How does it feel . . . to be taken for a ride?

It was Jonny Levene – whose taste in music (if not quiffs) was way ahead of that of the rest of us – who first introduced me to the great man, circa 1983/4. And I still recall precisely where we stood – Hall Left (yet another brilliantly conceived name from that modest individual, who chose anonymity over acclaim, charged with such things at Hasmonean High School for Boys) – as Jonny handed over his Walkman for me to have my first taste of Bob Dylan.

And Neighborhood Bully, the pro-Israel track from his latest album, Infidels, was probably a more fitting introduction to Dylan for a frum 16-year old than anything from the three evangelical/gospel releases that preceded it, following his 1978 encounter with Yoshke. And after borrowing (and not returning) Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits – covering his early recordings (1962-66) – from another fellow Hasmonean (Saul Davis), I knew there was to be no going back to the Synthpop/New Wave that had permeated my early teens.

My all-time fave album cover: Bob and Suze Rotolo, Greenwich Village, February 1963

Since my enlightenment, I have acquired almost every Dylan album – there are over fifty – and I never allow more than a few months to pass without listening to all of them, from the very first, in chronological order. I don’t propose to explain here what makes Dylan great – you either ‘get’ the supreme originality of his poetry and turn of phrase, or you don’t – though I genuinely believe that Bob is both the greatest-ever singer-songwriter and living artist (however wide your interpretation of the word). For fans of Dylan (as of cricket, for example), one just never stops discovering.

In spite of all that, and numerous opportunities, I have never seen Bob ‘live’: I had heard the tales of disappointment, and always opted to leave him on my personal pedestal. When it was announced, however, some months ago, that Dylan would be visiting Israel for the third time – he performed here in 1987 and 1993 – in June, just a month after turning 70, I was sorely tempted to purchase a ticket for Ramat Gan Stadium: I had missed out on the visits of Morrissey and Leonard Cohen, and regretted both (“Mozza” especially).

I did not, however, in the end, relent, and – while I take no pleasure in I-told-you-sos . . . okay, just a little (especially when hundreds of shekels are involved!) – it came as no surprise when friend after friend reported how Dylan had played versions of songs which rendered them hardly recognizable and, though perhaps a blessing in the circumstances, refused to perform the de rigeur encore. Moreover, large screens, that should have enabled others than the wealthy/foolhardy (see Hanna below) to actually see something, projected the same, long-distance views that they already ‘enjoyed’: Bob had, apparently, prohibited the cameras from shooting him in close-up.

At the Western Wall for son Jesse's bar mitzvah, September 20, 1983

Most disappointing, however, even insulting, was Dylan’s total detachment from his audience: he didn’t so much as utter a “hello” or a “thank you,” far less a “shalom” or “toda.” Was it not reasonable to expect that Robert Allen Zimmerman would give Israel just that little bit extra? Or had Neighborhood Bully (lyrics) merely been hot air?

That Dylan is an odd Bob is not disputed. Working in the States, one summer,  I heard firsthand from a colleague – who had been employed at John Mellencamp’s recording studio in Indiana – how Dylan had been due to visit, one day, to work on a Farm Aid track. Dave recalled how the studio phone eventually rang, and the person at the other end croaked merely “I’m at the Pizza Hut” and hung up. As a consequence, a dozen cars sped to every Pizza Hut within a twenty mile radius to find their esteemed visitor! (See also August 2009’s Mook of the Month.)

As for those who excuse him – as an artist, or merely as Bob – from showing basic etiquette, I don’t share their generosity of spirit: anyone who has penned songs with the depth, humanity and general sublimity of Dylan’s cannot pretend to feign ignorance of simple courtesy.

A friend, Hanna, having spent 1,000 shekels (around £180) on a ticket for the concert (and perhaps, therefore, not wanting to lose face), claimed that she did not feel cheated: while admitting that it took her a while to identify songs, she felt that Bob had “put on a real show,” and that the audience had “no right to expect any more, because Dylan talks through his music.”

The broad consensus, however, was that Dylan had taken the piss. And it is an odd paradox for me, worshipping the work, while considering the man, Bob, a bit of a knob.

