It’s been 20 years since I vowed never to see Bob Dylan again. He’d just muddled his way through a packed show with the Grateful Dead at the Minneapolis Metrodome.
“Man, his voice is really shot,” said my friend Janise later over 3.2 beer at some downtown bar.
Janise and I had spent our last year of high school lying stoned on her bed listening to Blood on the Tracks and Desire;a man we knew to be Bob Dylan’s brother taught music at the elementary school across the street; and I’d lost my virginity to a boy named Dennis who’d woven that thin, wild mercury sound into his everyday speech. “You remind me of that Dylan song ‘Sara,’?” he’d said early in the seduction process, “so eee-zy to look at, so hard to dee-fi-eeen,” that last syllable cresting, arcing and resolving like a decaying siren.
That night at the Metrodome, though Dylan was just 47, he couldn’t make that sound anymore — it came out all on one level, characterless and gruff. Backed by Tom Petty’s band, he growled and rasped and hacked, and to this day I can only confirm that he sang “Like a Rolling Stone” at some point. It was hard to tell about the other ones; most of them sounded the same.
But when Janise appeared ready to shove Dylan into the ditch of the old and washed-up, I sniped back that his voice wasn’t really the point. Dylan didn’t have to sound good, I insisted; he just had to sound like Dylan, chanting his words in that soaring nasal singsong that some people think he got from hillbilly folksingers but which I believe he picked up from the Swedes and Scots on the Mesabi Iron Range, where he grew up. Even as I was defending him, though, I knew in my heart she was right.
Twenty years later Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home brought me back to Bob Dylan and, last week, to the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, where I watched him take the stage to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” At 64 going on 65 (his birthday is May 24), Dylan had at long last secured for himself the common-man role he always wanted; he has made rotten movies, produced unlistenable albums, married and divorced and been saved; he has been yanked, gratefully, off his cultural pedestal. In his book-length poem of an autobiography, Chronicles, Vol. I (which could have been written, like Kerouac’s On the Road,on one long roll of paper), Dylan announced to whomever was listening that he had found his voice again. At the Rabobank, I watched him reveal this voice. His singing voice. A new one. Not the thin, wild mercury sound of the late ’60s; not that hollow-headed, lifted-palate, reedy quality he feigned to sing with Johnny Cash in the early ’70s; but a warm, precise baritone to blend with the blues and the lap steel he depends upon these days.
You could tell that singing had become important to Dylan again, that it mattered to him. Sometimes you could see the shoulders of his black gaucho jacket and the ruffles on his cream-colored satiny shirt lift with his breath, a sure sign of a man who has put some thought into his sound.
He played a Farfisa-like organ, not well but recklessly; he sang “Maggie’s Farm,” “She Belongs to Me” and a lyrically re-framed version of “Girl From the North Country.” But mostly what he sang were the blues: “It’s Alright, Ma,” along with “Highway 61 Revisited” and all those songs from 2001’s “Love and Theft”, songs I don’t really know — “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Honest With Me” and “Summer Days.”
He wore a black hat, but from stage right you could still look into his blue eyes, and I traded seat-saving duties with the three 16-year-old girls squealing next to me, waving their Blonde on Blonde record cover and throwing flowers, so we could run up close and, as one of them put it, “feel the force.” Toward the end, after the audience hijacked “Just Like a Woman” (we sang the line; Dylan responded in one rapid-fire phrase) and he and his band returned for the standard encore, he sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” solidly, in the new voice with the organ trilling and the pedal steel wailing. On the last chorus, Dylan, who hardly betrays any emotion but determined focus onstage, looked around, took a breath and howled like the old Bob, like that thin, wild, nasal, singsong siren, like an animal you used to hear in some forest long since razed: “Like a complete un-noooooon! Like a rollin’ stooooone!” And he laughed, a flash of smile as unexpected as a burst of sun in a rainstorm.
There were only two songs in that encore, and though our second urging predictably failed, he did come out for a curtain call, his band members in their gray suits and black shirts flanking their slight, diffident, serious leader, who stood with his hands at his sides and shifted his gaze around for just a few seconds before retreating. A young man behind me held his head in his hands, repeating, “That’s Dylan! That’s Bob Dylan!” But I could feel none of that transcendent magic. I felt instead like I had just witnessed someone I knew about in high school, the proverbial common man, do a decent job in the work he’d chosen, and I wanted to tell him that. But I think he already knew.