Hanging in the Balance:
Bob Dylan at 80, Live at the Beacon
We came from near and far. With a limited run of shows, and no certainty for what’s next, the faithful came to see the Bard. The Original Vagabond. The Song and Dance Man. The Philosopher Pirate. We braved the autumn chill, long journeys, and airborne virus particles. Some showed up in the Midwest, and some came to New York City. Others will gather soon in Philadelphia, Boston, and in the nation’s capital. A few casual fans may have fluttered in as well — moths, drawn by the light. But the Rough and Rowdy Ways Worldwide Tour 2021-2024 is built for the devoted, for the “fans and followers” that Bob Dylan messaged in late March of the Plague Year, the ones he thanked, and then admonished to “stay observant.”
Eight of the seventeen songs performed are from the new record. Only three compositions from the 1960’s have a place in the set — none of them the most famous. But you know this already. You know what I mean. You know exactly what I mean. We came for Bob Dylan’s current moment. We came for the Self he still wants to give, at 80.
The most iconic old song is “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” from “Blonde on Blonde.” And the irony is, he throws it down like a gauntlet, in the number two slot. It reminds us of the terms. It reminds us that we are not here to wallow in memories:
You say you love me, and you’re thinking of me
But you know you could be wrong
I just can’t do what I done before
I can’t beg you anymore
Time will tell just who has fell and who’s been left behind
When you go your way and I go mine
Why is an 80 year old man singing a kiss-off song? Who is he seductively warning, and who is Bob Dylan romancing? It’s us, it’s always been us. The audiences he’s been singing to all the years. The ones who have been left behind, and the ones who have remained.
I attended the first two nights at the Beacon Theater on November 19 and 20, and the audience was up to the challenge. We did not despair the lack of “classics.” We came for “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” a late period treasure, perhaps a “masterpiece.” In the darkest days of the new sickness, when there wasn’t a rock and roll show to be found, we longed to hear Dylan sing these songs live — the ones we played over and over, when the road warrior, who never cancels, had cancelled. I had excellent tickets for both of the Washington state shows. These songs helped us through the isolation of 2020.
So we came, if we could. But maybe you are reading this because you couldn’t be there, because of all those miles . . . all those Dollars or Euros or Pounds . . . all those travel rules . . . the children . . . the virus . . . the job. If you are reading this, perhaps you are counting on 2022-2024. Bob Dylan is optimistic — let’s be hopeful also. And if you are reading this, I bet you’re acquainted with the basics: the set list, the band members, the stage set-up, etc . . . so I’ll skip all that, and see if I can add any new information to the mix, or at least a point of view.
Yes, Dylan’s voice is in great shape. The singing is clear and nuanced, smooth or growly, as he wishes. He sang better the first night than the second. By the end of night two, a bit of rasp had crept in. But the overall feel, both nights, was strength, and depth of emotion. At moments, I had a picture that his actual spirit-breath, his life-breath, was being transformed into words, into song. This image vibrated most strongly on the slower tunes, particularly on “Black Rider,” “Mother of Muses, and “I’ve Made Up my Mind to Give Myself to You.”
On the rockers, he sang with ferocity and swagger. “False Prophet” was a highlight each evening — he stood to the side of the piano, bent his knees as if to add spring and tension, and roared:
I’m the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life!
The crowd roared back. Afterwards, I wondered if “False Prophet” is placed too early in the set, because the sheer rock energy never reached that level again. Although “Gotta Serve Somebody” and the closer, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” also hit hard. (“Every Grain of Sand” seems like an encore, although Dylan never leaves the stage). On the fast, loud numbers, the guitarists Britt and Lancio, and Herron on his usual variety of instruments, generate a maelstrom of beautiful sound. Garnier and Drayton provided tight rhythms and I bounced my sixty-one year old head around like a teenager.
Dylan’s physical presence is a stark contrast to his singing. He is slightly stooped, and his trademark dancing shuffle has lost pretty much all the dance. He moves in a small radius — from behind the piano, where only his shoulders and head can be seen by much of the crowd, and just to the right of his instrument, where he would come out, pluck a microphone from the stand, and retreat a few steps. He would use this mike for the first few lines of several songs, and return to the piano. Often he kept a hand on the piano for support. Once or twice he stepped further back on the stage, close to his guitarists.
