Broadway Bob: Dylan at the Beacon Theatre, New York, 2014
Bob Dylan on
The Beacon Theatre is one of my favorite music venues in New York City. Opened just after the Crash of 1929, the Beacon is a wonder of fantastical Manhattan Modernism, its golden interior with gigantic Greek goddesses, and murals redolent of Arabian nights, still sounding with echoes of the Jazz Age. Designed as a vaudeville space for variety revues, as well as a picture palace for the newly talking movies, the Beacon has a deep stage with almost no backstage and no curtain, the performance space framed lavishly in crimson and gold.
I’ve heard many bands there on consecutive nights, including long-resident artists the Allman Brothers Band. Bob Dylan played more than one show at the Beacon, too, before this past week; indeed, he’s been there for evenings at a stretch several times since 1989, on what has come to be called, a bit erroneously, the Never-Ending Tour. Sure, the tour pauses now and then, from continent to continent, season to season. Dylan’s 2014 tour ended at the Beacon with a five-show set that concluded on Wednesday, December 3 (it was meant to end Tuesday, but the tickets for the other four nights sold out so fast that a fifth show was added).
No accident that Dylan performed these shows, not in a place called an arena or hall or ballroom or center, but a theater. The evenings were, fascinatingly, framed like a play. No opening act preceded the performance, and the set was broken into three acts, complete with a prologue provided by a resounding gong and Stu Kimball. The stage at the Beacon was covered in props you could gaze upon and try to parse before the show and at the intermission: a white portrait bust of a woman, her hair drawn back in early 19th-century style, gazed off stage with the back of her head to the piano, snugly against Dylan’s Oscar, who has long accompanied him on stage. Beethoven silently surveyed the harmonicas. The elaborate lights were in rows. The smallest looked like old radio lights that indicated “On The Air,” with taller ones in the back more like streetlights. Above the performers, hanging around the back of the stage from mighty zigzags of steel, were massive lights tipped like enormous paint cans, pouring a dim, pale yellow glow onto the stage.
As soon as the gong struck, the lights dimmed – and stayed dim throughout the show. You were meant to look, yes, but you were more meant to listen. Not being able to see every detail emphasized that point. Of course, many missed it, intent on taking blurry flash photos with their cell phones (please, people who still do this at Dylan shows, don’t. All you get is the back of the person’s head in front of you, not even a glimpse of Bob, and a strobe flashlight from one of the Beacon ushers in the eyes of everyone unfortunate enough to be around you).
Kimball kicked off each show on his own, as the rest of the band then took the stage in near-total darkness. For years, Dylan has slid behind the keyboards and stayed there most of the time during his shows, with his small tower of sound as a barrier between him and his audience. Not now. For his first song, Dylan strode – nearly strutted – to center stage and gripped the middle of three mics. The two flanking ones might or might not have been on; they might just have been the old-fashioned parts of a set that they looked to be. You could, however, hear him loud and clear on the song for which he won that Oscar in 2000, “Things Have Changed.”
Indeed they have. Over the past twenty-seven years, since I first heard him live on a summer night in Philadelphia, Dylan has alternated between keeping an audience at a friendly, and at a defensive, distance. He’s been improperly condemned for not talking during shows; he sings his lyrics, and that’s what you’re meant to be listening to. Surely, in the past, he’s showed a sense of humor. When he broke a long fingernail off during a fierce acoustic picking in Mesa, Arizona, he grinned as the scrap splashed into the little moat in front of the stage, and people up front, who saw what happened, cheered as he kept on playing. One night in Moncton, Canada, something so funny transpired during “Spirit On The Water” that he, Tony Garnier, and Donnie Herron laughed halfway through the next song, “Highway 61 Revisited.” At the Beacon, Dylan was, it seemed, visibly pleased to be playing to crowds in the city he chose as his home in the cold early days of 1961. Every night, he thanked his “friends” at the end of the first set, informed us the band was taking a little break, and would be back directly. By the last night, he was lingering over the ends of all the songs he performed from center stage, looking up into the loge and balconies, left and right, surveying us, nodding, smiling. It’s dangerous to ascribe emotions to a performer on a stage – who is, after all, playing a role – but I daresay he seemed glad we were glad.
