Crossposted from https://www.patreon.com/posts/74179692
Last night I was privileged enough to be only one row away from greatness, as I witnessed one of the most profoundly inventive pieces of performance art I’ve ever encountered, a portrayal of entitled narcissism unrivaled by anything I’ve seen in any medium — a piece called “Arseholes on Cocaine” by The Couple In Seats A1 And A2.
Normally, row GG in the circle of the Manchester Apollo is not the best place to sit, being as it is quite far away from the stage, but this performance took place from the seats themselves, just one row behind us, as this extraordinary work of experimental drama unfolded. The theatrical troupe managed to evoke every possible negative emotion, with pinpoint accuracy — anger, annoyance, irritation, revulsion, boredom — sometimes bringing them all up at once.
The technique was simple. They waited until an accomplice (one Bob Dylan) got on the stage and started singing, at which point they started talking, loudly, about whatever inane thought came into their head. Their reactions to the subtleties of what was going on on stage were extraordinary — the way that every time the music got even slightly quieter, they would raise their voices even louder, is the kind of thing that must have taken decades of practice, yet they performed so naturalistically that it might have been improvised, had one not known better.
But no, nobody could improvise such a nuanced character study of antisocial narcissistic entitlement. Some of the elements might perhaps have been a little too on the nose — like asking “Why?!” when politely shushed by my date after twenty minutes or so — and the ridiculous bumfluff facial hair worn by the male actor (whose name I sadly didn’t catch) which made him look just that little too much like a bad stereotype of the worst human being you could ever hope to encounter. But other things were spot-on, like the way they ramped up the tension by leaving for a fifteen-minute interval, during which the musical performance continued, before coming back even louder than before just when the audience thought it could relax.
Their show ended with an audience-interaction piece, in which having performed the whole night as disruptive entitled audience members, they turned the tables and yelled at my date for obstructing their view as she got up to go to the toilet, physically shoving her for daring to mildly disrupt their own evening. Shortly thereafter they were escorted out by a team of security people, and the last fifteen minutes or so of the show was just their accomplice on stage, singing with a band.
Luckily, that singer turned out to be quite good.
Bob Dylan has a reputation for giving very varied live performances over the years, led more by his own eccentricities than by anything the audience might want — Paul McCartney, when talking about his own shows, always talks about how he’s guided by trying to be different from Dylan, giving “When I go and see Dylan performing, I want to hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone'” as his reason for always doing “Hey Jude”, “Yesterday”, and so on.
Which is a reasonable choice, and certainly the three times I’ve seen McCartney live I came away delighted, having got exactly what I wanted from the experience. And if I’m lucky enough to see him again, I’m sure I’ll have the same reaction.
And yet, as pleased as I was with those shows, and as the audiences were, I don’t think I have ever been in an audience that was as enthusiastic as the Dylan audience were yesterday. Not on Brian Wilson’s first Smile tour, not watching Pulp’s career-making headlining slot at Glastonbury in 1995, not seeing Leonard Cohen’s comeback tour in 2008, not at any of those McCartney gigs. This was an audience that was genuinely ecstatic — and for a show where Dylan didn’t do “Like a Rolling Stone”. Nor did he do “Blowin’ in the Wind”, or “Just Like a Woman” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “It Ain’t Me Babe” or “All Along the Watchtower” or “Positively 4th Street” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” or “Idiot Wind” or any of the other songs on which his reputation was built.
Nor did he speak to the audience, other than saying “Thank you very much” in a rather surprised tone about half-way through the set (I think after performing “To be Alone With You”) and introducing the band members before the last song. He did, twice, come out from behind the piano and move towards a mic at the centre of the stage, but both times he didn’t speak, just stood there for a second so the audience could get a good look at him, before moving back behind the upright piano at which he was performing all night.
That’s not to say his back catalogue was ignored, of course. He played exactly the same set he’s played, with no variations (other than for example doing a Jerry Lee Lewis cover at one show last week after Lewis’ death), at every show so far this year. Seventeen songs, lit from below (with disco-floor lighting which blacked out after every song, so every new song started in darkness).
Those songs included the bulk of his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is one of those albums by an aged artist that gets called a return to form, though in fact Dylan has had a streak of those over the last quarter-century, most of them actually as good as his work from his youth, unlike similar “returns to form” from his contemporaries. But they also included seven songs from his earlier work — none of them the massive hits, but all songs that people at all familiar with his catalogue past the major hits will know, things like “Watching the River Flow”, “To be Alone With You”, and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”.
Those second-tier hits were, though, rearranged to the point of unrecognisability, as is Dylan’s wont. At one point, my companion asked me quietly why the audience was suddenly applauding so loudly — it was because he’d sung the line “You Gotta Serve Somebody” and they’d realised en masse that for the last minute they’d been listening to a song they knew, rather than one they didn’t recognise.
Those rearrangements, though, would only be a problem if you were going along purely to recognise songs and congratulate yourself on the recognition. As music, they were generally excellent, though there was one point at which Dylan’s eccentric phrasing and piano playing seemed even to throw the exceptionally tight band backing him (whose names I sadly didn’t catch) — on the second song, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, they seemed to get a little lost and came to a rather confused ending, and I worried that we would be in for one of the legendarily bad gigs that Dylan has occasionally performed in the past.