In the last half of the 2010’s, Bob often posed with the mike stand, leaning it over like a dance partner. No more. And not long ago, the singer was still prancing about the stage. I recall in Honolulu, in 2014, how the stand was placed much further forward in the center. I will always remember how, on “Pay in Blood,” he would charge up to deliver his lines, dance back a few steps, and charge up again. Even in 2019, he roamed the center of the stage for many songs, taking up stances, arms thrust out.
In these Beacon shows, the posture I recall most clearly was at the end of “Black Rider,” on the first night. Dylan stepped to his position on the side of the piano, but strangely, faced stage right, away from us, microphone in hand. He leaned over and looked down, as if unaware of the thousands of eyes trained on him. He even seemed isolated from the the players surrounding him, in his own world, as he sang those last lines:
Some enchanted evening, I’ll sing you a song
Black Rider, Black Rider, you’ve been on the job too long
He sang to the shadow Self that stays with us through life, the shadow Self that contains our death. We get tired of this person, tired of living with the intimate knowledge that we are mortal. As we age, the two halves, the shadow, and the bright, waking, creative person, come closer together. We harmonize together, even as we wish that Other might be gone, so we could be all youth and energy, once again. And yet, we know, the Shadow only disappears when we do. On some enchanted evening.
And with that, it makes sense to move on to “the enchanted land” of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” If you’ve read my work on Dylan before, you know I have a special interest in this song. So perhaps I am too close, let’s say, to the album version to hear exactly what Bob is attempting in the live show. It’s quite different. It’s still accompanied by Herron’s lovely accordion, and accentuated by the doodles of the other players: the leaf whisper drums, the languid guitars, the shore-break bass. Bob plunks little descents on the piano. All the while, those strange lyrics flow by, of purity and innocence, of bleeding hearts and convent homes, of little misses flying around, of guns in the flatlands, of hibiscus and confessions and a boy pleading to the Lord for mercy, “Down in the Boondocks.” Of assassinations and immortality and toxic plants and blessings. Of playing both sides against the middle, and last requests. In the land of light. Amidst Hindu rituals and the healing virtues of the wind. Holding the gateway key, at the top of Jacob’s ladder.
Yes, maybe I’m a bit too close. But I’m not sure he’s stickin’ this one yet, despite the rave reviews I’ve read elsewhere. It retains a hypnotic (ritual) quality, but some of the music, particularly Bob’s piano, distracts discordantly. Plus, he made lyrical mistakes both nights. He left out lines on the first night, and on the second, he repeated the opening verse. These quibbles aside, it was still beautiful. I just feel that there’s so much potential here, that if the singer focused on on the lyric, and left the piano behind, as he has done with many other songs in recent years, this poetic meditation could reach incredible heights in live performance. Perhaps all the way to paradise divine. Of course, the song needs piano, so he would need another player.
“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” on the other hand, on the first night, reached the Empyrean. Just gorgeous. Bob holds long notes in several spots and we are there with him, and it really feels like he is addressing us, his audience. He dissolves the duality of him going his way and we going ours. Everyone is together, lost in the stars. From Salt Lake City to Birmingham. On the second night, however, he messed it up pretty bad. He knew it and everyone knew it. He sang a late line early, out of place, and it threw him for a good long time. It actually seemed for a moment that he might abandon and start over. Then he pulled it together and went through the rest, but the magic had been drained. I gotta say — and this was show number 55 for me, over 42 years — I don’t recall ever seeing such a struggle. He usually breezes over mistakes, gargling a bit of nonsense line and picking right up. I haven’t listened to the tapes yet, but it felt like we had 30 seconds of the players doodling along nervously waiting for Bob to start singing again.
I don’t mean to belabor the point. He is singing eight new songs every night. And some of these numbers have a lot of lyrics. On previous tours, he might only introduce three or four from the new record. And he is playing with only a binder of papers on his piano for reminders. In this case, I’m guessing it was not open to the right spot. I believe he cares deeply about this song in particular, so I bet he was pissed that he screwed it up, and that resulted in the palpable tension as he tried to recover the lines. Memory becomes less reliable as we age, even for Dylan, apparently, who could go through “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” night after night in the mid-sixties while exhausted and stoned. It’s just a fact. Fuck you, Black Rider.