Who knows? Perhaps 4th Time Around, Bob won’t just be Blowin’ in the Israeli Wind. Though I won’t be there. And my advice to the uninitiated is to start acquiring Dylan’s studio albums – even the ‘lesser’ ones would be considered masterpieces had they been released by anyone else – and to enjoy recorded genius in the ‘stadium’ of your living room . . .

24 responses to “How does it feel . . . to be taken for a ride?

  1. So your first taste of Dylan was one of his “worst tracks.”

    Oddly enough I played that track this morning as well as Jokerman and some others. Is the song, Man of Peace, about Arafat?

    Good move on avoiding Dylan’s gig, he’s a master rip off artist as well as a master songwriter and his singing is bloody awful. Needs to blow his nose. I went to watch him in Manchester’s MEN arena in 2005, 35 quid for a row x seat with a slightly abscured view. No hello’s or thank you’s but he performed Like a Rolling Stone for an encore, which was a finger up for the Judas jibe at his last Manchester gig, nearly 40 years previously. I’d gone by that stage.

  2. Yep you did well to avoid him. C and I saw him at Wembley four years ago and he sounded like this: – you can hear the guy singing nearby in the audience who’s more adept vocally than Uncle Bob. The Wembley set we heard sounded like the backing group for Buddy Holly fronted by a stand-in incomprehensible vocalist.

    If you missed him in the 60’s to 80’s then it’s really far too late to bother spending your money going along. He’s never going to recapture that purity or sing with his evocative storytelling voice. I saw him three times in that period and of course he was amazing.

    He’s now lost what little graciousness he once had and he’s now as automated in his relationship with his audience as a museum piece wind up gramophone given another outing with a crackly voice.

    I liked the song choice in your blog. It’s one of the key tunes that has sustained me at difficult times BC and majorly cheered me up when I was down. The “Before the Flood” live version does it even better, but I love the acoustic one too. So it’s on my Desert Island Discs list!!

  3. I had a very similar experience @ a Dylan concert in Upstate NY in the 80s. He was totally disconnected from the audience & made no effort whatsoever to interact w/ us. As someone who basically worshipped his protest songs of the 60s, I felt very much cheated. As a hazzan, I was & remain mystified as to how anyone could sing such powerful poetry while remaining so totally detached from it. ???

  4. Dov, I am honoured that you remember my comment from over a year ago, and only hope you can quote Tanach as well! I stand by what I wrote then: however much we may applaud its sentiments, Neighborhood Bully is, by Bob standards, bloody awful.

    Re Like A Rolling Stone, I saw a fascinating TV doc, recently, in which musicians discussed how totally revolutionary the sound was at the time, especially the opening notes (this provides an interesting account: Though, this morning, I am humming The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest . . .

    PS Delighted to hear that you made it onto Desert Island Discs, Jonathan: In your own right? Or on account of your famous missus?! 😉

  5. Mike I’m luxuriating in reading the commentary in your Wikipedia link.

    As to Desert Island discs…everyone deserves their own 15 minutes of fame. I’m still waiting for the phone call from the BBC…. though I’d much rather it was for that programme than an invite to appear on “Come Dine with Me” which fills me with horror!!

  6. Yes, great story of Al Kooper’s almost chance involvement, and, therewith, of Like A Rolling Stone’s sound-defining organ . . .

    When the session re-convened the following day, June 16 [1965], Al Kooper joined the proceedings. Kooper, at that time a 21-year-old session guitarist, was not originally supposed to play but was present as [producer Tom] Wilson’s guest. When Wilson stepped out, however, Kooper sat down with his guitar with the other musicians, hoping to take part in the recording session. By the time Wilson returned, Kooper, who had been intimidated by [Mike] Bloomfield’s guitar playing, was back in the control room. After a couple of rehearsal takes, Wilson moved [Paul] Griffin from Hammond organ to piano. Kooper then went to Wilson, saying that he had a good part for the organ. Wilson belittled Kooper’s organ-playing abilities, but as Kooper later said, “He just sort of scoffed at me… He didn’t say ‘no’ – so I went out there.” Wilson, surprised to see Kooper at the organ, nevertheless allowed him to play on the track. Upon hearing a playback of the song, Dylan insisted that the organ be turned up in the mix, despite Wilson’s protestations that Kooper was “not an organ player”… The song had by now evolved into its familiar form… After the fourth take – the master take that was released as a single – Wilson happily commented, “That sounds good to me.” [Source]

    Talk about being at the right place at the right time!

