When Bob Dylan comes to town and we children of the '60s go to hear him perform, we necessarily visit Our Back Pages.
We were so much older then... but, unfortunately, we are not younger than that now.
He was the voice of our times, the man whose songs embodied the questions of a generation about why Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and Hattie Carroll had to die, how injustice and racism could abound in a world of riches and why the answer was always blowin’ in the wind or drowning in a hard rain.
It is a shock to find oneself at the Air Canada Centre last night and to realize that the troubadour of your prime times is now a 65-year-old senior citizen.
Dylan long ago rejected the mantle of “spokesman of a generation” and, it would seem, has been actively working for decades to alienate his own fan base.
Despite his own best efforts, we refuse to let him go.
Lord knows he tried his best to dissuade us at times last night.
It is disillusioning indeed to stare into the vacuum of his voice. Let’s just be kind and say that when his Bobness opens his mouth these days, he sounds an awful like Broderick Crawford gargling with steel wool.
Many people object to the fact that many of his classic songs are unrecognizable in performance, rearranged, turned inside out, and rejigged to the point where only a few snatches of familiar lyrics (when you can hear them) give clues as to their identity.
I was on both sides of that argument last night. His version of Positively 4th Street, one of his deliciously vitriolic anthems against a former lover, was rendered impotent by a lifeless arrangement and vocal emphasis that never hit the mark. Dylan waited so long to come in at times that you were convinced he’d forgotten the lyrics. All I can say is... you got a lot of nerve to sing that song that way.
On the other hand, his new rockabilly setting of Highway 61 was brilliant, thanks largely to superb lead guitar work by Denny Freeman, who led a typically tight Dylan back-up unit. The man actually sang on that one, instead of slur-speaking.
You have to admire Dylan’s chutzpah. Other people in his situation might just replay the old songs people know, hire a bunch of background singers to drown out his voice and take the money and run.
Bob wrecks his own songs and reassembles them, makes every new version an adventure in listening, as well as performance, and doesn’t care whether we like it or not. We like it because the songs are still the anthems of our youth and, through all the decades, his lyrics still have the power to reach out and clutch you by the throat.
One song alone was worth the (extravagant) price of admission last night. Masters of War (1963) was as powerful as ever and Dylan just as sinister as the man following the casket of the death merchant and standing over his grave until he is sure he is dead.
He can’t sing anymore, but the man still speaks volumes.