During the Beacon shows he was lead singer, of course, but also leading actor, bandleader, master of ceremonies, and more. He chatted with his bandmates on the breaks between songs, occasionally clapping Charlie Sexton on the shoulder as he passed from center stage to the piano. He paused to sip a drink by the piano often, looking out across at the audience as he did so.
Much has been made of the tightness of Dylan’s band on this tour. I come to praise, instead, their looseness. From Friday’s opening night, every man was so at ease and so confident in his playing that everyone felt free to break out and be creative, too. One of the banes of Dylan shows over the past five years or so has been the sound and the mix: the bass has been turned up so loud that on some numbers all one could hear were George Recile’s drums. Perhaps the venues were so massive that they needed the extra amplification; perhaps the outdoor spaces sucked up all the higher, lighter sound. I used to chew up Kleenex and stuff it in my ears to make a filter so that the other instruments and vocal line could get through. Well, the sound at the Beacon, every night, was grand. You could hear each instrument, from the first riffs of Kimball’s rhythm guitar to Sexton’s excellent lead guitar, to Tony Garnier’s seemingly effortless grace on the bass (stand-up and electric) and Herron’s rich, delicate accompaniments on lap and pedal steel, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. The bandleader, on the keyboards and harmonica – upon which his solos brought unfiltered joy – was entirely audible, every note, every word sung.
Complaints about Dylan’s voice have been a cliché since someone decades ago – the attribution’s various – likened it to that of a dog with its leg caught in a barbed-wire fence. In recent years, it’s been termed gargly, gravelly, growly, rough, ragged, raspy, and more. Yet critics have complained in the next breath that they can’t hear him at concerts, that the words are incomprehensible, that they can’t tell what song he’s singing. At the Beacon you could hear, and understand. Dylan’s music matters, the tunes unique and recognizable quickly even in new arrangements – but the lyrics are what most people know and love best about his songs. At the Beacon, you could hear not only every word you already had by heart – but some stunning changes, as Dylan revised both songs as well-known as “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” and more recent numbers like “Long and Wasted Years.”
“Workingman’s Blues #2,” one of many blues in a downright blue-period set, had light changes that made it particularly appropriate to the place, circumstance, and time of year, now that the “frost is on the vine” and Dylan is heading back home – or at least off the road – himself. When he sang a surprisingly brutal turn about archaic murder – “I’m gonna punch my spear [right] straight through, halfway down his spine” – I swear he glanced several nights toward the towering guardians of the stage, spears in their great gold hands. The lyrics for the songs on Tempest (2012) have not yet been released at bobdylan.com, but some fell on the ear with great difference from their studio versions. “Pay In Blood” left out some of the more stinging verses and lines – the politician is still pumping out his piss, but the bastard who merits no respect became “My conscience is clear, what about you?” As snapping and sassy as was “Pay In Blood,” its darker Tempest twin, “Long And Wasted Years,” downright seared. Watching Dylan perform it, feeling it, literally reaching out to pull you in with his fingers outspread for “the whole world behind me burned” and “we cried because our souls were torn,” there was no escape. As the audience howled and cheered this one, every night, Dylan stood, one hand on the mic stand and the other on his hip, chin tipped up, surveying us from under his shielding hatbrim, challenging: are your years long and wasted? Well, mine aren’t. Take an example, friends.
“Simple Twist of Fate” once had “4th Street Affair” as part of its title. Four miles or so downtown from the Beacon is 161 West 4th Street, where Dylan lived with Suze Rotolo once upon a time. Outside it in springtime, today, a thin cherry tree stretches a gauze of blooms over the battered brickwork. Performing the song, Dylan brushed off, so appropriately for New York, an earlier lyric about a walk along the city blocks to replace that parrot that talks. The “she” and “he” traded places, as to who said, and did what – on some evenings, Dylan sang a he; on others, a she. Again, that’s fitting for a song in which the singer believes his beloved was his twin. Revisions including a note she leaves him when she goes, saying they should’ve met back in ’58, and the specification that the lost ring was a wedding ring, made the song more intensely moving than it’s already been for forty years.
