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Dylan In Bakersfield

by Gary Gordon
(published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Feb. 2000)

     At first, the pieces don't seem to fit. The poet laureate of our time, in Bakersfield? But we live in a time when pieces don't fit, and in seconds we are comfortable with any information that is initially jarring. That's a tribute to our ability to adapt. Or is it?
     Considerations of time, era, personal experience, and philosophical questions are imperative when venturing anywhere to see Dylan. There was a time when legends were armed with minds and guitars, when poet-troubadours, not right-wing pundits, informed our national dialogue. When our concerns and imaginations required the question/demand: "How many times--?" instead of "Is that your final answer?" Are those times, a remnant, a legacy, still alive?
     But the question around the table at the Sunday Main Street Farmer's Market is: Is Dylan still alive? Robin says "I'm not goin' to see some geriatric try to play rocknroll." But we learn that tickets are still available at 1pm on the day-of-show, so four of us make the buy and journey to... Bakersfield.
     Hank wonders aloud why Dylan is doing this kind of tour, in smaller venues, with no new album to promote--"he certainly doesn't need the money."
     Gio, who is old enough to have fought in Vietnam when it was popular, says this is his first Dylan concert.
     And Jeff tells everyone about the website he found where you can find out all the setlists for all the Dylan concerts, ever!
     I opine that it makes sense for Dylan to do these tours, if you think about him not as rocknroll star Dylan but as craftsman/artist Dylan, the Dylan initially influenced by Woody Guthrie. And therein lies the answer to Bakersfield: certainly Woody wouldn't have hesitated to play in Bakersfield. The whole point back then was to get the songs to the masses because they were of and for the masses, back when "masses" was not an outlawed word and entertainment consisted of more than focusing on the entertainment world for its source material.
     Then we all tell Gio that you never know what's going to happen at a Dylan concert; you never know which Dylan he'll be. Will he be the "mumbling Bob Dylan", the "Who cares Bob Dylan?", the "I have no voice and no memory of my own lyrics Bob Dylan?", or will he be the folk-rock singer and poet extraordinaire whose lyrics and delivery are razor sharp and resonate deep?
     We have witnessed all the possibilities.
     Although I'm almost as old as Gio, (I'm old enough to have fought in Vietnam when it wasn't popular), I came late to the party of live Dylan. I first saw him in Chicago in '74, which would be boring to relate except that it was during the Watergate times when Nixon was on the run, and when Dylan sang "...and even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked," from "It's Alright Ma", the audience howled, applauded, lit lighters (and illegal cigarettes) and in orgasm unison pictured how delicious it would be for Nixon to be stripped of power and booted from office. At that concert, where he was accompanied by The Band, he also sang "Ballad of A Thin Man", an anthem to those who just didn't understand.
     At that concert Dylan was the folk-rock singer, loaded with lyrics, in full voice. As we pull into Bakersfield, noting the Denny's and billboard for the Showgirls club, noting the empty streets, we remark: "You can tell there's a Dylan concert here tonight." This obviously thinly conceals our concern over what kind of concert it'll be; like the 60s, we are hopeful; unlike the 60s, we are cautious in our optimism and expectations. It's comforting to remember that Dylan started writing before 70s psychobabble and 80s Reagan "practicality" so infected the country's psyche. Remember optimism? Remember when criticism was directed at the powerful, not the powerless? Remember when the hypocrisy of officials and authorities was an enemy of the people? Remember when lowered expectations were a crime?
     I saw the Rolling Thunder Review in Gainesville, Florida, an afternoon stadium concert, in 1976; it was the tour where Dylan brought a collection of great musicians (including Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Joan Baez, David Mansfield, Steve Soles, Kinky Friedman, Mick Ronson and more) and just partied on stage. To paraphrase the Beach Boys, it was "ten guitars for every boy." And three hours of show, including "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", "Maggie's Farm", "One Too Many Mornings", "Blowin' In The Wind", "Shelter From The Storm", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", "Mozambique", "Lay Lady Lay", "Idiot Wind", "Knockin On Heaven's Door", "Mr Tambourine Man", "Isis", "One More Cup Of Coffee", "Like A Rolling Stone", and "Simple Twist Of Fate". A veritable greatest hits show-- who knew he would still be performing 24 years later? In '76 I was 24 years old.
