page by Bill Pagel
Review by David Flynn
It was the article in La Stampa that got me thinking ( you can read it in
the Expecting Rain site Friday July 6 ). About how it was no coincidence
that Dylan was finishing the European leg of his tour in his sixtieth year
in Italy and that it was no accident that the last concert would be in
Sicily. Sicily where two thousand years ago the cult of Isis was dominant.
And the venue? A two thousand year old Greek theatre in Taormina perched on
the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. The sea of Isis and of Ulysses
and of Achilles. And the backdrop? Etna, which two weeks ago - on Dylan's
arrival in Italy - began it's most violent eruption in living memory. The
only time I've ever travelled to watch Dylan was in 1969 when I rolled up my
army surplus sleeping bag and hitched down to the Isle of Wight from
Liverpool to watch the man in the white suit. All the other times he's come
to me. To a cinema a bus ride away when I was sixteen (Odeon, Liverpool.
1966) when I heard the wild wail of modernity and watched as the audience
screamed and scuffled with each other. There was a lot of resistance to
invention that evening. At sixteen I was just bemused. It took a few months
for the significance to sink in - when Blonde on Blonde was released later
in the year. Then it all made sense. Everything was different now. May 66,
I was living in London when he turned up next. In an exhibition centre
(Earl's Court, 1978) so it was a tube ride to see the reinvention of I Want
You and Dylan with a brass section. Earl's Court again for the Shot of Love
tour. All tight and spiritual tension. Then I moved far away. To the edge
of the old world. Just about as far south as you can get in Europe. And I
gave up hope of Dylan ever visiting me here. Nobody comes here. But here he
is. In his sixtieth year. He's found me again. He won't give me no peace.
And he's playing in a Greek theatre. It's one step up from the cinema in
Liverpool, the field on the Isle of Wight, the exhibition centre in London.
This is roots. This is old. I'm half thinking he'll come on stage with a
Greek chorus. He could get away with it, too. I'm sure it's passed through
his mind. And Etna's bubbling away in the background. Coughing up its black
smoke and oozing out its rivers of lava. Hard Rain. Idiot Wind. Rolling
Thunder. How to bow out of Europe in your sixtieth year? The Flowing Lava
Tour?. It was the La Stampa article that started me thinking about roots.
Closing the circle. That's what Dylan is about today. Explaining where he
came from and why he is what he is. Like Piccasso's child-like paintings at
the end of his life. Love and Theft. Good as I've been to the blues and
folk and country and gospel...you've been better to me.
Two thousand years ago in the Greek theatres the show would start in the
late afternoon and as the plot unfolded the light would fade away slowly and
the final tragic scenes would coincide with the sunset and then the night.
Now it's the opposite but the dramatic effect is the same. The light fades.
Through the back of the stage - no need for a backdrop here - the view of
the bay and Etna slowly blacking out and then the plumes of fire on the
volcano becoming more and more vivid as the night hits in. Then the stage
lights up and he's there. He made it. No words. Three acoustic guitars.
Double Bass. Drums. Somebody touched me. And nothing had changed. There was
the voice. The perfect rhythm section. The wall of acoustic guitars. The
times they are a changing. They're selling postcards of the hanging. And
what have I been reading all year. Sub-standard performances? Not what he
used to be? But this is the business. In it's own way as good as 1966.
Different, sure, but not inferior. Relatively superior because at twenty
five you have the energy and at sixty you have to find the energy.
Then it's the strapping on of the Fenders. Where are you tonight sweet
Marie? The sound is wonderful. Loud and pure and metallic. Simple twist of
fate. He's changing all the words but it's the same story. Now I understand
for the first time. Different arrangements of the melodies we all know about
but the lyrics have their new arrangements, too. It's still the same
structure, it's still the same song but you can tell that old story in so
many different ways. The pain remains the same. Love doesn't work out and we
suffer. Four major chords and a couple of minor. It's all so simple but it
makes you want to cry. Close your eyes, close the door, bring that bottle
over here. At least for one night we can relax and feel good. And you look
up and in the sky over the stage over the bay over the exploding volcano is
a real big fat moon shining like a spoon.
Then the acoustics are out again and it's poor Hattie Carroll but that's
also a love song. Lost love. Betrayal. Then the moment arrives. It was the
La Stampa article that talked about Dylan in Italy and how it all goes back
to that first time with Suze Rotolo when he was abandoned and betrayed and
out of his pain and despair came his first songs of personal suffering and
now he's singing Boots of spanish leather but he's not just singing he's
explaining. The vocal is as good as at any time in the past and that's not
relative that's objective. And there's a line that stands out like the
guitars have stopped playing and he's just reciting some words. She's on the
ship and she's leaving him and she says "I don't know when I'll be back
again. Depends on how I feel." And in that moment you feel what he must have
felt. But with love it's like that. It was only forty years ago, after all.
Then you're trying to take all that in and you realise he's playing Don't
think twice and you start to believe he really is back there in the early
sixties. And then you know.
And then the electric guitars are out again but he hasn't quite shaken
off those feelings because everything is broken and then baby's got new
clothes and then finally he seems to shrug it off with the only song I
didn't recognise which maybe was necessary at that moment. Then it's time to
dance and get stoned trying to write a book and the crowd is up on its feet
and swaying and then it's the end. But then they're back but he's still love
sick - you're not gonna get a happy ending - but then he relents and the
lighters are out and how does it feel to be on your own and people are
singing along but then it's downbeat again. One too many mornings and a
thousand miles behind. You can have your fun but listen to this, this is
what life's really like. Then he relents again with Watchtower and the
people are swaying again and then ok you've paid your money here's my badge
put down to the ground and here's God talking to Abraham and here's the
riddle of the blowing wind but none of these songs are sung like they were
in London on the Shot of Love tour when the hits were spat out like poison.
He believes in the songs again. It's love. Not theft. If there's love there
can't be theft. It's been fifteen years since I saw you last. I thought I'd
got you off my back. But you've done it again, you bastard. You've blown me
away again. See you in Africa when you're seventy.
page by Bill Pagel
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