The most noticeable, and remarkable, changes came to “Tangled Up In Blue.” It’s not new for Dylan to sing this song with altered lyrics – he sometimes sings the first person version, sometimes the third person, and sometimes shifts in the middle. I’ve heard him sing new lines rhyming Tropicana and Alabama. However, for the fans waiting to yell approvingly at the perceived drug references – the pipe, the “heading for another joint” – Dylan served up something completely different:
She lit a burner on the stove
And swept away the dust
“You look like someone I used to know,
“Someone that I used to trust.”
Now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to them somehow
Yesterday is dead and gone
Tomorrow might as well be now
He concluded the song still on the road again, but “tryin’ to stay out of the joint” – no longer lighting up, or heading for another gig, but avoiding jail. Dylan, like William Shakespeare, like James Joyce, revels in homonyms. If he can use a word that means more than one thing, he will; if can use a word that sounds like another and brings added meaning, or confusion, to a rhyme, he will.
He likes to confound expectations. This is one thing, perhaps the only thing, about which music critics, fans, and casual onlisteners can agree. Were Dylan a pitcher, he’d be in Cooperstown for his multivalence. You think you’ll get a curveball, and he smokes you with his fastball. You’re expecting the deuce, and instead a knuckleball floats toward you so bafflingly you try to hit it twice before you realize it’s long past. “Waiting For You” should be, you think, a gentle, gooey, sad song of lost love. Some nights maybe it is. Some nights, it’s a warning, with the emphasis on bitter instead of sweet. One night, Dylan looked up at Herron on the fiddler’s-dead-arm line, and Herron beamed back (and played the heck out of his fiddle on “Blowin’ In The Wind” that evening).
Dylan would be in Cooperstown, that is, if he had retired from the game. At 73, most folks have retired from whatever their jobs were. If they’re wealthy, as Dylan is, they enjoy travel and play. Dylan’s job is to travel, and to play. When in “Workingman’s Blues #2” he delivered the lines “Some people never worked a day in their life, / Don’t know what work even means,” it was full of edge and bite. He knows what work means. He’s still writing, revising, and rearranging.
Dylan’s boldness in singing on his recent tour primarily new songs from this century, instead of the songs everyone loves from the last (and the earlier the better) has been commended by some critics, and complained of by some fans. But think: Bob Dylan is a recording artist, as that classic canned-voice intro to his shows used to remind us. When a singer-songwriter has a new album, they go on tour with it. In subsequent years, they often play many songs from their latest release. Given this, what could be deemed wrong about Dylan performing four songs from Tempest? He duly served up an equal number of much older classics, and played an old song, brand-new for him, to conclude his encore.
The set list did not vary over the five nights at the Beacon, and was as it had been since the beginning of November during his North American tour. This gave opportunity for comparing and contrasting – almost as if Dylan wanted you to do just that. He made changes every night in his delivery and physical performances, just as he and his band changed their outfits every night: black and white; spats over boots; holiday red jackets; with Dylan wearing, literally as well as figuratively, many hats. Some nights he cradled the mic stand, and leaned forward and backward with it, dancing with it like Rudy Vallee or Frank Sinatra, a crooner to the core. Some nights he just tapped a boot and posed, left hand on hip, the physical manifestation of one of his lines like “lemme see what you got” or “my bell still rings.” He shakes you up during “Early Roman Kings” with “I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag,” and you think, he ain’t afraid of anything, watching his whole body move to the rhythm as he swayed on the piano stool. He danced throughout the show, standing or sitting, constantly a man in motion with his music. And the band, every man’s eyes on him constantly, followed suit, with Sexton’s right foot keeping time with Bob’s, two boots in a single step.
