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.

Follow the jump for more

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.

Bruce Springsteen: A Glimpse Into the Promised Land

December 20, 1978. The Seattle Center Arena. Blackness, A blast of drums and then the opening chords of “Badlands.” The band at full tilt, and Springsteen at center stage, leaping back and forth, silent for a few bars then, Va-room!, a roar of guitar and then into the first verse: Trouble in the heartland/Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man, I’m caught in a crossfire, and I don’t understand…

I was 15. I’d seen a bunch of concerts before this, but mostly of a certain type: Your Ted Nugents, your Chicagos, your Steve Miller Bands. A few stand-outs — Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys before they were truly wretched. But this was different. It was dark and joyous. Even in its lightest moments it was entirely serious. It was intensely, totally, moment-for-moment-ly, real.

Three decades later, at least a hundred other shows, including a dozen or so other Springsteen shows (The “River” tour; the “Tunnel of Love” tour; the not-the-E-Street-Band tour in ’92; shows in New Jersey and Madison Square Garden at the beginning and end of the ’99/’00 reunion tour; the “Rising” tour; the “Devils and Dust” solo tour; the “Magic” tour (at the Meadowlands and then in Portland) and maybe more?) But the “Darkness” tour in 78 was the first, and, without a doubt, the best.

Maybe because it was so new to me. Maybe because he was only just found the real wellspring of his voice. Because he and the E Street Band had been on the road non-stop for virtually the entire room, determined to, as he put it, conquer the world. And to the extent that it’s possible to do that, they had.

Follow the jump for more…

They conquered me, at any rate. They played with a spirit, generosity and poetry that blew past virtually everything I had been taught to expect from rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe from life, too.

If it’s possible for an artist to animate the spirit of America, this was (and so often continues to be) Bruce Springsteen on that night. The wounds of experience (“When you realize how they tricked you this time/And it’s all just lies/leave you stranded on a wire across streets of fire…”) a hard-won understanding of political and economic systems (Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he runs everything...) an acknowledgement of his own failings (I know you’re lonely/and there’s words that I ain’t spoken...) And yet: an undying belief in humanity; in self-determination; in all that can be achieved for yourself by believing in, and working for, the common good.

Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land…

He performed these songs with complete focus, determination and, it was impossible to miss, an absolute belief. And not just his own songs, either. In a show that stretched ultimately to more than three and a half hours (including a two-song encore performed AFTER the lights had come on and most of the crowd had left) the one moment that stuck with me the most was in the first set, a completely unrehearsed, unexpected cover of Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo.” I still remember seeing Bruce congregate the band at center stage, recalling the tune’s structure and chord changes. Apparently, they’d played it many years earlier, and suddenly he’d decided the time was right to play it again. It began with a long organ-led intro (rest in peace, Danny Federici) as Bruce told a shaggy-dog story about a pretty girl who used to walk past a house he’d once shared with Steve Van Zandt. They desperately wanted to meet this girl, but felt shy “because our noses was so big.” Especially when they saw this other guy, who they didn’t know, trying to impress her too, riding past on his bike, no-hands, playing his saxophone: That was Clarence. “We figured we didn’t have a chance. And we were right! We didn’t! And we never would!” So into the tune, a pop gem performed with more raw feeling than ever before, I reckon, Bruce’s voice craggy and yet right on, all through the keening nostalgia and yearning and up to the end, and an even funnier outro story about his dream of going back and finding her again: this time loaded down with evidence of his stardom. “I’d bump into her, say ooops! Drop my records. Bump into her again, oops! Drop my Time and Newsweek. . .” the crowd laughed and applauded, and then he was silent for a moment, arriving at the transcendent thought:

She probably ain’t there anymore.

Then a beat, and one last line, delivered in a whole other, dreamier voice, connecting this old pop classic and its tall tale to all the love, faith and hope he had been (and continues to) sing about:

But ya never know.