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It's All He Really Wanted to Do   Print

by Dana Parsons
Los Angeles Times
May 24, 1998

At long last.

Way, way too many years after the lonesome organ grinder first cried and outside in the cold distance the wildcat did growl, I've finally seen Bob Dylan perform live. And, nope, not even under a Panamanian moon.

Instead it came inside the pastel purity of the Pond on an otherwise ordinary Southern California night. Why it's taken me nearly 30 years to see Dylan since I first became a fan, I can't really say. But with him getting older and me, too, the time had come.

As Dylan once warned, the hour is getting late.

And on Saturday night at the Pond, baby boomers (and some aliens from a younger generation) got a rare package. Besides Dylan, who could fill two or three Ponds, we got Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. It was like going to the racetrack and hoping to pick the winner and instead hitting the trifecta.

The parking lot at the Pond was well-stocked with RVs and SUVs and BMWs. Limos, too. We've all come a long way, I guess, and these three superstars aged right along with us. They all wrote much of their best material while we were going to high school, graduating college, getting married, having first babies, signing for first mortgages, taking first jobs.

It's a powerful bond many baby boomers have with the rock stars of our generation. It's not unlike that between any superstar and his or her fans--Sinatra, of course, is fresh in the mind--but it's different, too. Unlike the Sinatras and the Ella Fitzgeralds and the Bing Crosbys, most of the megastars of our generation not only sung but wrote their songs. They gave us an extra layer of familiarity.

"He's representative of the culture I grew up with," 55-year-old Elizabeth Cumming said Saturday night as she sat in the Pond parking lot about two hours before the concert. "He's inside me."

She had seen Dylan before, but not in the last 10 years. On Saturday, she came up from San Diego with a friend, Joe Schmitt.

"I love Van Morrison, too," she said. "He's exceptional in his own right. It's one of those things. If we don't do it now, when are we going to get the chance to see Van Morrsion, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell together? It's an epic moment. How many more epic moments are we all going to get? So I want to take my epic moments when I can get them."

Perhaps there was an unspoken sense of mortality at the Pond. Describing his interest in the concert, Schmitt, 47, said: "With this kind of lineup, and with people dropping like flies. . . .

"Bob Dylan is so influential, with the way he started off with his lyrics [earlier in his career] and it related to so many people that it is the expression of a generation. I'd say a lot of people were described well in how they related to life by Bob Dylan."

I'll spare you the slobbery stuff about my hundreds of hours spent listening to Bob Dylan's music. Distilled to its essence, it'd be scene after scene of darkened rooms and a solitary man wearing headphones plugged into a stereo. Stretch that over the 30 years since I first became a Dylan fan, and you've got it. What more is there to say?

Actually, that's a cop-out. I'd love to rhapsodize about why listening to "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" still makes me revel inside. I'd love to say exactly why "Just Like a Woman" still gets to me. I'd love to, but can't. When it comes to describing Dylan's hold on me, original thoughts and words fail. Instead, beware of flying cliches.

It's got something to do with the rhythms. It's got to do with the words. It's the arrangements that go from spartan to lush. Yes, and with the voice. And on top of all that, perhaps even more than all that, it's just something about America in the '60s and a singer-songwriter who seemed completely unlike everyone else and yet perfectly in touch with what millions were thinking and feeling but couldn't express.

It's been 35 years or so since Dylan came onto the American music scene. I was in high school during his breakout years but didn't hear much of his music. As a habitual Top 40 radio listener in those years, I can only conclude that my hometown station wasn't playing Dylan's music. I can peg my epiphany to an exact moment. In 1969, I was doing a summer newspaper internship in a small Nebraska town, and one night, while at a desk in the basement doing homework for a college correspondence course, a song came on the radio.

To my ears, it exploded onto the air. Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" was a few years old by then, but I'd never heard it. At that moment, a door opened into a new world of music. Suddenly, I understood why people talked about this Dylan guy.

I've been playing catch-up ever since. I'm still no Dylan scholar; there are many of his songs I don't know. But the best of his music still mesmerizes me. Those hundreds of hours were filled with thousands of transforming moments that sprang from his words and music.

Yet, being a Dylan fan has proved maddening over the years.

Maddening because I know millions of people think he's nothing--a guy who can't sing but who somehow convinced a bunch of cultural elitists to carry his banner. Instead of gloating because I "know" something the Dylan debunkers don't, I'm frustrated that they can't appreciate the genius that is so obvious to me.

Equally maddening is that Dylan himself feeds such disdain . . . Dylan concerts where no one can understand his vocals. Some albums since his heyday that haven't delivered the goods. Interviews in which he doesn't display the same depth of passion for his work that his fans do.

His fans know, that's just Bob being Bob. It feeds the mystique, and we accept him on his terms. As if he's given us any choice.

This ruminating of mine is coming a few hours before the concert. Once upon a time, I would have been all a-flutter in anticipation. These days, however, I'm a little too long in the tooth for that. Instead, I'm going fully expecting not to decipher a single blessed word Dylan sings. And, if so, to do it without complaint.

That's because this is as much a homage as it is a night out. This is the pilgrimage to the shrine, the long-overdue tribute to someone who's enriched my life. The fact that Van and Joni came along, too . . . well, how dare I complain about anything?

It's like viewing a time capsule that we didn't have to wait 100 years to open.

And if it turns out that I can actually understand every lyric Dylan sings. . . .

Gee, let's hope not. If so, I'll probably just spend the rest of the night wondering who the impostor up on stage is.

 

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