Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Not Dead Yet

In the spring of 1997, shortly before he almost died, Bob Dylan recorded Time Out of Mind, which upon its September release became his most widely hailed album since 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Later that fall--before it was too late, you might say--he was presented with two lifetime achievement awards: the lucrative Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize and later the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor. He even made the cover of Newsweek like Bruce Springsteen before him. A public recluse was a celebrity again.

Of course, Dylan hasn't been a true recluse since Blood on the Tracks--just an enigma. Time Out of Mind is only his second self-composed album of the '90s after nine in the '80s, but he tours 100 nights a year, with the reward of a cross-generational cult that mushroomed when Jerry Garcia passed on--a cult for whom his boomer aura is secondary at best to his ongoing trek through Americana. Availability hasn't made him any more knowable, however; notoriously, he just plays his music and gets out of there. For Dylan, always prophetic in his aversion to the role model role, this is ideal--he makes loads of money as a working musician, recording and performing whatever he feels like, while avoiding all the burdens of stardom except fame itself. "There's nothing to say so I'm not going to say anything," he mumbled when he materialized, a jowly wraith with a bodyguard, to receive his Gish in October. "I wish she was still here. I'd loved to have made a movie with her. And I feel very fortunate to receive this and I'm not sure what I've done to deserve it but I'm going to try to keep on doing it." That was his entire speech--quite a long one, for a sphinx.

So for Dylan, the December 1 show at New York's 1500-capacity Irving Plaza was basically just another gig. If it was deemed historic by the reawakened bigshots in attendance, that wasn't because it was a benefit (all proceeds from the $65 door to Harlem's Hale House) or "intimate" (Dylan's normal Manhattan venue is the 3000-seat Beacon). It was because an epochal artist had almost died, put out a rather good album, and received a lot of awards--had reentered history, a/k/a the limelight, and in NYC to boot.

And while many professed themselves transported, I'm just impressed that the show was one of my top dozen of 1997--not up to Sleater-Kinney or Ornette Coleman, but on a par with Pavement, Cachao, John Prine. Although Dylanheads, who chalk up new live songs like birdwatchers spotting rare flycatchers, knowledgably and even excitedly discuss the evolving procession of anonymous studio pros who fill his bands, I say new guitarist Larry Campbell and old pedal steel player Bucky Baxter, new drummer David Kempner and old bassist Tony Garnier are all just backing musicians, and backing musicians are called that because they know how to stay out of the way; I missed organist Augie Meyers, an occasional solo artist who is, with the obvious exception, the strongest voice on Time Out of Mind. In theory the kind of skilled journeymen Dylan goes for are at least good for a great groove, but Dylan is too chameleonlike for anything quite that satisfying. He wants many different grooves played with competent fervor, and that's what he got.

Having brushed a blistering "Maggie's Farm" with the merest hint of finger-snapping swing ("for . . . Maggie's"), Dylan also took "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" a tad lounge--twice he steered "I can hear that whistle blowin'" between a sob and a blubber, only to dry off his timbre for "See that station-master too." But this illusion vanished as he went spooky-lonesome on "Cold Irons Bound," the first of four new songs scattered about in Dylan's version of a promo blitz. The heads loved this subtle number; casuals like me preferred the catchier "'Til I Fell in Love With You," though it seemed kind of quiet for set-closer, and the stark encore "Love Sick." Also among the 16 selections were "Rainy Day Women" and "Highway 61," the '80s rocker "Silvio" (a live staple that rocked harder at the Beacon in 1990), the Reverend Gary Davis's "Cocaine" and the Stanley Brothers' "White Dove," the callow "Ramona" transformed into a lovely Mexican waltz, and two from Blood on the Tracks: a stuck-inside-of-Memphis "You're a Big Girl Now" and, oh yes, "Tangled Up in Blue."

The heads are weary of this one, but as a song it doesn't quit, and it occasioned the most thrilling music of the night, as Dylan worried a four-note phrase on his acoustic guitar into a medium-long solo of notable momentum and detail. On acoustic, Dylan played like he sang, wobbling and cracking but always rich, eccentric, perversely intelligent; it's as if when Jerry died he transubstantiated his old-timey thoughtfulness over to Dylan in exchange for two or three fingertips. On electric, unfortunately, the leader's blues-rock cliches were often indistinguishable from his sideman's. But whatever he's doing he's going to keep on doing it. Others may attend his next New York shows to revisit their youths, or glimpse eternal life. I just want to find out whether he ever borrowed that spoonful of sugar from Eric Clapton.

Spin, Mar. 1998