As the '80s waned, Bob Dylan was waning too. The Christian records with which he'd started the decade were a punch line; the follow-ups were erratic and perverse, sometimes forgettable. (Anyone out there pulled out "Down in the Groove" lately?) And the star who for nearly 20 years had awed fans with monstrous, dizzying live performances seemed to have lost that talent as well. In 1979 and '80 he offered audiences peevish, uncompromising recitals of religious songs from his two Christian albums. He grudgingly leavened them with older work as time went on, only to grow bored and virtually disappear, eventually letting five years go by without touring the States. Repenting, he embarked on a loud, glitzy outing with Tom Petty and then a shapeless one with the Grateful Dead.
Finally, in 1988, with no album to promote -- indeed with perhaps no other impetus than boredom -- he went on the road with a bracing, stripped-down combo led by "Saturday Night Live" bandleader G.E. Smith. The original shows saw him intent, focused and creative, offering songs he hadn't played live for 20 years (or ever), and delivering them in revved-up flamboyance.
This was the beginning of the Never-ending Tour; it continues to this day. Obsessive touring isn't uncommon in the blues and country worlds; but no rock artist of anywhere near his caliber has ever undertaken such rigors. Dylan has played an average of close to 100 shows annually, all over the world, for the last 12 years. It seems an odd thing for a man in his late 50s and as rich as Croesus to do. A hint as to why he does it can perhaps be found in something he said a long time ago:
I don't carry myself yet the way Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people. I sometimes am able to do it, but it happens, when it happens, unconsciously. You see, in time, with those older singers, music was a tool -- a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel better at certain points.
To this end, over the course of a given year Dylan will offer audiences shows culled from more than 100 different songs -- an amazing number -- all taken from a personal history of song that begins with the 500 or so compositions in his catalog but also extends wildly to strange covers, folk classics, oddities (for a while he opened his shows with an instrumental version of the Marine Hymn) and occasionally songs whose origins puzzle even his obsessive chroniclers. I've seen him deliver a resonant version of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" in a cavernous civic center in Peoria, Ill., and Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" to a delighted crowd at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Calif. On another night, at a shed outside Chicago, after a seething performance by Steve Earle that featured a five-man country-rock guitar army, Dylan gave the crowd a punked-up version of "Absolutely Sweet Marie" that blew the cowboys off the stage.
Shows during the first years of the Never-ending Tour could get truly bizarre: Off nights were hugely off, and watching him mutilate his classics was painful. I can remember a run at "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" that might have been Einst|rzende Neubauten. Of late he's toned down; new songs always appear, sometimes unsteadily, but the anchors of his sets -- "Tangled Up in Blue," "All Along the Watchtower," "Like a Rolling Stone" -- are solid and professional. Dylan remains a crank and an odd star indeed; and anyone who spends as much time as he does on tour buses has some home issues. But as his songwriting talents have waned, you can see him reaching out to the road for that "way to live more."
Last year he did a nice series of West Coast dates with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. His latest star touring buddy is Paul Simon. They began in Colorado in early June and continue through a series of East Coast dates at the end of July. The pairings look good on paper and have that "boy, those stars just hang out in a big house together and jam" good-time feel; but frequently, as with the Dylan and Morrison tour, the co-stars never play together. The Simon shows are friendlier. The pair alternate opening, with the closer joining in for
a quartet of carefully practiced duets at the close of the first act's set. At a recent Northern California stop -- indeed, at the same shed in which he began the Never-ending Tour in 1988 -- a courtly and generous Dylan gave the crowd a good time for their money, no more.
And some money it was; front section tickets were $125, and most of the rest were $75. As far as I can tell it's fully twice what he ever charged for a normal show in the past. Dylan's attenuated, 15-song set contained some gorgeous moments, but a lot of it was sleepwalking -- credible but unrevelatory versions of songs, most of them well known, he ran into the ground many years ago. On the other hand, he was friendly and articulating his words, and the sound mix was professionally done, so it's probably not right to complain.
His backing band this year included Larry Campbell on guitars, Charlie Sexton as second guitarist and Tony Garnier, who has been with Dylan through most of the last 12 years, on bass. There was a gentle "Lay Lady Lay" sung with a little too much self-conscious prettiness. (At the end of it, Dylan delivered one of his classic dopey onstage lines: "I don't have a big brass bed anymore -- I got a better one!") "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" was pleasant but unmemorable. "Not Dark Yet," one of the more elegant songs on the his last album, "Time Out of Mind," has a lyrical haphazardness that makes it difficult to enjoy. ("She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind/She put down in writin' what was in her mind") The show was dragged down by overplayed crowd-pleasers like "All Along the Watchtower" (whose appearance on no less than five Bob Dylan live albums alone gives some indication of its tiredness) and a grisly rave-up of "Highway 61," its biblical horrors flattened by the band's momentum and the cheers of the uncomprehending boomers, hundreds of whom had by then rushed the stage (politely, of course). The show ended with Simon walking on; the pair warbled together on four songs, Simon's clear and precise voice overwhelming Dylan's on "The Sounds of Silence" and then just singing along on "I Walk the Line," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." For the last, Dylan interpolated the nonsensical last couplet he's favored for the last decade or so: "Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door/Just like so many times before."
The transcendent moments were long, coursing, very dynamic renditions of "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." The latter, a callow bit of nonsense from his 1963 "Freewheelin'" album, became, with a long jam at the end, a deeply felt farrago of American music: jazz, country, folk, bluegrass and blues. As the verses ended, Dylan howled, "Don't think twice, it's allllllll ..." And the band took over for several minutes, Dylan watching interestedly from the back of the stage as Campbell soloed before joining in for a long harmonica workout. "Tangled Up in Blue" was offered in the wound-up version he's been playing for the past few years, with Campbell anchoring the song with a rigid, inside-out and backward take of the chords that mark the record.
Many of Dylan's contemporaries are dead; quite a few others might as well be. The Rolling Stones roll on, but they're basically just the Beach Boys with a better booking agent. (For a while I thought a Dylan/Stones tour would be a cinch for the year 2000, but now I think Dylan wouldn't be caught dead on a stage with Mick Jagger.) Dylan probably tours for a number of reasons: to stay alive, to get the hell out of the house. But he also tours to once and for all make his mark as a troubadour. It must be hard for an artist of his raging temperament to face the decline of his writing talents. Others have become pathetic, or just sat back to drink themselves to death. But before there were rock stars with their petty problems, Dylan remembers, there were giants who filled their parts and didn't complain. He decided to play it as it lays, until the last song is sung on the Never-ending Tour.