Bob Dylan Brings the Weird Old America to Portland

You never know what you’re going to get. True about so many things, but especially when it comes to Dylan shows. Anything could happen. Faithful renditions of classic songs, performed with robotic non-intensity. All-but-unrecognizable rearrangements of famous songs that render them into….well…something else. Something horrible? Sometimes. Something unexpectedly brilliant? Sometimes! And when that happens, when he really connects and some kind of galactic energy travels up his spine and renders his Bob brain aglow, you are suddenly in the presence of genius in action — you can see it happen, you can practically hear his synapses sizzling — and whatever you paid, whatever else you sat through, whatever it cost to park, whatever, it’s worth it. Because you are in the presence of genius and majesty and holy shit, it just doesn’t happen very often. Or ever, to most people.

I went with my 14-year-old, whose eyes I was attempting (and almost certainly failing) to see the whole thing through. God, I was HER age (or a few months older) when I first saw Dylan in the spring of 1978. The Elvis-in-Vegas tour, but it still felt sanctified. Anyway, there were times I was a little anxious about her attention span. . . but in the end she got it: What was that next-to-last tune he did? Ballad of a Thin Man. “Oh, that was AWESOME.” Yes, it had been. Other stand-outs for the kid: “All Along the Watchtower.” “Like a Rolling Stone.” I think she got into “Things Have Changed,” too. That was early going, though.

I was thoroughly into it for two hours too, despite a small mid-show sag of his heavy-stomping blues tunes (“I’m Walking”, etc) that offered little melodic/rhythmic variation for, like 20 minutes or so. But even there, the flashes of what our man Greil Marcus termed the Weird Old America were everywhere.

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No elephants, no jugglers, no fire-eaters, no Mrs. Henry. But so much more: The security guard (50ish, metal-frame glasses, tight golf shirt, hair-trigger aggression) leaning over the wall to call out anyone/everyone who had the audacity to wield a cell phone during the show. No pictures! he’d cry. “Stop videoing!” “You! There! Put it away!”

The girl with the dark dreads-like hairstyle and the “Together Through Life” t-shirt? She SO didn’t care. Whipped out her phone right in front of the guy, and got back to business, with such little concern I thought his glasses were going to shatter with rage.

Clever people in the stands kept thinking it’d be cool to just sort of casually vault the wall down to the floor, and just sorta blend in with the crowd. Nice idea, but there was like a whole platoon of guards obsessed with making sure this did NOT happen. Feet would hit floor, a second would pass, then: flashlights. “Can I see your tickets?” A moment later a kind of rueful/embarrassed/unsuccessful venue bandit would be climbing back over the wall, much more slower than less gracefully than he’d come the other way.

We were sitting on the side, right down on the edge of the floor, so an excellent view of fans walking on the floor, or trying to, but as often as not, tripping on the aluminum box (a flat-topped pyramid actually, maybe 4 inches tall, with bright yellow paint all over it) ridged from the sound -and-lights desk to beneath the seats. Endless tripping, beer hurling, popcorn storms. Most everyone didn’t hit the ground, but some did, spectacularly. All got up. And virtually all of it? Strangely hilarious. I’m sorry. I care about people, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. It didn’t seem like anyone did. Which was good, b/c it was really funny.

Texting: It’s everywhere, all the time. This woman on the floor right in front me, paused to send, I don’t know, 40 or so texts/emails. To who? About what? “I’m at a Bob Dylan conert! Right now!” Physically, perhaps. But not so much as to be paying attention. So who’s where, exactly? tap-tap-tap. I know, I’m 46, the wheel has spun, I’m not on the cutting edge of anything except senesence. But fuck man, can’t anyone be anywhere without compulsively needing to broadcast thoughts/ideas/greetings to somewhere else? I’m as email obsessed as anyone. I’m online like 20 hours a day. But sometimes I turn the fucking thing off, and weirdest thing: it’s actually sort of cool. I do other stuff, and have THAT much more to email about when I get back to the glowing teat of awareness.

Dylan didn’t utter a word to the crowd til the very end, maybe one song into the encore. Finally, a booming, creaky, voice. Could be God. Could be the owner of your local roller rink. “Helllloooo, friends!”

Lots of aged people there. I was wondering what the average age of the crowd was. Then: the average age of their hips. I bet #2 is far, far younger than #1. I think this is sort of cool.

Something’s happening, and I think Bob knows exactly what it is. He always has. Freak me out, man. Make it as strange as you can imagine. Keep America Weird. It’s our only hope.

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