Prior to last evening I thought Andy Ferguson's recent characterization of Bob Dylan fans as "the battered wives of the music industry" might have been over the top.
His voice gets worse with every track. You wonder whether someone left the karaoke machine on in the emphysema ward at the old folks' home. He doesn't sing notes so much as make exhausted gestures in their general direction, until at a break he falls silent and is rescued by the backup singers, who reestablish the melody in the proper key. But then he starts singing again.
I had just read his Chronicles and thought his remarks on Thucydides and Machiavelli, and his praise of Barry Goldwater might reflect deeper strains in his many marvelous lyrics. And so they may. But the Dylan I heard last night at George Mason University was a caricature of himself at his best (nothing up yet on Youtube).
The evening's consolation was my Beatrice (an ex-rock music journalist who is now an aspiring theologian) who led me through the Night of Hell with her witty commentary. She thought he was imitating Maurice Chevalier.
I thought he sounded like John Belushi's Samurai grunting out barely recognizable lyrics from his past. In this apotheosis Dylan was the Unreal Presence--someone who looked like the 20-year old named Dylan plus about 50 years (grinning all the way) but sounded nothing like him.
We heard none of his new Christmas album. But Ferguson is likely right about it too:
It's not a misstep. It's not a gag. It's an affront, a taunt. He's giving us a choice. He's saying, Okay, this is what it's come to: You've got two options. You can cover your ears and go running from the room in horror, or you can call me an enigmatic genius who's daring to plumb heretofore unexplored archetypes of the American imagination. But you can't do both.
Addendum: Here's a clip from the November 11 concert. The WaPo's description of his concert is as reliable as Pravda's Cold-War reporting on the West: Reading between the lines brings the truth to light, for example:
Dylan tours endlessly, turning up at a half-full arena or a minor league ballpark near you again and again, as if to prove he's no sage, just an itinerant song-and-dance-man. Though late-period albums like "Time Out of Mind" and "Love and Theft" have evinced a creative renewal, he's often been erratic, even indifferent onstage. Still, there's something noble in his doggedness, singing on even though thousands of shows have curdled his voice into a viscous, gut-shot croak.