A day before the show at the Beacon Theatre, I’m figuring this will be the last time I’ll see Bob Dylan perform. This doesn’t have anything to do with Dylan’s age — sure, he’s 73 and doesn’t play guitar in concert anymore, but he isn’t showing much evidence of slowing down. Just two years ago, he released “Tempest,” and although I didn’t go apeshit over it the way some critics did, it’s a solid record and, when I’m in certain moods, I’ll play a couple of the songs incessantly. In 2014, which saw the release of the exhaustive, six-CD edition of “The Basement Tapes,” Dylan played nearly 100 shows. This January, Dylan is releasing his 36th album “Shadows in the Night,” consisting of his interpretations of Frank Sinatra songs. To a longtime fan who gravitates toward Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics and his more aggressive material, this sounds like a snooze, but I’m sure I’ll stream it on Spotify and rationalize why it’s some sort of brilliant artistic, counterculture statement.
Still, though, seeing Dylan in concert? That’s gotten less rewarding. The unpredictability that used to characterize his performances (What will he play? Which Dylan will show up — the electrifying rock ’n’ roller or the distracted mumbler?) has been replaced by a dogged professionalism. Just a few years ago, Dylan geeks in online communities organized pools to guess which songs he’d play; winners scored bootlegs. Now, the set list hardly ever changes — 16 songs bisected by an intermission and followed by an encore of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and a cover of “Stay With Me,” not even the Rod Stewart and the Faces tune, but the one Sinatra sang. Plus, the game of anticipating Dylan’s idiosyncratic song arrangements has been killed by the Internet. How has he changed his interpretation of “Love Sick” this time around? In seconds, you can find out on YouTube. It all seems so rote now.
And, as for all the concerts I’ve seen, what do I remember of them really? A conversation I had on the way to the stadium. Something some guy sitting behind me said at the show. Maybe a transcendent interpretation of a song or two. Anything else? Of the dozen and a half I’ve seen, how much of them do I even remember? All those hours spent sitting on lawns or in bleachers, however much money I spent on tickets, what purpose did all of it serve? What’s that line Dylan sings on “Tempest”? “So much for these long and wasted years.” Yeah, I think as I look back, this will probably be the last show.
My first Dylan concert was the one I didn’t see. My interest in Bob Dylan was overdetermined — an older brother who blasted his albums and, when I was 4, took me to see the movie of “The Concert for Bangladesh”; a mom who listened to WFMT and “The Midnight Special,” which premiered “Blood on the Tracks” before it was released; a second-grade music teacher who was sort of a jerk but taught us “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man”; my own generally contrarian nature, which squared well with the vibe of songs like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Positively Fourth Street.” My brother and his college friend Darrell had an extra ticket. Up until about a week before the show, I assumed I was going. But I had never attended a rock concert before and the more I thought about it, the more leery I became. A boy in my class had talked about seeing a KISS concert and boasted that Gene Simmons had kicked a fan in the face before tossing a tray of joints into the crowd; some kid in Hebrew school mentioned setting off firecrackers at a concert when Kiki Dee came out to join Elton John; and my brother’s friend Darrell described how his head had started ringing after he’d gotten hit by a bottle during a concert at Chicago Stadium. I decided to stay home, but the next day when I read the review in the Chicago Tribune and saw all the songs Dylan played, I immediately regretted it. He closed the show with a new song called “Changing of the Guard” from the album “Street Legal.” I asked my mom for $5 so I could buy the record at Dog Ear Records on Devon Avenue. As it turned out, the record cost $5.19 and I didn’t have the change to cover the price. I switched price tags on it, but the store manager caught me doing it — one of the only times I ever tried to shoplift. I have Bob Dylan to blame for that.
Poplar Creek Music Theater
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
I live with my folks in Chicago but I’m a freshman at a public high school in Evanston — it’s a long story; let’s skip it. Bob Dylan’s in his born-again phase, which pissed me off for a while, but I’m pretty much over it. Sometimes, I mock the earnest Christian lyrics, but “Solid Rock” is a great tune. I was one of the first people in line at the Ticketron outlet at Flipside Records in the Lincoln Village shopping mall, but still I only got seats all the way on the left side in row VV. Poplar Creek is way the hell past O’Hare Airport, so my brother drives. As we head out, I ask him if he has the tickets. “Of course I do,” he says. I think you know where this story is going. Forty-five minutes later, we’re in the parking lot at Poplar Creek and my brother’s searching his car for the tickets. Forty-five minutes after that, we’re back at our folks’ house picking up the tickets we forgot there. Another 45 minutes after that and we’re back at Poplar Creek where the show is about three-fourths over. We get there as Dylan is singing “What Can I Do For You?” from the “Saved” album. The sound’s shitty, Dylan’s backup singers are drowning out his vocals, row VV is half-empty. It takes me a while to acclimate to the surroundings; whenever he plays a song, I keep wondering if it will be the last. For the encore, Dylan sings “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” just him, the guitar and the harmonica. It’s a sublime performance — beautifully played, perfectly enunciated, people are waving lighters — and then it’s all over. Dylan walks off, says nothing to the crowd. The house lights blast on. There’s something tantalizing and uncompromising about the ephemerality of the moment — “This is what you want,” Dylan seems to be telling the crowd. “But it’s mine and there’s no way you can take it from me.” I wish I’d gotten to see the whole show.
Poplar Creek Music Theater
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Same venue, different show, different band. I’ve got a serious college girlfriend and she’s living in Chicago for the summer. Sounded like a good idea but not so much — another long story, let’s skip it too. Dylan’s in his long-maned, dangly-earring, maybe-I’m-not-doing-coke-but-I-sure-look-like-it phase and he’s on the True Confessions Tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dylan is through with the born-again thing and I’ve read that he’s been hanging out with Lubavitchers. Petty and Dylan have been writing songs together, including “Jammin’ Me,” which will show up on Petty’s 1987 record “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” and features offhanded disses of celebrities including actress and anti-Zionist activist Vanessa Redgrave. In an interview, Petty says that he and Dylan were just throwing around random names. Uh, I doubt it. Anyway, the show’s galvanizing — raw, raucous, loud. Dylan seems energized by playing with the Heartbreakers and, to be honest, the Petty tunes are the ones I actually still remember. I’ll spare you the details of the breakup with the girlfriend; it didn’t happen for a while after that night anyway.