Something Dylan hasn’t gotten credit for, perhaps, since 1966 is giving a hot performance. He’s attractive onstage – mesmerizing. Sexton’s chiseled features and lanky Texas limbs are easy on the eye, but Dylan’s who you look at, when you’re at one of his shows today. It's in the words, with Dylan. Like W.B. Yeats, who as an old man in comparing himself to a young one asked the question "Words have I that can pierce the heart, But what can he do but touch?" Dylan makes that choice just as easy. He has never needed to replace most of his clothing with grease and inform you repeatedly that his anaconda don’t, or do. He likens himself to an early Roman king, and tells you his bell still rings, and yeah, you get it. Dylan had good fun with the raunchier lines during his Beacon shows, and so did the crowd, from the direct request of “throw your panties overboard” to the subtler challenges, like “put some sugar in my bowl,” of “Spirit On The Water”:
You think I’m over the hill,
You think I’m past my prime,
Well lemme see what you got,
We could have a whoppin’ good time.
The audiences at the Beacon ate it all up with a spoon, whooping and hollering in approval. When he practically shouted the “Come back, baby,” of “Long and Wasted Years,” shouts of assent always came right at him.
The comparative unfamiliarity, and freshness in every sense, of “Long and Wasted Years” gave way to sounds of sweetness before the silence. After another short pause, during which the band left the stage but the lights remained down, Dylan returned to perform, at the piano, something old and something new: “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Stay With Me.”
“Blowin’ In the Wind” had a gentle rocking-chair beat you could almost have waltzed to; the arrangements during these shows made dance tunes of most of the songs, from waltzes to slow fox-trots to – in the case of the excellent “Duquesne Whistle,” jitterbugs. “Stay With Me,” by Jerome Moross and Carolyn Leigh, ended every night. Dylan sang it nearly a capella in large part, as if in defiance of those who have long criticized his voice. He sang it intensely, affectingly, as befits the brief prayer that it is. Remember, too, that it’s a song designed for a movie – part of a soundtrack – and that it is of the same age as “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1963 for The Cardinal, in the same year Dylan released the song that’s become one of his best-known and most loved. On the last night, a friend who has known Dylan since his earliest days in New York said “Stay With Me” felt like an embrace. The German boy sitting next to me, who had spent all his vacation money for the year on a flight to New York and tickets to the show, fervently agreed.
Dylan has, famously, long been called “the voice of a generation.” If you tag him, still, with that phrase, after his Beacon shows I wondered just what generation that is, any more. His old songs thrilled the gray-haired listeners in their sixties, who took what they saw as an opportunity, during new songs they didn’t know, to go out for a drink. Yet all of his songs delighted the smiling musicians I saw listening intently to the shows, musicians with disparate styles, from Ric Ocasek to Jon Bon Jovi. And all of the songs delighted the younger people in the audience: the girl twirling to “Duquesne Whistle” until an usher practically had to force her back into her seat; the boys high-fiving each other and chanting “I’m sick of love” in the lobby after the show; the students from Europe for whom a first visit to Manhattan was coincidence, and the shows were the reason. Bob Dylan is indeed the voice of a generation, but it’s a generation that keeps slipping its bounds, and stretching a little more and more in time. I’m reminded of Dylan’s own litany in “Chimes of Freedom” naming the ocean-wide span of all those for whom the bells toll – his songs truly are unconfined to any age group. Old folks had the money and time for the Beacon shows, sure, but young ones found a way, too, and from what I saw, they really reveled in their evenings.
The shows at the Beacon weren’t concerts; they were shows – spectacles, varied and unpredictable, though predictably intriguing. Don’t blink, you’ll miss a nuance, if that matters to you – and Dylan was saying, loud and clear, that it should. He is off Broadway now – or perhaps still on it, catching some other shows in New York, enjoying the holiday season with the rest of us. Broadway suits him, though, and I hope he’ll be appearing on it again soon – leading actor, emcee, singer/songwiter, song and dance man.
photograph of Bob Dylan and Charlie Sexton, Beacon Theatre, November 28, 2014, courtesy of and © Andrea Orlandi