I’ve been thinking a lot about the
first rock concert I ever went to. For about 15 years, Bob Dylan
has been on the Never-Ending Tour: Twice a year, the legendary
troubadour-turned-rocker and his band roam the globe, playing shows
in Asia, Europe and all over the United States. When I found out
that the first musician I’d discovered on my own and really
loved was still touring, coming to my town, I knew I had to take
him up on the offer.

As a gift for my 15th birthday, my parents bought me tickets to
see Bob in Raleigh, N.C., on July 14, 1999. My dad dropped me and a
friend off at Hardee’s Walnut Creek (now Alltell Wireless
Pavilion — from fried chicken to cell phones, that’s
the story of the South). After wandering the grounds looking for
salvageable ID bracelets, we headed to the amphitheater. The lawn
area was swarming with shoeless, braless neo-hippies, college kids,
and here and there were older couples with camping chairs and
bottles of white wine.

Our seats were in the theater, a few hundred yards from the
stage. I could barely make out the band’s equipment without
binoculars. Most everyone in this section was fully dressed and
sitting quietly. My pal and I settled in, declined a pipe offered
by some older guys sitting behind us, and waited for the show to
start.

I remember pretty much losing it when Bob and his band took the
stage. In retrospect, I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal.
He looked the same way he did in all the photos and posters on my
walls — blocky suit with a fluffy mop of hair sitting on top
of it. This was no different. His singing voice, though, had
changed considerably, since he bawled “I don’t believe
you … You’re a liar!” at an uppity folkster at a
show 33 years before. In the prime of his career, and even after
his first comeback in the ’70s, Dylan sang with a hard edge,
scuffed by overuse and chain-smoking. But now, vocally, he’s
more scrape than substance.

Iconically, the name “Bob Dylan” doesn’t mean
the same thing it used to, and his audiences are more concerned
with their Social Security than societal change. He can barely
manage the nasal croon he was always loved or hated for. Why should
we care about this whiny old bastard any more?

But what happens to rock idols after they’re no longer the
swaggering, snarling youths who captured the hearts and cash of
millions? What do they do once the dream is over?

Sometimes they O.D. before the rot sets in. They go nuts in
various ways — Dylan’s own idol, Woody Guthrie, ended
up delusional, dying of Huntington’s chorea in a New Jersey
hospital. Sometimes they never quite get the message and keep
slogging away, making shitty records that don’t say anything
except that their now-defunct creators wish they could be back in
the spotlight. Compared to some of his contemporaries, Bob’s
not doing so bad.

Dylan’s light has flickered — the soggy albums
produced after his motorcycle crash in 1966, the born-again
Christian period in the late ’70s, most of his releases in
the ’80s — but he’s always come back.

And that’s why he’s still worth seeing after so
long. There’s never been a more human musical icon in rock
history. His chameleonic career feels more like changes in the life
of a person than different directions taken by an artist. When sung
by him, Dylan’s words, poetic nonsense in any other context,
move minds and hearts like nothing I’ve ever heard.
That’s why his fans can listen to him sing about anything
from politics to divorce to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the
dark over and over again, recorded or live, and think and feel Yes.
This is important. This is right.

I used to feel like I’d missed out on rock music’s
inception, that everything important and worthwhile had happened
before 1970. But moments don’t matter — it’s a
lifetime that counts.

It took me a long time to realize that Bob Dylan doesn’t
end with Blonde on Blonde; he’s just as alive as he
ever was. The Never-Ending Tour is an invitation. Get in on the
secret: Dylan’s still got it.

 

Since we’re sick of listening to Alexandra talk
on and on about her favorite Dylan album,
Self Portrait, you
can talk to her instead at
“mailto:almajo@umich.edu”>almajo@umich.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.