  7. John Fisher

    I grew up on Rabbis’ Sons music and even now, whenever I have ten minutes free, I like to listen to their entire collection of greatest hits while dreaming of a Grodzinski’s (stale) currant bun. The only Robert Zimmerman I ever knew was the son of Harold, the 1960’s Barber of Brent Street , whose narrow premises leaned on Walter’s Leather Goods Shop ( a euphomism for Shoe Repairer).

    However, I can categorically state that not all 70+ performers are a pain to listen to. Ten days ago, I spent considerably more than Hanna to travel to the Yorkshire Dales for a recording of the greatest satire on Planet Earth – the BBC’s “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”. Now in its 40th year and sadly without Willy Rushton and Humphrey Lyttleton, the average age of the participants is about 75. But they are still the best thing since sliced bread. As for interaction with the audience, the chairman Jack Dee was at one point so frustrated by the reaction to his southern accent that he let loose a string of expletives that will presumably end up on the cutting floor. Absolutely brilliant and worth every farthing (and guinea) . Who needs youngsters like Dylan?

  8. So, is “euphomism” Olde English, then?

  9. John Fisher

    The sad thing is that, when I read it through after posting, I realized the error and KNEW you would pick it up. The only question I had was whether you would quietly Tipp-Ex it with your magic mediator’s wand or blast me out of the water. Lunch next week is on me.

  10. John Fisher

    And yes – that should have been “moderator”. I am beginning to regret waking up this morning.

  11. “Lunch next week is on me.”

    Performing a pre-existing obligation does not constitute consideration!

  12. John Fisher

    I was just confirming that, despite your breach of implied contract in subjecting me to the same ridicule to which I subject everybody else, I will still pay for lunch (which may end up floating in your lap).

  13. Mike, John……Estoppel is a shield, not a sword!


  14. Oh Master of the Cryptic Crossword! I always thought that Estoppel was the Soncino Talmud’s archaic translation of אין אדם משים את עצמו רשע. I’m sorry I haven’t a clue.

  15. David Ebrahimoff

    Dylan made more good albums upto 1978 than good tracks after 1978.

  16. There is more about Dylan, Bloomfield, Al Kooper and the making of the Highway 61 album in this article, part of Jas Obrecht’s Music Archive.

    “Then Dylan called me. I had met him before [in 1963], when he played at a club in Chicago. I heard his first album, and I thought it was shit. I told him that, and he said, ‘I’m not a guitar player, man, I’m a poet.’ And so we sat and talked and played all day and goofed around and got to be friends. And then he left, and I hadn’t seen him until he called me up and asked if I would play on a record with him. I learned ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and a few others, and then we cut Highway 61 or whatever it was called.”

    In mid-June 1965, Dylan summoned Bloomfield to Columbia Studio A in New York City to record three band tracks for the follow-up to his Bringing It All Back Home album. “Mike Bloomfield said he’d heard my first record,” Dylan recalled, “and said he wanted to show me how the blues were played. I didn’t feel competitive with him – he could outplay anybody, even at that point. When it was time to bring a guitar player onto my record, I couldn’t think of anybody but him. I mean, he just was the best guitar player I’d ever heard.”

    Al Kooper claims that he was originally slated to be the guitarist, but all that changed when Bloomfield plugged in. “The Dylan sessions were very disorganized, to say the least,” Kooper recounted. “Musically, Bob is a primitive. He’s not a Gershwin, somebody that uses eloquent musical terms. He’s more blues-derivative and primitive. I was invited to the ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ session by the producer, but only to watch. Only through sheer ambition did I end up playing on it. The fact that I could is a testament to how disorganized it really was. I had planned to play guitar on that session until Mike Bloomfield sat down and started playing. I went, ‘Whoa!,’ because I’d never heard any white person play like that before. That finished off my guitar career just like that, in one afternoon.” Kooper put away his guitar and sat in on organ. Among the three songs cut over two days was the staggering six-minute single, “Like a Rolling Stone.”

  17. max witriol

    Wise advice about sticking to the studio albums.

