February 20, 2019

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How many ways must a Dylan fan explain?

I'm going to see him perform live for the 35th and 36th times this week; it's tough to spell out... my rationale is blowin' in the wind

Trying to pin down the reasons why Bob Dylan's fans attend his concerts over and over is as complicated as the man himself. (Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press files)

Trying to pin down the reasons why Bob Dylan's fans attend his concerts over and over is as complicated as the man himself. (Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press files)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/7/2017 (589 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I’ve paid to see Bob Dylan perform live 34 times and most people I know think I’m nuts.

That hasn’t stopped me from plunking down some more dough to see and hear the songwriting master for a 35th time when he returns to Winnipeg Wednesday night. Or from taking a weekend sojourn to, of all places, Moose Jaw, Sask., to see and hear him again on Saturday as he continues his cross-Canada tour.

Have I received some sort of psychic “transmission” from Dylan much like the one he says he received from Buddy Holly when watching a show just days before Holly’s tragic airplane crash in 1959? Yes and no; I’ve felt his presence and I’ve felt his wisdom, but we all know that good pieces of wisdom are not always good to hear.

I also admit, deep down, I feel some weird pleasure that I get something out of these concerts that others don’t (or refuse to) understand. This is the very definition of a hobby; why do people collect model trains or stamps? Beats me.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/7/2017 (589 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I’ve paid to see Bob Dylan perform live 34 times and most people I know think I’m nuts.

That hasn’t stopped me from plunking down some more dough to see and hear the songwriting master for a 35th time when he returns to Winnipeg Wednesday night. Or from taking a weekend sojourn to, of all places, Moose Jaw, Sask., to see and hear him again on Saturday as he continues his cross-Canada tour.

Have I received some sort of psychic "transmission" from Dylan much like the one he says he received from Buddy Holly when watching a show just days before Holly’s tragic airplane crash in 1959? Yes and no; I’ve felt his presence and I’ve felt his wisdom, but we all know that good pieces of wisdom are not always good to hear.

I also admit, deep down, I feel some weird pleasure that I get something out of these concerts that others don’t (or refuse to) understand. This is the very definition of a hobby; why do people collect model trains or stamps? Beats me.

While I’ve derived plenty of satisfaction from Dylan’s concerts, it was only when asked by a friend a couple of months ago about what to expect at Wednesday’s show did I realize how difficult it is to explain my fascination with the 76-year-old’s sometimes indecipherable singing "style" or occasional testy relationship with the people who pay to be in the seats.

Vast quantity of quality songs, some repurposed

First, of course, are all those songs he’s written and performed — and he’ll, by all accounts, sing another 20 or so at Bell MTS Place Wednesday.

The famous ones, such as Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone, are obvious; almost everyone knows them.

Bob Dylan's new album, Triplicate,  was well received. (Serge Jolivel / DAPR files)

Bob Dylan's new album, Triplicate, was well received. (Serge Jolivel / DAPR files)

But go down the list — I’ll use Rolling Stone’s here; the magazine reveres Dylan like no other publication — to Girl From the North Country, which sits No. 30 or Hurricane, at No. 39 and you get an idea the vast quantity of his quality songs. It’s a very short list of people who have a memorable 39th of anything.

But there is no debate that he is a polarizing figure. Early in his career he turned off many of his most ardent fans when he rejected the notion that he was a voice of a generation.

He alienated another core group of his supporters by going electric in 1965, with folkie legend Pete Seeger reportedly wanting to take an axe to the Newport Folk Festival sound system.

In the 1970s, Dylan left even more people scratching their heads during his born-again phase, when he stopped singing his classics for a time in favour of Christian-focused songs such as Gotta Serve Somebody.

He’s done something similar in the last few years by sprinkling in standards popularized by Frank Sinatra during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s into his set-lists; fans hoping to hear memorable Dylan songs such as Tangled Up in Blue or Simple Twist of Fate can — and do — leave shows feeling frustrated when he performs old-timey tunes such as Stormy Weather or Melancholy Mood instead.

But his latest album of these standards, 2016’s Triplicate, was well received.

A colleague of mine was so flustered by going to a Dylan concert in Winnipeg that he stormed out midway through and went home to listen to his Dylan records to “hear his songs played the way they were supposed to be played.”

Dylan’s elusive and secretive character bothers people and fascinates others. Many still grumble about his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 and the way he accepted it; declining to attend the awards gala in Stockholm in favour of a small, private gathering while he was touring Europe much later. His Nobel lecture raised further hackles when some critics say portions of it were lifted from the Internet.

Finally, his concerts have split the music community for many years. There are plenty of fans who enjoy hearing a new twist on an old song — Dylan has changed arrangements and even the lyrics of his songs during his career — but others get upset with his constant re-imagining and repurposing of his hits to the point that the concert becomes a "Name That Tune" experience.

Bob Dylan in London in April 1965. (The Associated Press files)

Bob Dylan in London in April 1965. (The Associated Press files)

A colleague of mine was so flustered by going to a Dylan concert in Winnipeg that he stormed out midway through and went home to listen to his Dylan records to "hear his songs played the way they were supposed to be played."

And for some reason there are fans who feel they must be acknowledged by the performer between songs. Seldom are these moments spontaneous and Dylan recognizes this. When he speaks during a concert — and these days that’s a rarity — it’s such a big deal it merits a mention in the media. He doesn’t waste his words.

Reflects cruelty of life

When I attended Dauphin’s Countryfest earlier this month, watching Keith Urban, and watching the fans watch Keith Urban, I realized the pure escapism that a great concert provides. Your worries wash away as you get wrapped up in the moment. It’s a great feeling, and one that keeps people paying big bucks to attend shows.

Most singers, Urban included, sing about what we all hope life will become — your love is by your side, you’re both enjoying a memorable moment together and everything in your life is great. Pass me a beer, would ya?

But we all know life isn’t like that. Dylan even wrote a song about it — Life is Hard.

Bob Dylan gestures during a news conference in Paris, France in 1966. Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, a stunning announcement that for the first time bestowed the prestigious award on a musician for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." (Pierre Godot / The Associated Press files)

Bob Dylan gestures during a news conference in Paris, France in 1966. Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, a stunning announcement that for the first time bestowed the prestigious award on a musician for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." (Pierre Godot / The Associated Press files)

Sure, he has his love songs — he wrote Make You Feel My Love and still sings it on occasion even though it’s mostly associated with Adele these days — but Dylan doesn’t let you escape reality when you watch him perform live.

He shoves it right in your face with songs such as 2012’s Pay in Blood — "Low cards are what I’ve got / But I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not / I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God / You could put me out in front of a firing squad."

So many of his songs reflect the cruelty of life — relationships gone wrong, the depravity of society and the ravages of aging.

Heck, we’ve all seen him age; compare a photo of Dylan in the 1960s compared with one today and you’ll see a stark reminder of time. It’s all so startling.

So despite all the naysayers who’ve turned their backs on Dylan and his concerts — he sometimes turns his back on the fans while performing — I’m facing the music once again.

I’m ready to be startled.

alan.small@freepress.mb.caTwitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

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