Bob Dylan, 2006
Mia and I are two glasses of wine each into the Bob Dylan show in the Asheville Civic Center and it is better than sex. It is better than summitting a mountain and better than stars on a new moon night and better than a dip in the river – because all of those things I can have any day in my mountain life. But Bob Dylan singing Masters of War; Bob Dylan singing All Along the Watchtower; Bob Dylan singing Maggie’s Farm; Bob Dylan singing Summer Days Summer Nights; Bob Dylan singing How Does it Feel; Bob Dylan singing Just Like a Woman – none of this is replicable. With every year he becomes more mysterious, more unpredictable, more quintessentially whole-hearted-human, which is another way of saying he is impossible to pin down or penetrate anymore but this somehow makes him more real than ever before.
This is my third show and I am prepared. I know that he will stand behind the keyboards the whole time and I have come to respect this. I know that he won’t address the audience very much and I’m not attached to his approval. I know that he is in a rock band, not a folk band, and that he still plays from his soul though each note extends from the musical foundation of his work in the past. This means the melodies are not directly discernable in the easy-does-it-happy-camper sort of way. The lyrics are the same and the melodies work slowly in the back of my mind from memory as he plays, but what he actually sings is an improvisation that is loosely structured around notes written decades ago.
And when he plays Highway 61 the stiff members of the crowd who have not broken their molds and danced yet cannot help but rise up and shake and shout. Mia and I are on seventh heaven, twisting and turning and singing and closing our eyes with that halfway to heaven look of bliss across our faces. The smell in the air is an equal mix of Stetson and Patchuli, pot and body odor. We are hippies, we are punks, we are baby boomers, we are children, we are wanderers, we are average Joe’s and Jane’s, we are anarchists, we are Christians, we are Jews, we are moms, we are daughters.
I watch a couple in their fifties dance country-style in the center of the aisle, the pot-bellied gregarious man suddenly bursting into a full back flip, landing on his feet, tossing his cowboy hat up in the air and catching it just in time to throw it back on his head and grab his woman in his arms for another go ‘round. I watch two young twenty-something’s with matching mow hawks dance and swing as if in a ballroom, mouthing the words to every line and staring into each other’s eyes. I watch an eight-year-old boy watching all of this, his back turned to the stage because he is more enamored with the people and all their funkiness and freedom. I think how this night might make an imprint on his mind’s eye, how maybe when his friends are wallflowers at a school dance he will have the courage to move to the music having seen tonight’s crowd.
When he plays Masters of War I weep for my country and for our president and for the wars we are fighting and the war on ourselves that we are losing and for the sadness of the truth – the truth that in one lifetime this musician has written anti-war songs that apply to more than one war, in more than one decade, under more than one president, and pertaining to more than one series of injustices. I weep for the pain I feel when the crowd screams in approval as Dylan says, “And I hope that you die, and your death will come soon, I’ll follow your casket in the pale afternoon, and I’ll watch as you’re lowered, down to your death bed, and I’ll stand over your grave ‘till I’m sure that you’re dead.” It is scary to feel this collective hurt and dissatisfaction, and outcry in such potency. And scarier still to cheer along, even though deep down I know I’d rather live in a society that could teach Bush rather than a society that feels so powerless now that it just wishes Bush would die.
It does not get any better than this. Dylan is on point, waking the crowd up then easing them along, then bursting through into musical climax before anyone knows what hit them. In other words, the show builds upon itself in the subtlest yet most powerful ways. And the sound is surprisingly excellent. I can actually hear his keyboard solos and I can differentiate between the three guitarists, the occasional banjo and dulcimer, and all versions acoustic and electric. He plays thirteen songs including the encore, totaling approximately ninety minutes. Merle Haggard, who played first and sounded as clear and fresh as spring water, does not come out later for a shared song but Bob and his band are more than enough. At the merchandise stand I buy a playbill poster and laugh at the misprint: Saturday, May 6, Asheville, SC.
“South Carolina?” Mia shouts even though we are standing right next to each other.
“What the hell? Better hang onto this, it will be really valuable someday with that typo,” I reply. And already I know I will frame it and hang it on the wall next to my 2001 Paul Simon/Bob Dylan Tour poster. Already I know that I have seen so much talent in one night that the world feels like a gift, and my life like just one tiny speck on this planet, and Bob Dylan just like mist on the wind – blowing in and out, through a valley and then gone, gone, never to be seen in the same form again.