Bob Dylan in Kilkenny: A gig that should be cherished close to our hearts
One of life's imponderables: is it one of Bob Dylan's more mischievous jokes on the world that he tends to open his shows - as he did last night in KIlkenny - with 1965's Ballad of A Thin Ballad?
The song is about someone who doesn't get it and never will.
'You try so hard but you don't understand
Just what you will say when you get home
Because something is happening here but you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?' (In 1985, Dylan said himself of the song: "There were a lot of Mr. Joneses at that time … It was like, 'Oh, man, here's the thousandth Mr. Jones.'") Over fifty years on since he wrote Ballad Of A Thin Man none of us really get Bob Dylan, any more than Bob Dylan at 78 years of age gets himself. Perhaps.
Fans insist on playing the entirely pointless parlour game of how long it takes to work out what song their idol is playing live.
Sometimes you mightn't be able to work what song it is at all. Last night, he played Thunder On The Mountain and it was almost two verses in before I realised what it was. Bob turned the stomping jive-blues of one of the best tracks from 2008's Modern Times into a vanilla pop-rockabilly worthy of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack that had the crowd dancing along. Similarly, his funky Prince-like version of Like A Rolling Stone had the Mr Joneses in the audience scratching their heads. They are, of course, his songs and he can do with them what he likes.
On one level, we should thank our blessings that Dylan appears content in his band of musicians and the songs he is playing live — and is not totally arsing around with the songs onstage like he did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Dave Stewart, who produced Dylan, recalled to Vox magazine in 1990 a war story of Dylan touring with Tom Petty's Heartbreakers as his band around that time...
"Some of the stories the Heartbreakers come out with about that tour are a scream. My favourite's the time they were all onstage playing some open-air stadium and an argument broke out because the Heartbreakers had just vowed to Dylan that they could play anything. So Dylan started on a song he was inventing as he went along. He was just changing the chords at random and at the same time glowering at the bass player Howie like he was making mistakes. So he stopped playing and walked over to Dylan, saying: 'This song doesn't even exist! How am I supposed to know how to play it?' Dylan is screaming back: 'Yes it does! Yes it does!'"
"Then they all stopped and had this huge row and Tom Petty comes over to Dylan and says; 'F*** this! What do you think we are? Machines? How would you like it if I were to choose any Beach Boys song, you know, could you sing it?' So Dylan screams back: 'Sure, I could! Name any one. Any one!'"
"So Tom goes, 'OK, do Help Me Rhonda!' Dylan screams back, 'No problem!' and starts crashing out these weird, loud, inappropriate guitar chords and singing 'Help...Help...Help me Rhonda' over and over again, completely out of tune to 70,000 people. The Heartbreakers were just standing there, mouths agape, saying to themselves: 'What the f*** is going on?' They were looking at him like he was beaming off to another planet."
Last night in Kilkenny, Bob Dylan — in a very good way — beamed off to another planet only he knew the name and location of. Gotta Serve Somebody (from 1979's Slow Train Coming) was surreal to hear performed, as was Girl From The North Country (from his second studio album, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) .
To some people, Bob Dylan is a crankypants crackpot who can't sing; if he was playing in their back-garden, they'd draw the curtains. To others — the majority — he is the Mystical Godhead.
To them, the songs of Bob Dylan are keys to unlock the past. For these people he is some manner of all-seeing all-knowing prophet on a never-ending search for truth. Last night in Nowlan Park in Kilkenny, he took us on a messianic journey for that truth, that started with Ballad Of A Thin Man, followed by It Ain't Me, Babe before we were treated to the electrifying epiphany on the road that is Highway 61 Revisited. GAA stadiums are not normally places you hear words like this shouted in a strange kind of rapture: 'Oh, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God said, "No" Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin', you better run"
Well, Abe said, "Where d'you want this killin' done?"God said, "Out on Highway 61"'
Glued to his piano, Bob had the entire crowd jumping around like God (or Dylan) had appeared to them on the road to Kilkenny outside. He was up and flying, something I had doubts about given the triumphant set that Neil Young had put on an hour earlier. (And in fairness, Dylan's music — and voice — is light years away from Young's.) On When I Paint My Masterpiece you could close your eyes and imagine in a moment of rapture Bob playing this with The Band for the first time in 1971.
