Bob Dylan’s election-night victory speech, delivered from the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium stage in between encore renditions of “Like a Rolling Stone“ and “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “I was born in 1941 — Pearl Harbor. Things have been in darkness ever since. Things are going to change.”
Actually, by that point (shortly after 10 p.m. CST), change had already come. The “answer” might still have been blowin’ as Dylan sang (or growled, rather), but the sell-out Northrop crowd’s bevy of glowing Palm Pilots — more shining proof of a-changin’ times, for better or worse — were spelling out plenty of hints.
At 10:02 (“How many years can some people exist …”), my own BlackBerry issued the following text message from Amalia Nicholson, one of the students in my MCAD class, whose in-progress assignment was to review — or “live-blog,” as change would have it — the network TV coverage of vote tallies: “They [the Obamas] just did an interview via hologram on CNN. I [did] not know the future was already here until just now.” (More from Nicholson here, and from her dozen classmates here.)
That Dylan, reluctant American spokesperson for at least 44 years, uttered anything on the subject of change during his first-ever U of M concert was itself proof positive of new history in the making.
Who can ever say what the Mystery Tramp will do or why?
Last Thursday, Dylan’s recent biographer Todd Haynes — writer-director of ‘I’m Not There’ — told an illustrative story to a small audience of fans at MCAD, my students among them.
“Dad,” implored Dylan’s son Jesse, according to Haynes, “why are you on ‘Dharma & Greg’ ”?
The answer, my friend: “There was no good reason to do it and no good reason not to do it. So I did it.”
Likewise lacking a good reason to do it (or not), Dylan, dressed like an old Civil War captain, skipped the blue-is-red cynicism of “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” (whew!) and opened last night’s show with “Cat’s in the Well,” followed by “The Times They Are A-Changin’” — thus synopsizing American history from Bush to Obama, from “The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace” to “Your old road is rapidly agin’,” in less than 10 minutes.
Writers and critics will prophesize with pens (or Palm Pilots), indeed, so here I go: Dylan’s concert on 11/4/08 will be remembered as an unusually clear demonstration of the artist’s “good reason.”
“Don’t speak too soon/For the wheel’s still in spin,” Dylan advised in ’63 (and ’08), but consider that his third song last night (“Summer Days”) had the bandleader “proposing a toast to the King”; that his fourth (“This Wheel’s on Fire”) brought the band’s basement tapes above ground, so to speak, and with it the whiff of something fragrant (or maybe it was just the tune that smelled funky); and that, after “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air”), “Masters of War,” slow, simple, and angry, with swirling organ chords that recalled the crazy carnival of ’66, had the quality of both cathartic exorcism and continued warning.
Paradoxical, in other words — as is so much with Bob Dylan. The singer’s rare acknowledgement of current events offstage suggests he was so much older in, say, ’65, that he’s younger than that now — even as his death-rattle voice and ghostly appearance bespeak mortality if not a kind of premature demise. And while there’s undeniable nostalgia in hearing, say, “Highway 61” revisited in ’08, his audience has to work for it, straining to locate familiar lyrics within a borderline-unrecognizable rendition that puts up cognitive roadblocks from Northrop to the North Shore and beyond. A message, maybe: The past, musical and intellectual, social and political, is within our reach — and not.
But with the exception of Grant Park in Chicago, I don’t know how much closer one could’ve gotten to the spirit of ‘63 last night than the Northrop steps at a quarter past 10, “Blowin’ in the Wind” having carried us out past an atrium video projection of CNN’s scorecard to an impromptu dance with hundreds of pro-Obama Dylanologist Minnesotans shouting, “Yes, we did!”
No one knows what’s ahead — not even the sometime prophet Bob Dylan, who didn’t pick “Ain’t Talkin’ ” as his last pre-encore tune for nothing (or did he?). Still, at least for now, one thing is clear: This wheel’s on fire.