(Re) Born in (The Nick Of) Time


I remember reading something recently (can't remember where exactly, probably something off the internet - oooh, get me; aren't I getting all hi-tech in my old age) that suggested that the release of Oh Mercy in 1989 successfully nipped in the bud the notion that Dylan had turned into an oldies act. This is something that I had not previously considered, but, having given it some thought, it seems to contain at least a kernel of truth. I guess that, since 1981, he had been turning into a Greatest Hits trouper, albeit not in the strictest sense of the word since, as has been pointed out time and time again, his interpretation of, say, Like A Rolling Stone is not going to sound the same from one show to the next, let alone one year to the next. However, the 1984 European tour was certainly aimed towards a legend-ticking audience - possibly only the second one of his career at that time to do so (1974 seems, to me, to be the other one. 1978, for some reason, somehow doesn't). By the time he hit the stage in Verona, Infidels was already over six months old and, as usual, by then Dylan had begun to leave it behind. Of the two or three numbers from that album that he did play, anyone rushing out to buy it on the strength of the live performances would have had a bit of a shock. Mind you, I guess that anybody who rushed out to buy it on the strength of the Letterman performance two months earlier would have had a similar shock - and not necessarily a pleasant one; where, for instance, was the incendiary version of Licence To Kill that they had heard? 

Similarly, 1986 was another Greatest Hits tour, played largely to massive American audiences there, in the main, to hear Like A Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women and to see Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. At least in 1984 Dylan acknowledged his latest album, two years later he steadfastly ignored Knocked Out Loaded in favour of the somewhat predictable old chestnuts and cover versions. Not that you could blame him. You have to assume that, how ever badly his own sense of quality control had deteriorated by the mid-80s, even he realised that he had produced a real stinker of an album and that it’s one redeeming song was so overlong and over-wordy that he had only managed to memorise the chorus by the end of the tour. 

I suppose that even the 1987 European tour was a Greatest Hits package of sorts, even if it was a more obscure Greatest Hits package than 84 and 86, and the legend-tickers in the audience would have been hard pressed to recognise, say, John Brown, Tomorrow Is A Long Time or Dead Man, Dead Man, and the "classics" - Rolling Stone, Times They Are A-Changin', etc, etc - were usually rushed through to get them out of the way so much so that they too were almost unrecognisable unless you had the previous half dozen shows on tape already. By comparison, the early 1988/89 NET shows were Greatest Hits shows inasmuch as Joe Public stood a greater chance of getting something he recognised and/or remembered that year than he ever could have hoped for in 1987. Also, once again, he had just released an album that the critics and public hated (I always loved it, but that's by the by) and that he steadfastly ignored onstage, save for mutating Silvio into a hideous slab of Grateful Dead-style jamming/doodling/arseing about during the past sixteen years. I remember seeing the Bobmeister in Birmingham in '89 and I clearly recall the cheer afforded rare outings for Congratulations and Lonesome Town, which implies that, in the middle of more familiar fare, at least part of the audience realised that they were being treated to an obscurity or two. 

Five months later, however, he suddenly no longer had to rely on other people’s songs in order to freshen up a set list of chestnuts - he had his first new album of “proper” songs that he was prepared to promote in concert since 1981 and overnight he became a relevant artist of the 1990s - an artist who could no longer be written off as some hoary old has-been trading in on past glories in ever decreasing circles. What probably also helped is the fact that Oh Mercy was voted by critics worldwide as his best album since Blood On The Tracks. Whether we agreed with them or not is (and was) not important. Like it or not, the world does not listen to us, it listens to people who write reviews for newspapers and magazines, and those people told the world that Dylan had produced his greatest work for fifteen years and was a big deal all over again. 

Thinking about it, this “Dylan-as-current-and-important-artist” mode of thought probably sustained pretty much until the mid-90s, despite the fact that Under The Red Sky was bollocks and the two acoustic albums were welcomed by the populace as though he had delivered the proverbial cup of cold sick. By 1996 he was probably again regarded widely as an oldies act who had had one last good album in him (Oh Mercy) and a few crap ones (everything else) and whose live shows had evolved once again so that you couldn’t tell whether he was playing Alabama Getaway, Seven Days or Blowin’ In The Wind. What saved him this time was the histoplasmosis (dying or serious illness is always a sure fire way to get your career reassessed) and -just in the nick of time - Time Out Of Mind. By the time the 20th Century turned into the 21st, he was once again regarded as an immortal who should never be written off and the live shows were as good as they were ever going to get (which is very good indeed) just in time for a new younger audience, attracted by his legend and the fact that his attitude and approach to live work always seems to resonate with whatever is “current”. Because he followed up with Love And Theft with what seemed like almost unseemly haste, he seemed to have had too little time to fall back into being viewed as an Oldies act, and, because the album was again so well received by the critics and makers and shakers, the emphasis was still squarely on Dylan being considered a relevant artist, and one who, according to general consensus, was producing some of the best work of his life some ten, twenty or even thirty years after he had been written; off as past his best. 

It may well be that he has reached a place in the hearts and minds of American and Europeans where he can do little wrong, simply because of who he is and what he has done. He is now part of the very fabric of everyone's musical heritage and probably the last surviving link to a way of life (and a way of living with - and for - your music) that no longer exists. I would suggest that he is now viewed in a way that, say, the Stones or McCartney are not and never will be (now, there are two acts who have cornered the Greatest Hits “send the legend-tickers home happy” market) and there are probably not many people nowadays who leave one of his shows - whether it be a 1,700 or 17,000-seater - complaining that the songs didn't sound like they do on the record. 

Ironically, I find myself starting to consider him as a Greatest Hits merchant again, perhaps because there seems to be no prospect of a new studio album on the horizon and perhaps because he seems determined to ignore most of Time Out Of Mind and the best songs on Love And Theft (not to mention ‘Cross The Green Mountain’) in favour of more of the same ol’ same o’l. Keyboards or not, we're back to deriving our pleasure from the shows by hearing how he’s reinvented the chestnuts again, instead of hearing how a new(er) song sounds. 

I’m not sure what I want from Bob Dylan nowadays, but I do know what I expect -and they ain’t the same things. “I got nothin’, ma, to live up to”. Except, you have, Bob. More than anyone could live up to. 

I wonder what we’ll do when he’s no longer here. I don’t mean just us - the faithful who buy all the albums and collect all the shows - I mean the world in general. We won't know his type again. David Gray the new Bob Dylan? This world can't stand long.