(Howím I síposed to get any collecting done?)

by Mark Carter

I believe a question was posed within these pages a couple of months ago as to whether the Dylan axis was beginning to slow down. I would suggest that, as far as the collecting axis in concerned, this is probably the case, although I can only speak from the experience of my (admittedly somewhat limited) trading circles. Even so, those trading circles were pretty active a few years ago and now - though part of the reason may be my own inertia - they are as sluggish as an asthmatic ant carrying some heavy shopping (if in doubt, always pinch a line from Blackadder or some such). 

Partly, this may well be because collecting Dylan shows has lost much of it's thrill. 95% of the set lists are more of the same ol' same olí and, though he may drop in the occasional Senor or Desolation Row, these are hardly rare enough - or obscure enough - to warrant anything that even resembles excitement. True, there was one show recently - the Ongo Bongo Festival, or whatever it was - where he pulled at least four obscure covers out of the bag and immediately made this probably the only show of the year that will be essential to acquire, but, for the most, he seems to be following a tried and tested path and, though I only have one show so far, I fear that if I was to hear the 2004 versions of I Believe In You or Saving Grace I wouldn't be able to prevent myself from comparing them to those magnificent 1979/80 performances and find them somewhat wanting in the vocal presentation department (though I realize that this is my problem and not Bob's). 

And therein lies the other problem - and probably the greatest cause for our apathy -the voice has gone completely. Not exactly an exclusive, I know, but there's no escaping the painful truth; the once wonderful voice that could transform the most banal and mundane of songs into a thing of beauty - Knocked Out Loaded excepted -has been reduced to a emotionless and expressionless rasp. We know it and Dylan knows it, but he still seems determined to continue to circumnavigate the globe with the remnants of it while he can, before it finally gives up the ghost and leaves him sounding like the Wicked Witch of the West's somewhat more cackling older brother. What he will do then - if anything - is interesting to speculate, but I shan't do so here. It's possible, of course, that he'll never concede that his singing voice is way beyond it's sell-by date and it's more than possible - nigh on inevitable, I'd say - that there'll always be an audience willing to shell out their money just to see him, though how large this audience will be in, say, ten years time is open to debate. Mind you, we were probably saying the same thing back in 1994.I guess younger generations will continue to discover his music and will be more than happy to troop off to see him, even if the Bob Dylan of their Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde CDs is not the same Bob Dylan as the Stetson-wearing, shadowy apparition hunched behind an inaudible keyboard that they're going to get. Bob, for his part - who said as far back as 1984, whilst in the middle of lighting up another Marlboro or Lucky Strike, that "nothing can affect my voice, it's so bad" - will quite possibly happily (sic!) continue to churn out the oldies while he has bums on seats and nothing better to do. Meanwhile, those of us with longer memories will recall greater times and greater shows - even if we weren't there for them - and mourn what we have lost. It's scary to think that, here in 2004, we now recall the halcyon days of 2002 when he could still at least carry a melody. A bit. On a good day. What's scarier still is the thought that, come 2006, we may be harking back to this year's shows with an equally fond memory ("remember the 2004 European tour when he didn't just speak all of his lyrics?!!"). 

All of which leaves me somewhat struggling to maintain enthusiasm. I note with a certain degree of sadness that there have been two or three books published this year that, at one time (and not all that long ago), I would have snapped up. These days I realize that I probably won't read them and that I don't really have the shelf space to file them. I'm not going to any of the shows this year because.. ..oh, I don't know. Because it kind of feels right not to go. I suppose part of it is that same inertia again -it's easier not to go than it is to go, and my excuse that the money could be better spent on our summer holiday is genuine - we don't have an unlimited budget - but I suppose I could afford it if I really wanted to go. What it boils down to, I suppose, is the feeling that I simply don't want to go and see Bob half hidden behind his keyboard with his hat obscuring his face, standing extreme stage left while my seat faces extreme stage right. And I don't really want to hear High Water or Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum or Stuck Inside Of Mobile get mangled one more time whilst yet another audience - comprised of teenagers who don't know any better and older people who at least should - cheer him on in a Pavlovian frenzy. 

I am saddened by all of this because I don't think I ever envisaged myself as being in this position. Back in, say, 1983,1 would have been horrified to even contemplate a time when I didn't want the latest books or shows, let alone a time when the thought of attending a Dylan concert depressed me more than the thought of not going. To blame this state of affairs entirely on the - by and large - diminishing returns of Dylan's live shows is, of course, untrue and unfair, and my excitement and enthusiasm for, say, Love And Theft, Masked And Anonymous and the oft-mentioned (by me, at least) 'Cross The Green Mountain is as great as it was for Infidels, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. So I have no real idea what brought it on, whether it will remain, whether it will get worse or better. Some of it might be parenthood; some of it might be a need to make space at home and maybe some of it might be my rediscovery a couple of years ago or so of how much other wonderful music - both new and old - by other artists that there is out there, so much so that nowadays I would rather hear some of that than practically any Dylan show from 1990 onwards. 

You may be wondering, not unreasonably, why I'm hanging on in there. Why do I keep contributing to Freewheelin' when my enthusiasm is waning and when I can't even think of an amusing cartoon at the moment? Well, good question, and I think the answer would be that - besides being an entertaining read -I have no wish to sever all links and Freewheelin' is still the only place where I can write and draw what I want and know that it will have an audience. How large - or interested - that audience is these days, I have no idea, but I would probably write and draw pretty much the same things anyway, either for my own pleasure or for some Dr.Who fanzine or something (though obviously I'd have to tone down the Dylan content somewhat and concentrate a bit more on Cybermen, Omega and the terrible Zodin). Then again, I rushed out to buy Live 1964 on the day of it's release, despite having owned it for years on at least three bootlegs, and still read Isis and The Bridge from cover to cover as soon as they plop through the letterbox. If Dylan were to release a new studio album every year and a volume of The Bootleg Series every month, then I'd snap them up without complaint. Even if he were to become a movie star and make a new film every year or so, then I'd dutifully stand in line, or - a more likely scenario, I would think - buy the DVDs. Unfortunately (for me), Dylan has chosen to become a non-stop touring artist and it's that which, little or much, no longer really excites me. As the Neverending Tour rushes ever onward towards it's 20th birthday, I worry that the toll that it's taking on what little is left of his voice will dissuade him from making more albums because it's too limited to sustain a 60 or 70 minute CD of a dozen or so songs. That would be a shame because he clearly still has the knack of knocking off a work of genius when the spirit moves him. 

The other reason why I'm hanging in there is because Bob Dylan now represents 43 years of creativity and most of those years still interest me and enthral me as much now as ever. Just because the 2004 Bob Dylan is, as far as I'm concerned, one model off the conveyor belt too many doesn't mean that, say, 1975 Bob Dylan, or 1978 Bob Dylan or January/February 1990 Bob Dylan isn't still wonderful, or that the 1966 Ballad Of A Thin Man footage isn't still spine-tingling, or that Hard Rain, The Letterman show and the Nara City Great Music Experience doesn't represent some of the greatest live footage by any performing artist ever. All it means is that I've reached a point where, if I were writing Dylan's life story, I'd borrow a tip from Spitz and Shelton and write "after the release of Love And Theft, Dylan continued to tour a lot." 

If following Dylan is like following Jesus, in that "ya either got faith or ya got unbelief, and there ain't no neutral ground" and "he who is not for me is against me", then I guess Dylan has drawn his line in the sand and I'm standing there with one leg raised, ready to plant my foot one side of the line or the other. Could go one way, could go the other. 

Watch this space.