Who is Bob Dylan?
For more than 40 years, the mercurial Mr. Zimmerman’s ever-changing persona has exasperated critics. There’s Early Bob, reverently copping Guthrie while ripping off Ramblin’ Jack. There’s Protest Singer Bob, railing against a crumbling establishment. Later, we meet Electric Guitar Bob (call him Judas), and even Country & Western Bob — complete with affected accent and 10-gallon hat.
“The more you know about Bob Dylan,” New York Observer rock critic David Means recently wrote, “the less you know.” It seems true: Separately, each new Dylan model makes sense. But together, they’re like a roomful of awkward strangers, quietly nursing their drinks.
So I was genuinely surprised when I heard the new two-CD set Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue. Recorded during a tour of small New England theaters (plus one inspired night at a Montreal hockey rink), this previously unreleased live collection offers the usual assortment of album tracks and hits. But across the collection’s 22 tracks, Dylan is never coy or distant; rather, he’s loose, limber and even playful with his various personalities — intimately so, in fact. The newer songs, shortly to appear on 1976’s Desire (including a rousing “Hurricane”), are also gorgeously confident. But it’s Dylan’s reinterpretation of older work that’s most enlightening. On nearly every track (“Blowin’ in the Wind” the telling exception), Dylan reinvents his own reinvention. Well-known lyrics are rewritten; familiar melodies are rerouted. “Hard Rain” has a lightning beat you can dance to. “Love Minus Zero” is stripped to the bone.
But “It Ain’t Me Babe” is the most revealing. With a syncopated rhythm and an exaggeration of every syllable, Dylan turns an old chestnut (with its apropos title) into an unexpected lesson. It’s as if Dylan is lifting the veil just to say, “Get it, folks? It’s about the song, not the singer.”
Dylan revisionism is more rampant than ever these days. But this “new” Bob Dylan record raises the suspicion that the artist’s ongoing mystery is itself an illusion. The truth is, Dylan isn’t any of his personas. He’s not a cowboy, a boho poet or even a protest singer. He’s just a great songwriter, telling it like he sees it. (When Dylan sang “The times they are a’changin,” it wasn’t a call to arms. It was simply an observation.)
Near the end of Live 1975, a fan cries out “Play a protest song!” Dylan responds wryly, “Here’s one for ya” before launching into the deeply personal “Oh Sister.” I wonder if Bob’s reluctantly aging audience — leaving behind heady flower power for the disappointments of the “Me Generation” — appreciated Mr. Zimmerman’s irony.
But with Dylan, well-meaning fans often draw the wrong conclusions. We think we’re learning something about the singer. But really, we’re being told something new about ourselves — a collective moment (or two) before we’re ready to hear it.
E-mail Adam Druckman at firstname.lastname@example.org.