     I remember it was spring, and the hippies were in bloom. And Joan Baez stole the show, singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".
     We told Gio you never knew what songs he was going to play, or how he was going to play them; that in the last fifteen years he'd become notorious for changing arrangements, sometimes even right there on stage.
     My friend Stan was the drummer for the tour in '86.
     Me: "That must be incredibly cool, playing with Dylan."
     Stan: "He changes things, tempos, keys, beginnings, endings, breaks, right on stage."
     Me: "It must be so cool."
     Stan: "Not with your ass hanging out in front of 50,000 people."      Even with the Access All Areas Pass ("you are now a God") Stan gave me for those two shows at RFK Stadium, the '86 shows were a mess. If it hadn't been for getting in free, the great seats, hanging with Stan, getting backstage and enjoying the food, passing Dylan in the hallway (I muttered "Don't look back"), the show would've been something to complain about. But despite the mystical arrangements, the terrible sound for the first show, and Jerry Garcia being on the verge of a coma, the song selection was great. You can't complain about Dylan concerts that include: Positively 4th Street, Shot Of Love, Masters Of War, It Ain't Me Babe, Across The Borderline, Like A Rolling Stone, Blowin' In The Wind, Knockin' On Heaven's Door, Just Like A Woman, It's All Over Now Baby Blue, and Desolation Row.
     Well, of course you can complain, but what would be the point?      At Mexicali, a restaurant with very polite waitresses, a couple of blocks from the concert hall, sardonic humor is supplanted when it really does become apparent that there's a Dylan concert here tonight: you can see all the "here for the concert" folks eating burritos. Jeff has a double margarita, we briefly discuss the pallid songwriting career of Jimmy Buffet, Jeff announces it's the strongest margarita he's ever had, and then begins telling everyone we see that "we're from L.A." Later, he's disappointed that no one's impressed.
     Me, I'm sinking into the solitude of a shady spot by the riverbank in my mind, at the confluence of rivers of poetry and music. Dylan's been at this 40 years. As a musician, guitarist, singer-songwriter, he has been first among the profound influences of my life. It's unavoidable to think of this as a pilgrimage to see the prophet, as ridiculous as pilgrimages can be, as flawed as prophets can be. Every actor I know longs to play certain parts. Hamlet seems to top their list. I have sung Dylan songs, in bands and as a solo performer, in living rooms, in crowded and half-empty bars. I have embraced at times so many of his lyrics: "...to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free...", "...because the cops, they donāt need you, and man they expect the same...", "...it's easy to see without lookin' too far that not much is really sacred...", "They sat together in the park as the evening sky grew dark...", "I'll be your baby tonight...", "They're selling postcards of the hanging...", "...the Second Mother was with the Seventh Son, and they were both out on Highway 61!", "...did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?"
     Dylan in Bakersfield? I am ready to see and enjoy what the artist has to offer.
     But first, Asleep At The Wheel opens. And as much as I want to enjoy them, they're basically a bar-band on a concert stage, with no back-up vocals, doing tunes that beg for back-up vocals. Their leader is too conceited. But their rendition of "Hot Rod Lincoln" is fun. I turn to Gio and opine, "That's the problem with our civilization. We used to celebrate technology and manhood with songs like Hot Rod Lincoln and Rocket '88. Can you imagine singing rocknroll songs about your web browser, or feeling like a man because youāve successfully downloaded the new Netscape 4.7 or plugged in your scanner using a USB connection?"
     Now that technology doesn't define manhood, now that entertainment has replaced politics, now that pathology has replaced religion, now that the ten commandments has replaced the Bill of Rights, now that we empathize more with the plight of fictional screen characters than with real-life victims of social injustice, what defines a prophet? What defines a legend? (Did I mention that philosophical considerations are mandatory when approaching a Dylan concert?)
     As the lights go up for intermission, we survey the crowd: a mix of folks our age, a little older, and many of "the kids today". Jeff says Dylan's toured colleges a lot in the last few years, "and the kids come out." I say, "no, it's the faculty." But clearly I'm wrong. Not having kids, I don't know if they're digging his sound, his lyrics, or just the fact that he's a legend. Or, as Jeff points out, "what else is there to do in Bakersfield tonight?"
