Dylan in Ithaca

There come moments in any long car trip when you have to decide between forging on ahead or turning off to take in the sights. When blasting across the middle of South Dakota on I-90 it requires immense resolve to charge past the exit for Mt. Rushmore, a thirty minute detour. You’ve driven a couple of thousand miles across the country and several hundred across the seemingly endless Great Plains, so what’s another fifty or sixty on the odometer?

You hit the blinker and head for the offramp.

Really there was no choice. The gravitational force of these hokey heads is irresistible—Black Hills as black hole. Once you’re in the tourist scrum looking out at those lousy granite renderings of dead white guys carved into a sacred site of the Sioux, you regret that you surrendered to the pull of the must-see.

You climb back into the car, and as the granite faces recede in the rearview mirror, you console yourself with the thought that, unlike MacArthur, whose countenance many patriots thought should be added to Mt. Rushmore, you will not be back.

Bob Dylan’s face would be another candidate for turning the Rushmore quartet into a quintet, another man who has become that most dispiriting of attractions: an American icon. Dylan has been enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; he’s done a Super Bowl ad for Chrysler (with shots not of the open road but of knotted freeway overpasses; he’s snagged a Nobel Prize. So why not dedicate a cliff-face to Mr. Zimmerman, a stone that doesn’t roll?

For the time being he’s still rolling, from city to city, town to town, middling auditorium to middling auditorium. He’s not seeing the sights: he is the sight. And the people come. Last Sunday night his entourage rolled into the Finger Lakes region of New York State for a date at the athletics building at Ithaca College.

A couple thousand plastic folding chairs set in precise rows on the straight and curving lines of the indoor track and strapped together to prevent row hopping or even a spontaneous rush of the stage, a distant platform bathed in patterned sepia light that evoked a politburo ballroom of late GDR vintage. Security details in para-military fleece and crew cuts roved the structure, eye-frisking ticket holders at the entrance, shooing the faithful and curious along when they congregated to take in the scene or talk to friends. Glaring LED lights shone down. The place looked less like a concert venue than a disaster relief center. There were no clouds of marijuana smoke, no seething seas of colorful rapture. Warning signs threatened sanction for recording the show or taking photos. (This didn’t stop the cell-phone commandos: a selfie-with Dylan in the distant background is as flagrant an act of civil disobedience as any of these college students are likely to engage in.) This was not a fiftieth anniversary reenactment of Woodstock, down the road a piece from Ithaca, and where Dylan famously did not appear in 1969. Dylan’s Ithaca was the Brave New World of events management.

The times, they have changed. Just how much, can be seen by watching Martin Scorsese’s film The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Dylan Story, which came out in June of this year. The movie, not called a documentary because it is laced with fiction that both stokes and obscures the legend, suggests that Dylan feels compelled to take himself and his music to his people. Having rarely been on the road since 1966, Dylan assembled a cast of performers in 1975 in the spirit of a traveling circus; among this troupe were Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Allen Ginsberg, whose poetic contributions were largely downsized in the course of the tour though he continued along for the ride.

Dylan drove the motor home from one failing northeastern city to the next, mingling with, and performing for devoted fans and “ordinary” people at senior centers, dance halls, playgrounds, small concert venues. There is a touching scene in which Dylan and Ginsberg visit and discuss poetry, by Kerouac and others; the Nobel prize for Literature seems to hover just beyond the frame.

We learn from the film that the bard is in search not just of “America,” but of something bigger, more mystical still: the Holy Grail. Soon after the Rolling Thunder tour, Dylan would be born again.

The sometimes chaotic music-making, social dynamics, and logistical misadventures of the road are amplified and embroidered with whimsy and doubt in the film. But the musical performances captured on the documentary footage are riveting: the searing intensity of his stage charisma, the clarity and force of his lyric, his unsurpassed commitment to his material, are utterly captivating. You can’t look you away, you can’t plug your ears like Odysseus had his men do. As Dylan said in his earthy and eloquent Nobel speech, recorded in Los Angeles in June of 2017 and submitted like a student paper just before the deadline for receipt of the prize and its payout, Homer is where it starts and ends: “Sing in me, oh [sic] Muse in and through me the story.”

The credits of the Scorsese film provide a year-by-year listing of all the concerts Dylan has done since Rolling Thunder. He’s been out on the road ever since—at least until last Sunday in Ithaca. Over the last two decades he has sometimes done as many as a hundred dates a year, and never fewer than 80. That a man in his late seventies can muster such energy, even when the demands of touring are softened by VIP treatment, should itself warrant another award. Since 1988 these peregrinations—or perhaps pilgrimages—have been known as the Never Ending Tour. One suspects that only death will stop him in his tracks.

The biggest irony of Sunday’s appearance was not that this “counter-culture” figure has been stripped—by age, by ego, by celebrity, by fetish capitalism—of his authenticity and turned into a monument that one dutifully pays money to see and hear. Far more depressing, the performance was an unwitting exercise in self-censorship. You couldn’t make out a word he sang: the only clear diction came at the end of the night when he introduced the band, which aside from a scant guitar solo here or there and an eight-bar drum solo late in the single long set, was charged with filling in the cracks in his voice like so much talc and make-up on the face of song.

The bard babbled and growled, mostly hunched and hidden behind an upright piano miked so close that the sound of its jagged notes clanked and banged over the crowd and off the steel struts and giant plate glass windows of the sports facility. Once or twice a slow drawl of syllables cohered into understandable syntactic units as in the sentimental tribute “Lenny Bruce.” The genius comic would have derided the whole sorry scene.

Intermittently Dylan would emerge from his defensive position behind the piano and take the mike, but he remained indecipherable, the master of words muted.

A guitar was stuck in his hand for the opener, “Things Have Changed”—that infamous Super Bowl background ballad—then given back to him for the first of two encores, “Ballad of a Thin Man,” one of his rare excursions into the distant past of the 1960s. He remained in that decade, though deprived of his guitar, for the final number, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” its honky-tonky glow dampened by the electronic scrim. The song struggled against its acoustic shackles, the poet against his gag. He must have been singing, at last, about “winter comin’.”

The faithful held on cheering until the brutal lights came on all at once, as hard as hard rain.

Outside there was a cold mist. The Twelve Tribes of Ithaca passed out fliers praising Dylan as a prophet and offering an itinerary departing the chill of capitalism for the warmth of community. Dylan’s limo and band buses, sleek and tinted, idled nearby. Rushmore had come to us for only seventy bucks a ticket: “Don’t say I never warned you when your train gets lost.”

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com