    I was lucky enough to catch Dylan at Brixton Academy a few years ago – an incredibly small venue for such a legend. I had seen another icon the previous night – Bowie – and although the latter’s voice was as good as any recording (indeed the band was so tight you could’ve been listening to the records through a massive PA), Dylan was much more interesting. His voice was a mere croak already then, but the band were top-notch and free-flowing and ‘Lonesome Ballad of Hattie Carroll’ was worth the admission price alone.

    If you want the best of all worlds – legendary iconic performer who still cuts it vocally, plays a variety of instruments, does a near 3 hour set and interacts with humour and poignancy throughout with the audience – do yourself a favour and go see Paul McCartney next time he’s in town. I had the privelege and honour of seeing him at Hyde Park on my 50th B/day last year (Thank G-d on a Sunday and just before the 3 weeks kicked in) and not even watching England getting slaughtered by the Hun in the World Cup, or the fact that I was attaining official old git status on that very day could put a dent in the total joy his performance created. One of a kind. Oh, and of course he happily played in Israel when other artists decided it would be trendy to boycott the country. A rare example of an entertainer who deserves his knighthood 100 times over.

  18. Philip Witriol

    Tom Jones – another septuagenarian still firing on all cylinders vocally (and I suspect elsewhere post-show) when I saw him at Kenwood this month.

  19. “Dylan made more good albums upto 1978 than good tracks after 1978.”

    Couldn’t agree more, David. In fact, at the end of my post, I had added a list of “must have” albums, from which I could only omit half a dozen or so between 1963-83 (Freewheelin’-Infidels). The list contained nothing thereafter (though, again, not because the later stuff is bad).

    As for Dan Gins, what I think he may have overlooked (rather surprisingly) is that “One who comes into equity must come with clean hands.”

  20. Well… I have to disagree with you, in part. But you know that, you already read my post. I would have felt an unsatisfied hole in my soul had I not taken the opportunity — but then, you really have to be married to my husband to understand why I felt this way. (Read my post for details:

    It was clearly not a traditional concert experience, and the venue was utterly crap, but it was worth it to have gone and in retrospect (admittedly, one coloured mistily rosey and pink) I’m glad I did. To be fair, I’ve never been to a concert where I felt completely satisfied — I’m always stuck behind The Man With The Biggest Head In The World, or someone who objects to wearing deodorant on religious grounds, or I’m squashed in a moshing scrum of university students (years after I was one myself, i hasten to add). The sound is usually better, and I am used to seeing close-ups. Plus, and have your tomatoes at the ready, folks, often I can’t bear the live version of a song when it differs in its entirety to it’s recorded alter ego. Bob Dylan is a case in point, I agree, but still. Call me a nebbish, I don’t care. This is me.

    However, I was in the same stadium as the brilliance that is (or was, if you’re a purist folkie) Bob Dylan. I did not part with such a lucrative sum as Hanna, I confess freely, but it was worth every agora of my 350 NIS.

  21. Peter Grossmark

    For my generation Dylan was the soundtrack for my Hasmo years and well beyond. May we all stay “forever young”.

  22. Ben Wulfsohn

    I saw Dylan in Newcastle in 1982 and in NY in 1991. On both occasions, his singing voice was OK (let’s face it though, his genius came from his writing not from his voice). At the Newcastle gig, he did an encore but did not do so at the 91 gig. I am, however, surprised that a Dylan fan would not be fully prepared for any more than a talk-through of the songs at your concert and a refusal to do an encore. If you have seen any clips of Bob singing in the last decade or so would have highlighted to you that this is the way he croons nowadays. And surely you knew that he looked down at the charade of an encore (let me walk off stage in full expectation that you will beg me to come back, which I will do after a suitable theatrical pause). Dylan fans know how eccentric he is (it grows with his age), and to expect the normal rules of behavior is wishful thinking.

    Even the Beatles admitted to sucking in concert (that is, relative to their studio quality). They knew no one could hear them over the pubescent screams, and so they ran through their short sets with a less-than-enthusiastic approach. Their true genius also came out best in the studio.

    Dylan and the Beatles can be contrasted to The Grateful Dead or Phish, who excelled better on the stage than in the studio.


  23. איזה כבוד. Finally mentioned (and honourably) in melchettmike! My favourite Bob Dylan album is Modern Times it is a masterpiece published when the master was 65 years old.

  24. Stop shmoozing, Davis . . . you’re not getting that tape back! 😉

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