On the other hand: “My Own Version of You.” On each night, the song was performed with vehemence and clarity. Here’s one with plenty of words, and Bob is precise and expressive on nearly every line. I don’t think he missed a phrase. The characters cascade toward us in this creature made of found parts — many of them, we should notice, walking straight out of the Bible: the Israelites in Babylon (“I say to the willow, don’t weep for me”), both St. Johns — the Apostle, and the Baptist — we see only the latter’s head on a silver tray — perhaps the head he will put on straight, the one that heralds the arrival of a messiah — and St. Peter (who holds the gateway key from “Key West”). And as we dream, in the pages of Mary Shelley’s allegory of Creation, it’s fitting that we find ourselves on Judgement Day, on Armageddon Street, and also in that burning hell, with Sigmund and Karl. Dylan etches each of these images into our skulls with a diamond edge to his voice. The song builds in intensity toward the final third, and by that very long fifteenth stanza (many words, Bob on top of each!), his tongue is lashing us like that whip, and the band is sparking and popping like a transformer channelling too much lightning, ready to blow. A highlight, both nights.
A few more words about a few other songs: The opener, “Watching the River Flow,” is straight out of the Shadow Kingdom, setting the theme, time rolling away. “I Contain Multitudes,” with Bob putting the same concept into other, deeply felt phrases:
The flowers are dying like all things do
Everything’s flowing, all at the same time
I sleep with life and death in the same bed
The swinging, galloping “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” with Bob doing some fine piano work. This song follows “Black Rider,” and comes across as a fierce retort to the ominous tidings of that horseman. I could see the Sirens standing astride him — the ones from the Shadow Kingdom, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey — urging him on, toward the cliffs, and the great beyond. I could see more women, more muses, Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, guiding him through to a very sexy underworld. I’m sure Mona and Calliope will be there too.
Then there was the poison tipped arrow of “Early Roman Kings,” aimed over the parapet at the sluggers and muggers wearing fancy gold rings. Here Dylan owns the Black Rider, using his voice to tell the destroyers that they too will meet their Maker. It’s a “Masters of War” for the late Anthropocene, stripped down now to an understated blues, less rollicking than older versions, with more emphasis on the vocals — on the message. Yes, it's a "finger pointing song."
And that very strange Shadow Kingdom version of “To Be Alone With You”:
I’ll hound you to death, that’s what I’ll do.
It sounds like a tale of obsession, a satire of love as ownership, like another side of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” I don’t think the singer is putting too much stock in “mortal bliss.” This version is no love song.
On the second night, before the band introductions, Bob gives a call out to New Yorkers Humphrey Bogart, Jackie O, and Al Capone. As if, perhaps, their ghosts are hovering nearby. Life and death in the same bed. As if Jackie might be anticipating, for an encore, another name-check in the live debut of “Murder Most Foul.” But no. It’s “Every Grain of Sand,” as clear a statement of faith as exists in the man’s catalog. It’s performed as if we are all standing fireside. And you know, that he knows, that we know, that talking 2024 is all well and good, but this might be it. This might be the last song Bob Dylan plays on stage, on the last night he gives himself to us. So he wants to say what he believes.
And what he believes, is that there is “a perfect finished plan.”
After all the songs are played, after sixty years, from “Song to Woody” to “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” to the greatest rock song ever, “Like a Rolling Stone” (by the way, fuck you Rolling Stone magazine and your ridiculous lists, there was only ever one right answer to that question), to the sad and lonely beauty of “Love Sick,” to the last song on his last record — one I particularly admire, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” — and after the most remarkable songwriting career in history, what he leaves us with, just in case 2022-2024 never comes, is “Every Grain of Sand.”
He’s made up his mind to give himself to us. And to the Black Rider. And someday, not too soon we hope, he’s going far away from home with her. But he wants us to know something — just in case, in case this is goodbye. He wants us to know: we are hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan.
And onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand