a staggering 500 of them, only a handful of which are worthless. Song after brilliant song, in a language like no other. As a singer/songwriter he is undoubtedly supreme, unequalled, a living treasure. But what are we to make of the China and Israel concerts, the Starbucks commercial endorsements, the messianic Christianity, and (what was he thinking?) the cringeworthy Christmas album?* Dylan continues, as always, to confound his fans and critics alike. Singular, unpredictable and iconoclastic, he breaks his own norms. Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine. After the final number, he lined up with the rest of his posse front stage while the crowd howled their approval. He stood there, surveying the scene with faraway eyes. As if he heard thunder over on Highgate Hill, rolling like a drum. No “Thanks”, no “Nice to see ya”, no “Hope ya had a good time”. None of that. As if to say, “You can take it or leave it. These are my songs. I’m not here”. Hand in jacket pocket, he turned away and disappeared into the night.

* I have since learned that all royalties from the sale of this album will go, in perpetuity, to the charities Feeding America in the USA, Crisis in the UK, and the World Food Programme. Forgiven. But it’s still a painful listen.