A Bob Dylan insider told me a rather lovely story. On a tour of Australia, Dylan lighted upon one of the girls helping out backstage. "Did you enjoy the show?" he inquired. "Nah, I didn't!" came the fierce Australian response. A shocked Dylan asked why, and she told him. "Because you don't talk to the audience. You don't say hello. You don't say goodnight." "I'm not Frank Sinatra," Dylan drawled. "Well you should be," she exclaimed, and walked off. The next night Dylan did speak. Introducing a surprise encore, he said: "This one's for Marie", and went straight into "My Way", tapes of which can now fetch a tidy sum.
I thought of this last Sunday night at the Roundhouse in London, where Dylan was performing a special, intimate gig for members of what used to be called the fan club (strange how there is not really a new phrase to replace that rather old-fashioned sounding one). There was much to admire, worship even, not least in the fact that virtually every song was a different choice than he made the night before at the 02 Centre. Not many musicians can boast that.
But here again, even at this intimate, one-off gig for the diehard fans, he uttered not a word. And many of those diehard fans would not actually have seen his face the whole night. Bob stood at his keyboard, as he does these days since he discarded his guitar on stage, sideways on to the audience under a large white hat. A profile of half his face was as much as most of us got.
And then there were the songs themselves, the main business of any gig. Dylan is unique. Not only is his tour famously a never-ending one, he rehearses his band each day, and he changes the set list each day. It's a formidable achievement for a 67 year-old. The band is top notch and the arrangements excellent. The songs are reinterpreted every time he does them. And yet. And yet. I'm one of those diehard fans; but even I will confess that it took me a good 15 seconds on each song, 30 on a few, to work out which song it was. The voice, well it ain't what it was – music critics diplomatically ignore this – the phrasing, well it is very different from what it was. There was a point in the evening when I wondered what the concert would have been like for a non-Dylan fan. I concluded it would have been two hours of purgatory. You don't see the star properly, you can't make out the words of the songs, and nothing but nothing is introduced.
So why did I and everyone else at the Roundhouse feel privileged to be there? It's partly those new arrangements, new interpretations. But mainly, of course, it's being in the presence of one of the few true legends alive. It's marvelling that he is still doing it; it's witnessing some of the greatest 20th-century art performed by its creator. And it's the shared, communal excitement in that which is thrilling.
But should we diehards not also admit that we have suspended all conventional critical judgement? That any objective concert-goer, any non-signed-up Dylanologist would find the evening a little tiresome? That seeing the performer and making out the words are, conventionally at least, quite important parts of attending a gig?
Yes, we should admit all that. But only to ourselves. And only in the dead of night.