Dylan at Brixton was unreal. In retrospect, since the show opened with a tribute to Link Wray, I’d like to think it ended with a tribute to Joe Strummer. There was a solemnity to things, at times, but not in a way that brought things down at all.
Okay, of course he’s appallingly old now and looks it, but he doesn’t look bad on it at all. And as the bores complained, he’s out of tune, but a) when has he ever been in tune?; b) define ‘tune’; c) ‘Lay Lady Lay’; and d) since when was that the point?. It’s not that his voice is shot, it’s just a different voice. He’s had so many and this is the latest. When some songs used to skid gloriously all over the place, with the exuberance of a toddler knee-sliding on polished parquet at a wedding reception, his delivery now keeps them grounded and anchored, a lilt as light as an empty rocking-chair. There’s something solemn and stately about the way he performs now.
There’s also glimpses of his former selves, like, as Susie said, a Magic Eye puzzle. His early earnest folk persona and his Messianic speed-freak Blonde On Blonde persona and his almost unbearable god-bothering Eighties persona, they’re all still there. It happens when he turns his head and takes the crowd in and there’s a collective intake of breath. There’s still that swagger and cockiness that avoids being arrogance and instead is just absolute self-assurance. Just him knowing he’s been right all along.
There had been a bit of talk about him tailoring the recent sets to express a newfound/rediscovered anti-imperialism. Sunday he played ‘Tales of Yankee Power’, and okay, we had ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (!!!) and ‘It’s Alright, Ma’, and arguably ‘Honest With Me’, but who knows the logic behind it. He’s had more than a moment of being atrociously right-wing and I think he even voted for Bush Senior. It doesn’t matter. Songs like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Masters of War’ have been taken out of his hands and into common ownership. They’ve enriched and strengthened twentieth-century protest the way that only good music can.
The set still contained a few songs I didn’t recognise, which is another reason I love him: there is always more to discover. There was less tiresome bluesy fretwank from the band this time, although there was still a bit. There was, fantastically, ‘Cold Irons Bound’ which sounded about ten years ahead of its time. ‘Visions of Johanna’, bloody hell. Again, there was that swaying between wanting to cry at how fantastic it was both as song and performance, and wanting (only slightly) to laugh at the fact that individual lines were getting their own applause. But then, when you write stuff of startling pinpoint accuracy like We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it or Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously or Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after a while (a line that I’m still not sure how to read), you deserve to be indulged.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, yeah, stately and solemn, and somehow not missing the visceral, malicious quality of its early outings (the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig has the definitive version of it, after ‘JUDAS!’ and after his transcendentally sneering and defiant response of ‘I don’t believe you… you’re a liar… Play it fuckin’ loud!’ The version they play then is fucking scourging, the repetition of ‘How does it feel?! like a whip across the shoulders). But the time for that has passed. He knows he was right. There’s still him-against-the-world feel to things, but it’s not-quite-bitter, resignation rather than rage. He’s beyond and above it all: ‘Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust‘ might, for his younger self, have been slyly about his outlasting Lennon, but these days I wonder if he cares about competition or rivalry, or even recognises it.
Hanging around for the encore, I was expecting the same as the last two times (Like a Rolling Stone/Cat’s in the Well/All Along the Watchtower), but no. ‘Cat’s in the Well’ was cut (possibly there’d been enough apocalyptic visions for one set) and instead there was London fucking Calling. Forty years or so, bloody hell. He matters, the same way the Clash mattered, the Manics, the Libertines. In the way they embody their influences, they matter. Dylan is what music should be and what lyrics should be, how songs should change your life.