1) Announcement (Madison Square Garden, Nov. 11)
For years, the same voice has opened every show with the same phrase, squashing the name at the end into one word: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Columbia recording artist, BOBDYLAN!” Last Aug. 9, though, a piece appeared in the Buffalo News in anticipation of a Dylan date in Hamburg, N.Y. It led with a paragraph recapitulating Dylan’s career. As print it was boilerplate — but to hear that paragraph now, appropriated as Dylan’s official new introduction, was pure media shock. It’s the displacement that takes place when the conventions of one form are shoved into the conventions of another form: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jesus, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Dylan!”
2) “Masters of War” (MSG, Nov. 11)
In 1991, with the Gulf War underway, Dylan stepped onto the stage at the Grammys telecast with his band. They were to play before Jack Nicholson presented Dylan with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The combo dove into a blithering, all-stops-out piece of rhythm, Dylan smearing every word into a single sound. It was “Masters of War,” from 1963, Dylan’s best, and most unforgiving, antiwar song — but you couldn’t necessarily tell. The song was buried in its performance, as if history were its true audience.
With a second Gulf War looming, there was no disguise when, seven songs into the first of two New York shows, Dylan gathered his small band into a half-circle for an acoustic, almost chamber-music version. Played very slowly, very deliberately, the performance made you understand just how good the song is. It wasn’t a matter of relevance. You could imagine that if the last war on earth had occurred 39 years ago — if the song had, by its very appearance, ended war — the song would still speak, just as a 7,000-year-old god excavated in Jordan and recently installed in the Louvre is still speaking, reminding you of what you came from, of who you once were.
3) Cover: Elvis Costello’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” 1977 (MSG, Nov. 11)
He didn’t sing about the shoes; having apparently invested more wisely than the angels, he wore them.
4) CD: “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Live 1975 — The Rolling Thunder Revue” (Columbia)
Confusion in almost every vocal, a pound of sugar in almost every arrangement. Right, the famous “donned makeup in the ’70s” period.
5) Paul Muldoon, “Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000,” from “‘Do You, Mr, Jones?’ — Bob Dylan With the Poets and Professors,” ed. Neil Corcoran (Chatto & Windus, U.K.)
Muldoon is a poet (author most recently of “Moy Sand and Gravel”), co-author of Warren Zevon’s recent “My Ride’s Here” and a professor at Princeton. Leading off this new essay collection with a new poem, Muldoon goes back to the show Dylan played at Princeton in 2000 — which took place in Princeton’s Dillon Gym. “‘You know what, honey? We call that a homonym,’” the narrator of the poem says to the woman he’s with as the concert starts. Then Dylan’s only previous appearance at Princeton enters the poem — in 1970, when Dylan was present not to play but to accept an honorary degree. “He wouldn’t wear a hood,’” the narrator of the poem remembers. “‘You know what, honey? We call that disquietude.’”
6) Cover: George Harrison’s “Something,” 1969 (MSG, Nov. 13, available on bobdylan.com)
A final encore, done very straight. Musicians love this song; they admire the ability to craft anything that’s at once generic, anonymous and likely to generate income for a hundred years.
7) “Summer Days” (MSG, Nov. 11)
In a perfect world, this would be the turnaround cut on a live album called “Having a Rave-Up With Bob Dylan!”
8) “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” (MSG, Nov. 11, available on bobdylan.com)
Dylan’s first performance of the song since he recorded it with the Hawks in a basement of a big pink house in upstate New York 35 years ago. Two of the five who were there then are dead. The house was recently on the market as a prime Dylan collectible. The tune still blew the air of pure American fedupness: “Pack up the meat, sweet, we’re headin’ out.”
9) “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (MSG, Nov. 11)
From 1965. The audience always waits to cheer for “Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked.” By now the song has outlasted almost as many presidents as Fidel Castro: Lyndon Johnson (no problem, for a man who liked to receive guests while sitting on the toilet), Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton (who as president was stripped naked, and who you can imagine singing the line to himself) and now George W. Bush. The line took nothing away from the last man on the list; he lives in the armor of his own entitlement.
10) “All Along the Watchtower” (MSG, Nov. 11)
The second of two encores, it began very strangely, with guitarist Charlie Sexton rolling a few spare notes that seemed to call up a distant western — Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” maybe, with Neil Young’s improvised and timeless guitar soundtrack. It was in fact the opening of Ferrante & Teicher’s 1961 twin-piano hit “Theme From ‘Exodus,’” from the movie based on Leon Uris’ 1958 novel about the creation of the state of Israel. Whether you caught the reference or not, it took the song about to emerge from its own history — one of Dylan’s most world-ending, from 1968, a year that over and over again felt like the end of the world — out of itself. Now the song was going to speak with a new voice: That was the promise that little introduction made.
It was impossible to imagine that Dylan ever played the song with more vehemence, or that, this night, six days after the midterm congressional elections, the performance was not utterly political, as much a protest song as “Masters of War.” Not when, after Dylan, Sexton and guitarist Larry Campbell led an overwhelming instrumental climb through the tune’s themes following the closing verse, Dylan came back to the mike to sing the opening verse again in a wild voice, throwing the last lines across the seats and out of the hall like a curse: “Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/ None of them, along the line, know what — any — any of it — any of it is — worth.”