POP / Open the box, take the money

Bob Dylan has gone unplugged. Judas? By Charles Kaiser in New York
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The Independent Online
There was incense in the air and Jimmy Cliff playing faintly on the sound system as the faithful and the privileged waited for the show to begin inside the Sony Music Studio on West 54th Street. The lights went down and Bob Dylan stepped forward - the latest ageing rocker to dive into the waters of MTV Unplugged, hoping for a magical ablution.

All through the autumn, Dylan has been giving performances which some regard as the finest of his lifetime - the best concerts since he joined with the Band and took America by storm 20 years ago. This time his collaborators have been John Jackson on guitar, Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and slide guitar, Tony Garnier on bass and Winston Watson on drums. For last week's MTV session, they were joined by Brendan O'Brien on keyboard and acoustic guitar and together they produced the tightest backing Dylan has received since he was live at Budokan.

Dylan recorded two 70-minute sets on consecutive nights. They will be melded into one to form an hour of television due for broadcast next January. In the first of the sessions, he opened with ``Tombstone Blues'' - particularly appropriate in an MTV context; this was the song for which Dylan made his first ``music video'', the famous deadpan opening for Don't Look Back in which Dylan tosses aside cue cards.

Once Dylan was disdainful of television's dealings with music: ``You don't have to see Elvis Presley sing `Hound Dog','' he told me when I interviewed him in 1985. He was critical of the passiveness that television was breeding in a new generation. ``TV is so powerful,'' he said. ``When I was growing up . . . you had to go out and experience things to form opinions. Now you don't have to move. You get knowledge brought into you, you know, without the experience of it. I think there's something really dangerous in that.''

But presumably, like every rock `n' roller, he still craves the attention of the young. Certainly a hearty band of Generation Xers mingle with the baby boomers who continue to dominate his audiences. The MTV Unplugged series reaches both.

Dylan was dressed for his appearance like a 19th-century frontier preacher - three-quarter-length black coat, black pants and short black boots. His eyes were behind shades. Beads of sweat dripped from the tip of his nose as he offered a slow and ominous version of ``All Along the Watchtower''. ``My Back Pages'' sounded mournful but the crowd came alive for ``Rainy Day Woman Nos 12 & 35''. ``Knockin' On Heaven's Door'' yielded a smile from Dylan at the end. Then he sat down at the table with his harmonicas and a box of Kleenex and belted out ``How Does it Feel?''

Oddly, for an MTV Unplugged session, he performed nothing without his band but, by way of compensation, there was a mysterious and mystical ``Desolation Row'', punctuated by Baxter's eerie slide guitar.

Outside afterwards a fan from Camden, Connecticut shouted: ``I don't care what happens to me now. I saw my man! I'm going to hunt him down tonight.''