Return of the Rebel without a Pause
Looking back at Bob’s iconic Never Ending Tour performance in Rotterdam a decade ago
The band looks slouchy and dissolute. Electricity fizzes in the shadows around them.
They exchange glances, Tony Garnier spins his bass and the stage erupts into a foundry of noise and fire. Drums explode.
Then the diamond-studded rim of a ten-gallon hat flashes as a figure as thin as a blade flickers into view. He nods to the band and takes his place at the keyboard.
The rebel without a pause is in Rotterdam.
The band swings in to a country version of Maggie’s Farm. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before – stately, almost a waltz.
Pensioner Bob Dylan is coming back and he is as unstoppable as a freight train.
Gone is the Chaplinesque folk singer – so is the wild amphetamine Sixties fop. Gone too is the grungy Eighties s king of stadium rock.
Now he embodies the ghosts of John Jacob Niles, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Woody Guthrie.
His trademark guitar is rarely seen and he plays the keyboards standing up with his Stetson pushed to the back of his head. His voice, the most controversial in the history of popular music, has thrown caution to the wind.
There were times in the last forty years when he would hit a note as clear as a bell. Not any more.
His voice has become the soundtrack to American history. He howls like a dog across ancient prairies, he strangles the lightning, regurgitates the rolling thunder. He is a storm rattling down a canyon.
But it’s been a long hard road to get here..
Like most rebels Dylan found it almost impossible to de-activate his self-destruct button. Drugs, drink and a near fatal brush with God, all served to put his career on hold for long periods of bad concerts and worse songs.
And yet Dylan is one of the few true geniuses of the 20th and 21st centuries. This year alone his autobiography is a best seller, Martin Scorcese’s film about him is a major hit, he has two albums on the charts and demand for tickets to his shows is so high that he is playing five consecutive nights in London.
Dylan drags Maggie’s Farm to a halt like he is roping horses and begins mugging and flirting with the audience. He makes an eerie and unspecified salute to them.
Everything about the man is eerie and unspecified though, like the motorcycle crash in 1966 when he was supposed to have broken his neck – or the near-fatal reaction he suffered in the late 90s to bird droppings, or the obscure domestic accident when he cut his hand to the bone which almost put paid to his guitar playing.
Each time some great trauma happens though Dylan comes back with a new voice.
But no matter what, over the past twenty years Dylan has stuck to the gruelling schedule of The Never Ending Tour. He performs at least 150 nights every year.
He doesn’t need the money – his back catalogue is worth more than a poor country’s debt and something in the region of a million people a year pay about £30 each to see him.
He’s a shrewd businessman though, and that may explain some things.
For instance, by the early 1970s the hippy generation who had claimed him were in disarray. They were abandoning hedonistic principles for jobs, mortgages and babies.
And Bob settled down too, had a bunch of kids, bought a big house. He also bought condominiums, baby shops and a coffee bar in his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. His album covers showed him growing fat.
His three 1970s Gospel albums didn’t help either and even the Christians threw him to the lions. It wasn’t the done thing to talk about God when you were considered one yourself.
And yet his rebellion is steeped in homespun tradition and Biblical truths.
Every croaky wild and crazy sound that comes out of his throat and every note that flirts off his keyboard is based in the roots of the cotton fields, of blues, gospel, blue grass, country, folk, Cajun, rock n roll, Tin Pan Alley, Elvis, Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker. The list is as long as music itself.
And now he’s back … he slides like a steal guitar into Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You and his voice becomes as heady as swamp fever. The four generations of fans at the Rotterdam concert are up on their feet.
But Rotterdam was just another step on Dylan’s road to re-conquering the world.