The Stars Above The Barren Trees
Are His Only Audience

by Paula Radice


I've been thinking about the ides of "audience" lately, since the last of the British shows. Audiences that hear, audiences that participate, audiences that read. The word comes from the Latin "audire", to hear, but audiences do much more than that.

The Freewheelin' audience is a qualitatively different one now, of course, although many of its constituent parts are undoubtedly the same as before. The medium is not the message, but having an on-line audience now must affect how we approach our writing to a certain extent, mustn't it? Or must it? Who do you think of as your "audience" when you're writing? Just the Freewheelers, or that group of subscribers you know personally, or the wider whole? Do you think it influences your writing -either its content or style -to know that it will be read first from a monitor screen and not from a printed page? Are pixels as substantial, as concrete, as paper and ink? Does the knowledge that your ideas are going to be transmitted electronically affect how you frame them?

Minstrel Boy

I'm delighted that Freewheelin' is now Freewheelin'-on-Line, and very grateful for the hard work (and I know it has been hard work) of those who have made it happen as effectively and stylishly as it has. Personally, though, I had a slight worry that it would seem less real for me, writing for an online magazine as opposed to a solid in-your-hand-and-on-the-bookshelf print magazine, being as I am an absolute fetishist for books and bookshelves (as has already been established). But now it's come to it, it doesn't seem any different, and certainly no less real, at all. As well as the excitement of being part of such a new venture in Dylan publishing, it's also made me think about why we write, and for whom.

Ultimately, isn't all creative expression merely for oneself and a very small circle of others? How could it be otherwise? As Dylan once said:

You don't want to just get up there and start guessing with the people what they want. For one thing, no one agrees on can't let the audience start controlling your show or you're on a sinking ship. You've got to stay in control...

Worrying about what others would think kept me from writing for a long time. There are so many people "out there" with a much better grasp on the detail of Dylan's life and work. I worry about getting dates wrong and bringing shame and ridicule down on my head. Some days I can't even remember the order the albums were released, let alone the dates and details of recording sessions. It isn't just old age, either, I've always had a very patchy memory! But where would Dylan have been if he'd worried about how his audiences would react? There's too many people, and they're all too hard to please... However, although he has always been very clear about his non-subservience to any perception of what his "audience" is or what they expect from him, Dylan has also been enough of a showman to know and acknowledge the extent to which shows are the sum of the interaction between artist and audience:

You stand up on the stage and sing - you get it back immediately. It's not like writing a book or even making a record...What I do is so immediate it changes the nature, the concept, of the art to me.

At recent shows I've seen it's been clear that Dylan is revelling in the warmth and appreciation of his current audiences. It doesn't mean that he speaks to us (directly) any more than before, or that he says "Thang Yooo" at the end of each song (and why the hell should he?). But the way he moves around the stage, the funny little dances, even - good grief - the occasional smiling, all give it away. He's enjoying himself, and he's enjoying the fact that we're enjoying it, too.

Ironically, the end of show "Formation", where he and the band pose in a still line in the face of the applause of the audience, is great evidence of this, I think. It allows us into the performance. It's pure, slyly comical, theatre, dripping deadpan irony - but in its seeming passivity, it simultaneously challenges and accepts us. It allows us a part in the theatre, whilst maintaining the performers' integrity. The action shifts completely from stage to audience - we are the ones making the noise and moving, while the performers stand and listen. It redefines the relationship between the two, and acknowledges us much more than a lot of bowing and scraping would do. We get eye contact; the artists give up none of their mastery of the stage. Dylan is still very much in control.

This time around, however, we also got some kisses blown, and some sinking to one knee, which I admit was more than a little worrying. Is Bob sure that he will always be able to get up again afterwards? Perhaps it's what actors call "Doctor Theatre" at work, temporarily allowing Dylan to forget he's a man of 61!

The young Bob wondered, in Don't Look Back, whether it would be more creatively honest for an audience not to applaud after a show. He certainly found out soon enough what it felt like to be faced with hostility from sections of the audience. We know the booing didn't bother him in 1966 - if anything, it fired him, and his artistic reaction to it was consummately brilliant. Seeing Sinead O'Connor crumble at "Bobfest" in the face of audience booing underlined how strongly focused on his own art Dylan has been all these years; other people's opinions have never thrown him like that. But it feels right that at the moment he and his audiences seem more than comfortable with each other, and able to show their mutual appreciation, even if his comments last year about us sad fans were so derogatory (and perhaps a little truer than was good for our self-esteem?)

Anyway, here's to Freewheelin'-on-Line: may we, like Dylan, get the audience we deserve!

Minstrel Hummingbird
Minstrel Hummingbird

Postscript: Minstrel has arrived as you can tell from the above photo. Her second name is in honour of the recent shows.