I went to see Bob Dylan recently. I hadn’t been at one of his concerts in a long time and was curious to see the changes time might have wrought.
We shared managers for a while so I have a little extra insight into the man, for all the good that does; the general feeling around “Bobby” is that just when you have him pegged he shifts the ground beneath your feet.
I should come clean and admit that along with Picasso, Yeats and Joyce I think Dylan is one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. The fact that he’s still adding to an enormous body of great work over a decade later may put him a nose ahead.
Dylan has never been loath to have excellent bands play before him, and both Wilco and My Morning Jacket gave very good accounts of themselves; yet within moments of his taking the stage the gulf was obvious. Bobby has a voice – and I’m not just talking about his distinctive croon - the others are, well, just very good bands.
By Dylan’s second song I was ineffably moved, though I wasn’t sure why. He no longer plays guitar because of severe arthritis, yet he seemed solitary as ever as he swayed in front of a microphone stand, his band in a semi-circle focusing intently on him.
Age had run its jagged nails over him but it also seemed to have scraped away some of his trademark wise guy arrogance; it left in its place an empathy, even an odd humility, that has always been in short supply. Still, he was now very much the bandleader calling the shots and directing solos with a nod of the head from the piano that he often played skillfully despite his damaged fingers.
But his singular voice - searing, bluesy, soulful, revealing - took me places that I’d never been and back to many that he’d introduced me to. That’s the odd thing about Dylan: though it’s always great to hear his classics, the new songs can get you thinking about things that you’d forgotten about.
I used to wonder about his influences, the bible was always obvious as it is in the work of most great American songwriters. Only recently did I discover that when Bobby hit New York City in 1961, intimidated by Liam Clancy and others who drew deeply on the Celtic tradition, he spent months at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street trawling through newspapers from the 1860’s and swallowing whole the stories, language and characters of Civil War America.
That’s all still there and bestows a timeless quality to his songs. Like Stephen Foster before him, he’s the quintessential American writer; in fact over time he has come to personify the “weird and crazy America” that often seems on its last knees and then comes back and bites you.
His 100-minute set played like a highlights reel of my life – and from the rapt faces I don’t doubt that many others were experiencing the same effect. I remembered the first time I heard Like A Rolling Stone, how it caused me to leave Wexford and set out on my own creative journey. Just Like A Woman showed me what a know-it-all prig I once was, and maybe still am at times; while Positively 4th Street demonstrated how lyrics could be carved out of well-earned bitterness and put to good use.
He brought back flashes too of a night in a biker bar in Albuquerque when I danced with a waitress who seemed like she popped fully formed out of a Dylan song. And there was the afternoon when I heard his masterpiece, Time Out of Mind, and knew I’d have to up my own creative game or get trampled once more in his considerable dust.
It was so strange to watch this slight figure I’ve never met and realize the effect he’s had on me. So great to know that he’s still out there pursuing, and often nailing, his lonely vision of America. Then again, he’s Bob Dylan, dream spinner extraordinaire and perhaps the greatest artist of our time.