I saw the guy who used to be Bob Dylan on Saturday. He wore a white hat with a wide flat brim and a mariachi’s outfit and he smiled like the riddling Cheshire troubadour of the myths. We smiled too, eventually.
The guy who used to be Bob Dylan is still Bob Dylan. Only he can no longer sing. He growls and coughs and grumbles. Perhaps he can speak, but I can’t be sure of that. The only speaking he did on stage was to introduce his band, and even that was an affectation, a mumbled southern drawl.
This is not breaking news. In anticipation of his set, headlining the first night of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot Festival, a dozen people warned me that Dylan’s voice is shot. But what I’d heard of his newer material made me think that even crippled, Dylan’s voice would still be recognizable; even smothered in gravel, it would still carry the insouciance and the wheezy essence of the 1960s or 70s or even 80s version. Needless to say it did not.
It took me until the second verse of my favorite Bob Dylan song, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ to realize that he was playing it. This was partly due to the fact that like everything else on the set list, the song was rearranged as fuzzy country rock. (I actually enjoyed the arrangements; his band really brought it). But mostly it was due to the incomprehensible nature of the vocals. The cascading choruses of ‘Just Like A Woman’ were sung properly in what could have been protest by the audience, only to be repeated under the singer’s breath two beats later.Like this, but more electric and less dulcet.
“It kind of reminded me of watching Ken Griffey Jr. play this year,” said my girlfriend after the show. And she was right. My emotions were similar to the ones I felt watching Griffey slink away from baseball this spring.
Edit: I misinterpreted Janelle’s comments. What she said was that she could understand why people still cheered wildly for Dylan because she did the same thing for Ken Griffey Jr. this past year. Sorry for that, Janelle. The similarities — to me, at least — still stand. ~eric
Early in the set, I was uncomfortably surprised by what I heard. Then I became angry. Who was Bob Dylan to be this absurdly, comically terrible? Who was Bob Dylan to unwind his own myth in such an unglamorous setting? We weren’t at Newport or the Isle of Wight or in the West Village. We were in Seattle in 2010 in a rundown stadium underneath the Space Needle. This was no place for massive betrayal.
Eventually I came to terms. This was indeed Seattle 2010. This was 40 years later. I had no right to expect any more of Bob Dylan than he was able to give. He clearly still enjoyed performing. His guitar and keyboard and harmonica abilities were undiminished. If people are still willing to go see Bob Dylan, why should Bob Dylan stop? I should appreciate the glimpse I was lucky enough to get.
Athletic greatness and artistic greatness don’t diminish in the same way. Athletes are slowly surpassed in ability by younger and fitter teammates and opponents until one day they become a liability. Like Ken Griffey Jr. in 2010, the former star must eventually face the indignity of his ineptitude. Either he is no longer able to contribute to a team or he is beaten in individual competition. The end may come at different times for different men, but it always comes.
Not so for musicians. A star musician can play on until performance is physically or mentally impossible. Sometimes this means death. A star musician whose teammates are disappointed in him can simply hire new ones. His fate is dictated by the market and the market for nostalgia is always steady.
Bob Dylan can play the same familiar songs every night – even incomprehensibly. Ken Griffey Jr. cannot hit the same home runs.
Related: One More Cup of Coffee, a Bob Dylan/old veteran themed term in the Rogue’s Baseball Index.