Dylan keeps the faith like a man possessed
If you're looking for a concert with one of the world's greatest artists, then Bob's your uncle, writes Barry Egan
Eamon de Valera, on being told that Lloyd George had said talking to him was like trying to pick up mercury with a fork, replied: "Why doesn't he use a spoon?"
Analysing Bob Dylan with any accuracy is like trying to pick up mercury with a spoon with holes in it. He is elusive. Once you think you have him, he becomes something else: he releases a sublime Tex-Mexy album (Together Through Life) followed by a straight Christmas album (Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart) worthy of Bing Crosby.
Robert Allen Zimmerman, born May 24, 1941, has remained faithful to himself from the beginning regardless of the consequences.
He lost his way in the Eighties (and possibly, to quote from Shelter From The Storm, "burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail"). But It is said Bob only found his way back in late 1987 after an epiphany of sorts at a concert of his in Locarno, Switzerland, when Bob heard a voice in his head.
Four nights before at a concert in England, Bob sang I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine. St Augustine had heard voices in his head too. In the Confessions of St Augustine, The Struggle Of Conversion: "So I was speaking to the Lord and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when lo! I heard from a neighbour's house a voice, as of a boy or a girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, 'Take up and read; take up and read ... '"
He interpreted it to be no other than a command from God -- as did Dylan that night in Switzerland. For years prior to that night, Bob felt he had "kind of reached the end of the line". Then he heard the voice in his head tell him: "I'm determined to stand whether God will deliver me or not."
He said: "And all of a sudden everything just exploded. It exploded every which way. And I noticed the people out there -- I was used to them looking at the girl singers because they were good looking girls, you know? And like I say, I had them up there so I wouldn't feel so bad.
"But when that happened, nobody was looking at the girls any more. They were looking at the main mic. After that is when I sort of know: I've got to go out and play plays these songs. That's what I must do."
That was the start of The Never Ending Tour. Last month, 245 miles south-east of Locarno in Parma, the Never Ending Tour is still rollinga and showing no sign of slowing down.
There is a buzz about this great Italian town tonight -- Dylan, generally regarded as America's greatest songwriter, is in town. Giant posters in the main square proclaim his arrival in their midst. When he shuffles on stage at 9.30pm with just his band -- Bob Dylan doesn't need to hide behind backing singers any more -- 20,000 people greet him like he is the Messiah returned.
He leads the band immediately through a bluesy reading of Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35. We are all immediately immersed in Bob's world where they stone you when you're at the breakfast table and they stone you when you are young and able.
Before the crowd can catch their breath, he's into It Ain't Me Babe and imploring some young wan in his past to go "away from his window and leave at your own chosen speed". He is mesmerising to watch.
When he joined U2 onstage at a concert in Los Angeles in April 1987 to sing I Shall Be Released with Bono, the U2 singer told the crowd: "You know, I usually make up my own words to Bob Dylan songs." Dylan retorted: "I do it too." Tonight in Parma, you get the impression Dylan is doing just that.
There is a freeness to the performance and to Dylan. He doesn't say anything onstage between songs -- not one solitary word in two hours -- but he doesn't have to. It is all in the music.
A polished stage performer, the aforementioned Bono knows how to generate applause and invariably has a dozen or so applause-lines -- remarks specially crafted to elicit claps, shouts of approval and the like. These folksy comments are usually made with Terry Prone-like eye contact with the crowd and a great deal of composure. But Dylan has none of these charms.
Awkward, rarely even looking towards the crowd, Dylan doesn't use homespun, oratorical con-tricks like Bono, doesn't try to elicit applause with comments, and doesn't even acknowledge it. And he is brilliant for it. At his age, Bob doesn't need to be playing shows all over the world every night. You suspect that he does it because he is compelled to. He once said: "It's never been a business and never will be a business. It is just a way of surviving."
Bob Dylan, whose father Abe worked for the Standard Oil Company once upon a time, is more than surviving. Notwithstanding that this last decade and a bit has produced some of Bob's best work -- Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft and Modern Times have been great Bob albums -- the show tonight in Parma is variously electrifying, riotous, joyous, emotive, melancholic and, in parts, bordering on a near-religious experience.
Bob singing about God and death and trying to get to Heaven before they close the door will always elicit those emotions in a Catholic boy from Churchtown like me. The last time Bob played Dublin, I visited my father in his bed at the Hospice in Harold's Cross before going on to the show at the 02 Arena last summer.
He died three weeks later. It's alright Da, you're only bleeding.
Bob looks healthier than ever in Parma. He is playing the guitar like he is 30 again. He plays a mean guitar on Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again. Almost as mean is the New Orleans street hustler suit he is wearing -- complete with fedora and green shirt with fancy cuffs.
Bob conducts his band with a seeming movement of his eyebrow or a nod: you doubt they ever play the same song the same way twice. There's an improvisational quality to the performances on songs like Honest With Me, Love Sick and I Feel a Change Comin' on. Thunder on the Mountain is recast as a soft jazz-blues shuffle. Tangled Up In Blue is light and blues.
It is like watching Picasso and Gaugin paint or Miles Davis and John Coltrane blow their horns. On Beyond Here Lies Nothing, Dylan has a trumpet player add a heart-breaking bit of sad colour over the top of his singing about this hard old world of ours. The words and the music are soaked in emotion tonight in Italy.
By the end of the two-hour show, we are soaked in it too, drenched to the core.
Rain or shine, Bob Dylan at Thomond Park this Sunday is shaping up to be the show of the year so far. Unless -- like Bob and St Augustine -- I'm hearing voices.
Bob Dylan plus guests David Gray, Seasick Steve and Alabama 3 at Thomond Park, Limerick, July 4. Gates: 2.30pm/show 8.30pm. Tickets on sale now