     There's about 8,000 folks in the 10,000 seat hall, but our gaze locks on an odd quartet: two really huge biker-types, male and female, and the two women with them: one older, slender, in a fringe vest, and one around seventeen, with a short skirt that apparently needs constant adjustment. The biker man's hair is longer than her skirt. I surmise that this is one of those families that Bush and Bennett and Quayle et. al don't usually have in mind when they're speaking of, you know, "families".
     The lights go down and Dylan and his band take the stage. And it is a beautiful show. His voice, at first, is weak, as he changes melodies to lower notes and speak-sings several lyrics. I don't recognize the first song ("I Am The Man"), but the second song warms the heart: "Mr. Tambourine Man", and I am there, with him, as I have been before, thinking, praying, "Let me forget about today until tomorrow." Everyone plays acoustic instruments, as they move swiftly to "It's Alright Ma", much different from 26 years ago in Chicago, a forceful, rockin' arrangement. And when he sings "Old lady judges watch people in pairs/ limited in sex, they dare/ to push fake morals, insult and stare/ while money doesn't talk, it swears/ obscenity, who really cares/ propaganda, all is phony," I cannot help but think of Prop. 22 and Dubya's millions and especially the relevance of the lyric 35 years later.
     "Tangled Up In Blue" follows "Love Minus Zero"--"She's true like ice, like fire", "...there was revolution in the air...";both rearranged to suit his voice, which is beginning to gain some strength; but fans of the original "Blue" would probably be annoyed. They transition to electric guitars, and after "This World Can't Stand Long", "Dignity", and "Country Pie", Dylan launches into an aggressive version of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again". Hank revels in an epiphany produced by the never-ending search to understand Dylan's meanings. "I get it now," he cries. "He's caught between two women. He's stuck with Mobile, but longs for Memphis." This, plus the influence of the cookies Hank's friend sent from Oregon that they ingested just before the concert, prompts a brief discussion of Mobil gasoline, gas prices negating the minimum wage increase, what the song would've meant if it'd been Sunoco instead of Mobile, and whether Sunoco is pronounced with the accent on Sun or on the first o.
     Dylan follows with "Just Like A Woman" and we watch the slender mom in the fringe vest jump up on the chair and sing along: "...She aches, just like a woman / she makes love, just like a woman..."
     Dylan is now in close approximation to full voice. He is mobile, dancing around the stage, punching out leads on his guitar that are well beyond the half-ass crap he was doing several years ago-- it's rocknroll!. He plays harp on some tunes and wails. His band is tight, and the songs are full-bodied, powerful, overwhelming. After "Things Have Changed", and "Not Dark Yet" he plunges headlong into a searing "Highway 61", and the crowd is on their feet as he sneers "God said to Abraham, kill me a son..."
     It's the last song of the set, before the obligatory encore ritual. There is an encore, and it's wild: "Love Sick", "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" (with everyone singing the chorus: "everybody must get stoned"-- and with the sweet smell of benign albeit illegal smoke fragancing the air), "Blowin' In The Wind", and as a closer, the only cover song of the evening, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away", which rocks.
     As people call for even more and the lights go up, I am back in solitude, at the confluence of that river, thinking about some of the lyrics to "Blowin' In The Wind"; what they meant, what they still mean. "...how many years can some people exist, before they're allowed to be free?ä·, "...how many years can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?," "...how many years will the cannonballs fly, before they're forever banned?"
     Perhaps because I'm so political, I think about the anniversary of the Civil Rights march in Alabama 35 years ago and the Confederate Slavery Flag still flying over South Carolina's capitol, and Diallo, and Rampart-- I picture Charlton Heston, who marched for Civil Rights back then, now turning his head, ignoring gun violence. And I think of our ceaseless, tireless, continuing efforts to bomb Iraq and our refusal to pursue a land-mine treaty.
     But that's the beauty of poetry; it provokes you to have your thoughts. And that's the treasure we have in Dylan-- he is a provocative poet, armed with a mind and guitar.
     "What's that lyric again, the one in 'It's Alright Ma?'" Hank asks as we drive over the Grapevine back to Santa Monica.
     "Advertising signs that con/ you into thinking you're the one/ that can do what's never been done/ that can win what's never been won/ meantime life outside goes on all around you," I answer.      And when people continue to want to hear the words, you know the answer to the question raised at the Farmer's Market that morning.
     Dylan in Bakersfield?
     Dylan lives!

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