On October 15, 2009, me and my old pal Jay went to see the legendary Bob Dylan perform the last show of a three night stint at the equally legendary Hollywood Palladium. Dylan has been known to be a vital if somewhat elusive presence onstage. Yet he is also one of the most enduring acts from his era, a true survivor if there ever was one. Each year since 1988 he plays over one hundred shows and this year alone, Dylan has put out two albums. In April he released the Tejano Outlaw-flavored Together Through Life and just this week, he released Christmas in the Heart, an odd product considering the fact that despite his largely publicized conversion to Christianity in 1978, Dylan is widely thought to have converted back to Judaism. All of that aside, I was very excited to see one of my favorite musicians of all time.
Despite the fact that I love Hollywood, I had never been to the Palladium. Hence, I figured that it would be packed and I would have bad seats. However, as I walked in, I saw no rows of seats but rather, people converging at the front or by the bar. I couldn't believe that I would be able to see the legend from that close of a distance.
After a strong performance by opening act George Thorogood, there was a drumroll that culminated in a circus-like introduction where Dylan was hailed as "the poet laureate of rock and roll" as well as listing significant parts of his career. Finally, there he was; the man himself, plucking away at his piano, in a pink suit.
For those of you who expect Dylan to bust out his electic or acoustic guitar and do "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," I'm sorry to dissapoint you. For the past four years, he has opted to play piano because he can't find a pianist who can play how he wants. As a result, Dylan spends most of the night behind the electric piano. On occasion, he comes out and performs sans guitar or piano with just a harmonica and only performs one or two songs on guitar. This night, he brought out the axe for a rendition of "Things Have Changed," his Oscar-winning song from the film Wonder Boys and on the slow blues tune "My Wife's Hometown" from Together Through Life.
But that is a rant for another day. Dylan began the performance, flanked by his touring band, which now features former Arc Angels guitarist Charlie Sexton, who left Dylan's band in 2002. Oddly enough, Dylan opened with "Gonna Change my Way of Thinking" from Slow Train Coming, which was one of his Christian albums. However, as the night progressed, it was clear that Dylan did not care what songs people wanted him to perform. Throughout the night, people yelled out for their favorite songs, yet Dylan adhered to nobody. If he did perform them, he did it later on.
Dylan has had a weird relationship with his fans. He loves them for allowing him to do what he does, but in the same respect, hates them for trying to box him in and in turn, box themselves in. He shows his defiance is through his re-arranging most of his songs almost to the point beyond recognition; he changes their key, throws in different lyrics at times, sings the verses in a different syllable style and often adds solos for his bandmates as well as making room for his own stellar gospel piano solos and muscular harmonica riffs. Unless you are a true Dylan devotee, it will be hard for you to recognize songs like "It's Not Dark Yet" by the beginning of the first verse, and that's the way Dylan wants it to be. He wants you to listen to what he has to say now, not what he had to say in 1967.
However, that does not diminish Dylan's performances at all. In fact, it enhances them. One never knows what they will hear when they go to a Dylan show. They may hear a Gospel version of "Blowing in the Wind" or a barroom rocking "Highway 61," with Charlie Sexton and Bob trading off solos. For that reason it is always a joyus experience to see Dylan live or get the latest bootleg.
Throughout the show, the background curtain has different settings for different songs. It's very dark for blues numbers, bluish for sad songs, and starry nights for more bluegrass songs. The most haunting part comes right before the encore when yellow light from below illuminates Dylan as he busts out his harmonica or a spine-tingling version of the Highway 61 Revisited spooker, "Ballad of a Thin Man." You feel goosebumps rising as his deadpan voice sings of a naked man, geeks and one eyed midgets all the while, Mr. Jones doesn't know what's going on.
After, Dylan leaves the stage, briefly, before he returns to perform his signature tune, "Like a Rolling Stone." He sings it a half step above the original recording, but that didn't stop everyone from trying to croon along. He introduces the band and plays a blues before closing with "All Along the Watchtower," the John Wesley Harding classic that guitar magician and noted Dylan accolyte Jimi Hendrix made famous.
Throughout the night, I look around me at the looks of the faces on fans. I see people with their mouths open. I see some dancing, and others simply humming along. They are of all ages and all walks of life. One man I met saw Dylan the year he became a Christian and saw him seven times after, who had brought his teenage daughter. I asked her what her favorite song was and she said "Tangled Up in Blue."
It was then that I realized that Dylan has become more than a rockstar to most of these people. To them, and to me, he is a national treasure; a piece of history who tells of a world that is both inside his head and in the real world. While Elvis, John Lennon, George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix, people who many thought would be around forever, have all passed on, here is Bob Dylan, still standing behind his piano, still blowing away at his harmonica. To many people, he is the perfect manifestation of America. He is a scop in the truest sense of the word. He tells of days of old, but treats the stories as if they are happening now, and tells us where he wants us to go. To compare him Elvis and the Beatles is unfair. Rather, Dylan can be canonized with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau and other great American poets who wrote about their times and in turn, shaped them.