Holy Roman Kings, from 2012's Tempest, was not short of mystic Bob moments either, ("I ain't dead yet. My bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings," sang Bob last night) as was his rendition of Trying To Get To Heaven (Before They Close The Door) from Time Out Of Mind in 1997. In his 2004 book Chronicles, Bob wrote how listening to Frank Sinatra that he "could hear everything in his voice - death, God and the universe." That's the same feeling most of us have listening to Bob.
Beneath his hipster cowboy hat with his spindly little legs appearing out the bottom of a dapper outfit that made look him like a cross between a Mississippi riverboat hustler from the 1800s and a cartoon character from Tom & Jerry, Bob never moved from behind his piano.
Except for the odd occasions mid song when he would get up for a second and stretch his legs like he was on a long haul flight. His version of Love Sick from 1997's Time Out Of Mind was spookily good, Bob's battered — if still beautiful in its own way, like a ruined cathedral — voice fitting the subject matter perfectly, albeit whispery:
'I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping.' The crowd were almost weeping with joy when, after Bob played Pay In Blood (from Tempest), the figure of Neil Young appeared stage left. What happened next was one of the highlights not just of the whole day at Nowlan Park but also something so wonderful that it is highly unlikely that we will see its like again in our lifetimes. The two masters — Bob at 78 years of age and Neil at 73 — performed the old spiritual Will the Circle Be Unbroken. We joined in. Singing in mass as a kid was never as fun as this, not least when Neil sang:
'I was standing by my window,On one cold and cloudy day
When I saw an old hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away.'
And then a smiling Bob sang: 'Undertaker, Mr. Undertaker
Will you please, drive your wagon slow
For the lady, the one you're hauling
Lord, I hate to see here go.'
And then they both sang together along with the rest of Nowlan Park:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky
In the sky, lord, in the sky.'
Before the crowd got their hopes up that there might be another song from the new duo of Dylan & Young, Neil was gone and the band broke into Like A Rolling Stone, with just Bob, not smiling any more. It probably insults Bob to call it an anthem. But whatever it is, Like A Rolling Stone, even when it is reworked into something that borders on a dance track Nile Rodgers could play on, remains incredibly powerful even though it was written 54 years ago.
'How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be without a home
With no direction home?' sings Bob The Buddha.
As for the much debated subject of Bob's voice, personally I thought it wasn't bad last night. In 2010 The Wall Street Journal 2010 suggested, "lately he's been sounding like a scatting Cookie Monster." He was more like an existential 78 year old man who has seen it all, the Holden Caulfield of north Minnesota. I imagine in 2018 Bob Dylan doesn't care that you don't think he can sing. In 2015, when Bob received the MusiCares Person of the Year award he was eviscerating about music critics who go to town on his voice while letting equally proficient wheezers like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits get off as he said, "Scot free".
All that matters is that when Bob finished his encore of Blowin' In The Wind and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry at 11pm last night, the 50,000 strong crowd in Kikenny knew in their bones that they witnessed — and had been a part of — something very special. Bob is almost eighty years of age yet he won't stop until the undertaker drives his wagon slow for him.
I wonder when he is alone in his hotel room — alone in his head — after a show, does he ever look back at the young man who in late 1963 (in speech at the Americana Hotel, in New York, to accept the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee) said these words: “It is not an old peoples’ world,” he said. “It has nothing to do with old people. Old people, when their hair grows out, they should go out. And I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules - and they haven’t got any hair on their head - I get very uptight about it.”
I get uptight that one day Bob Dylan mightn't be with us any more. That's why the memory of last night in Kilkenny should be cherished close to our hearts.