The songs they are a-changin'


CULTURE SHOCK: IMAGINE YOU go to visit an old writer – Yeats, for example – on his deathbed. He can barely speak, and when he does manage to do so most of what he says seems to be no more than incoherent muttering.

But now and then, as you lean forward, a snatch of something comes through: “Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” or “Upon the brimming water among the stones” or “That is no country for old men”.

Would not those lines have, in those circumstances, an extraordinary resonance, a beauty more strange and haunting than they possessed in their youth?

I am not sufficiently far gone in Dylanolatry to actually compare Zimmerman to Yeats, and nor am I enough of a Dylan sceptic to suggest that he is a raving old man. But the effect of hearing him sing in Dublin this week is still best expressed by such an analogy. His greatest songs are stitched in to the language and consciousness of our times in the way that was once true of the grandest epic poems. And we hear them now in performance as if from their deathbed. While other old rock and pop acts play their hits as if they were newly minted, pretending that age has not withered them or us, Dylan delivers them freighted with time, worn with use, and sometimes barely recognisable through a screen of meaningless sound.

There are two ways to look at Dylan – genius or chancer? And there are two ways to write about his concerts. One would be to say that he can’t sing and has lost his gifts for both grabbing the zeitgeist and working up a good tune. The other would be to draw another analogy, this time with the late work of Henri Matisse. The great painter, late in life, when his mobility and eyesight were failing, turned to making simple, almost childlike cut-outs – big slabs of coloured paper arranged into rough but vibrant patterns. Unable to do what he did before, he resorted to something cruder, simpler, but in its own way no less powerfully energetic.

The thing with Dylan, of course, is that both of these statements are true.

Just as he is both genius and chancer, his concerts now are both stark evidence of failing powers and energetic responses to that decline. They have big slabs of sound instead of detailed brush strokes and rough, if expert, rock’n’roll rhythms instead of the richly textured ensembles or stunning directness of his earlier incarnations. They are, especially in a venue as soulless as the O2, both literally and artistically distant rather than urgent and engaged. Yet in Dylan’s treatment of his old songs there is a genuinely unique experience. No one else of his stature in modern popular culture is so relentlessly and brutally insistent on resisting nostalgia by making his classics not time machines to transport us into the past but dissections of time itself, with all its ravages on view.

This achievement is rooted in the way Dylan has always been, not just both genius and chancer, but a genius because he is a chancer. As revealed in Martin Scorsese’s superb documentary, No Direction Home, there never was an authentic Dylan. He was always a man on the make, a magpie, an opportunist.

His primary aim was to be a star – the form of that stardom came second. But he was also supremely gifted, and by that rare combination of personality and circumstance and timing, the star-hunger and the gift enabled each other. Without the genius he would have been a bad pop singer. But without the opportunist’s ruthless desire to be out there, performing and making waves, he would have been frozen into a set of attitudes that slowly turned to poses.

It is that performer’s energy that survives now that the gift, if not quite gone, has become more ordinary. It means that, rather than go through the endless motions of touring and pumping out the highlights from his vast catalogue, he is fascinated by his history. The element of narcissism in his performer’s make-up will not allow him to pretend that the songs have not lived, that they are not the soundtrack for a generation that is now in middle age and beyond. He is too proud either to forget them on the one hand or to churn them out on the other. And so he plays them as strange, half-heard echoes of the past.

In the weird, unearthly croak that passes for his voice nowadays, Dylan’s old songs – Like a Rolling Stone, Highway 61, Just Like a Woman, Masters of War– sound like tormented ghosts howling in the cellars of their own history. The band builds a wall of sweaty, grungy sound. The voice is indistinct, the words lost in the noise. The rhythm is unfamiliar. It may be a minute in before you catch a line and realise that this is a song you’ve heard a thousand times and thought you knew.

What’s haunting is that Dylan doesn’t make the songs new, he makes them old. They seem like paths that have been eroded by all the feet that have trodden them, or like cliffs worn into jagged shapes by the constant movements of the sea. They barely seem to belong to Dylan at all, but to emerge as though mangled by all the voices that have sung them. All Along the Watchtower, driven by soaring electric guitar riffs, is now a Dylan cover version of the Jimi Hendrix classic. Blowin’ in the Wind, sucked dry by endless repetition, is a stark and scarcely recognisable skeleton of itself, as if Dylan knows that at this point the bare bones, twisted into unfamiliar angles, are far more interesting than the dull, familiar flesh.

And if there’s a ghostly melancholy to this playing out of the decrepitude of songs, Dylan is enough of a showman to have a trick or two to delight us with. He allows, for fleeting moments, his old voice to break through, catching notes with that familiar grip and adding a pleasurable note of poignancy. And, brilliantly, he plays the harmonica with a dazzling new fluency, as if the tinny wheeze that once worked as a counterpoint to his singing has now become its pure and joyful substitute.