But instead, the rest of the set struck the perfect balance between fluid improvisation and tight control, with an extraordinarily good band who were clearly steeped in Western Swing and the borderlines between country, blues, and jazz. At brief points when the pedal-steel guitarist/multi-instrumentalist (he also played some small fretted instrument, with his back to the audience so I couldn’t tell what it was, and which was curiously amplified with effects applied — my best guess is that it was an electric ukulele but it could have been a mandolin or something else of similar size) switched to violin the sound was very reminiscent of Grapelli and Reinhardt.
For the most part, the songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways were played virtually identically to the record, with no variations in phrasing or arrangement, while the older songs were completely unrecognisable, but they all worked as a sustained show, keeping a consistent mood throughout, and also bringing up parallels between the old and new material. For example, I’d, like most people who’ve thought about it, thought of “Crossing the Rubicon” in terms of the classical allusions in the lyric, the way it’s about looking back on his life, the blues influences, and when it comes to its live performances also as an oblique comment on the war in Ukraine.
But hearing it as part of the same set as “Watching the River Flow”, what struck me is that the two songs have the same lyrical structure — an eight-line verse ending in a repeat of the title — both are blueses, though “Crossing the Rubicon” is a standard twelve-bar while “Watching the River Flow” varies the structure a little, and both have references to a river in the title, though the early song is passive while the later is active. I have no idea what this means, if it means anything at all, but it suggests to me that the two songs are connected in Dylan’s mind.
The other thing that struck me about Dylan’s performance — something that nobody else has commented on — is that even the stance that Dylan takes at the piano is resonant with the newish album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a record that’s about many things, but one of the many things it’s about is Dylan looking back at his pre-fame youth, and he does this in part with constant references in the lyrics to the popular music of his youth. “A red Cadillac and a black moustache”, “Pink pedal-pushers”, “Hello Mary Lou/Hello Miss Pearl”, “You can bring it to Jerome”, “you’re a travelling man”, “I go where only the lonely can go”. Sun Records and Ricky Nelson and the rest have risen to the same place in his vocabulary as Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the classical writers he’s increasingly referenced in recent years.
And of course the single biggest influence on Dylan of all those performers was Little Richard — he famously said in his High School yearbook that he intended to join Little Richard’s band, and the cover of his just-released book, The Philosophy of Modern Song (which I’ve bought but not yet read) is a photo from Little Richard’s famous 1957 Australian tour showing Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley “the female Elvis Presley”.
And where piano-based performers of Dylan’s approximate generation — people like Elton John, Brian Wilson, Billy Joel, or Leon Russell (who also gets namechecked in a Rough and Rowdy Ways lyric) will tend to sit at a grand piano, Dylan instead is performing stood upright for almost the entire show, behind an upright piano, in a stance that reminded me very, very, very much of Little Richard.
Supposedly the reason Dylan is using a piano more on stage rather than playing a guitar is because he has back problems and can’t stand up for long periods, and as someone with similar problems I can sympathise if that’s the case, and it’s not impossible that he was sat on an extremely high stool — the piano was facing front so nobody could see his legs at all — but I didn’t notice any change in his height between most of the parts where he was at the piano and the parts where he came out front briefly, and everything else about his posture — the slight hunched position, but with arms extended straight down rather than bent at the shoulder or elbow — suggested someone playing standing up a la Little Richard, just in terms of how one would move one’s arms. There were occasional moments, too, where his head went much lower, and so I would assume he was sitting down for those, but standing up otherwise.
I could be wrong — I was in the circle, towards the back, though the Apollo is a relatively small theatre and so I still had a decent view — but I’m fairly firmly of the opinion that what I saw was Dylan consciously emulating the stance of a musician who has clearly been on his mind.
Dylan is in fine voice these days — he has a rasp in his voice now that’s very reminiscent of Willie Nelson, or late-period Leonard Cohen, but that just adds to the atmosphere — and the reviews of this tour have been remarkably consistent. You get the same show, performed in the same way, with the same setlist every night.
Even though in the penultimate song of every show, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, he sings:
You won’t amount to much, the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd
He clearly is, in his own way, giving the audience what they want. The most notoriously mercurial, inconsistent, artist of his generation, a man who for much of his career was known for deliberately antagonising audiences with his unpredictability, is now doing a show which is utterly predictable, a show full of songs that everyone in the audience will know (assuming they’ve bought Rough and Rowdy Ways, and it went to number one on the charts and made every “best albums of 2020” list, so one can assume they have) performed in the same order every night, but with the appearance of being a set that misses the obvious songs, so people like me can stroke our beards in satisfaction at being pleased by non-crowd-pleasers.
But the thing is, as McCartney knows full well, if you give the audience what they want, they go away happy. Dylan didn’t let off fireworks or have us all singing “na na na na na na na”, just as he didn’t strip topless and jump into the audience like Little Richard or set his piano on fire like Jerry Lee, but he did give a performance that left everyone moved, and thoughtful, and applauding uproariously in an ovation that lasted several minutes, begging for an encore that of course never came.
Just a shame that for so much of the show he was overshadowed, at least in the seats close to mine, by that other performance