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Bob Dylan Revisited

Paul Nelson wrote: "It is hard to claim too much for the man who in every sense revolutionized modern poetry, American folk music, popular music, and the whole of modern-day thought; even the strongest praise seems finally inadequate. Not many contemporary artists have the power to actually change our lives, but surely Dylan does—and has."

Paul wrote this in 1966, the year after Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival and left behind a heretofore devoted audience of dyed-in-the-wool folk-music enthusiasts (an event that also contributed to Paul resigning his post as managing editor of Sing Out! magazine—but that's another story). 

Performing Tuesday night at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Dylan remained just as artistically unyielding. 
 
The last time I saw Dylan live was 20 years ago and also outdoors, near Park City, Utah. His face was puffy and he was slightly hunched forward, as if he were being crushed by the weight of his own reputation. One of his surlier periods, he would just blast through song after song, each one almost indiscernible from the next. This wasn't Dylan gone electric—it was Dylan gone electrically bombastic.

But I was not surprised. I knew from recordings that Dylan performing live was a chameleonic chimera. There was the bellowing Dylan (with the Band) from 1974's Before the Flood; and two years later there was the punk-rock Dylan spewing fiery deliveries on Hard Rain. What we got at Prospect Park this week was a defiantly elegant Dylan, his voice at once ravaged and ravishing, as thin as a whip and just as dangerous. His band was sharp and exact—like a surgeon's knife, or Jack the Ripper's blade. He played his music the way he wanted to play it, everybody else be damned.

So it was with some amusement that, on our way out of the park after the concert, we heard grumblings to the effect that Dylan "didn't even know the words to his own songs," which "didn't sound the same," and (my favorite) "He didn't even play 'Mr. Tambourine Man'!" 

Forty-three years after Newport, he's still got it. And 42 years after Paul's words, even the strongest praise still seems inadequate.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

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