Bob Dylan will take to the stage Friday night in front of 75,000 people in dusty Indio, Calif., and probably say nothing. That’s what happened last Friday on the same stage at a pricey new two-weekend festival called Desert Trip featuring six pillars of the rock-music pantheon.
Hiding under a white Zorro hat and dim lights, Dylan said not a word but delivered a potent, penetrating performance that neither I nor anyone else there will ever forget.
Dylan likes being put on a pedestal but he doesn’t like being treated like he’s on it. On Thursday, he received the highest award in a much celebrated career that’s warranted a Wikipedia page dedicated just to his accolades:
The Nobel Prize for literature.
His mother, Beatty, would be verklempt if she were alive. Her 75-year-old son will probably say nothing to acknowledge it Friday night in the desert.
If you ever talked to Dylan (and I have), he might tell you that he’s a troubadour whose job is to travel from town to town singing his songs. Maybe 100 towns a year, throughout North America and Europe — and sometimes Japan. Those songs are filled with poetry, the kind of poetry set to music that is analyzed in numerous college classes throughout the country, the kind of poetry that has led to a Pulitzer, an Oscar, Grammys and now the Nobel.
Dylan reinvented songwriting for popular music. He even created a new job that became known as singer-songwriter. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and a few others before Dylan wrote and sang their own songs. But Dylan liberated the art form. He wasn’t mooning over Maybelline or Peggy Sue. He was singing about big topics like war and racism, with words that didn’t necessarily rhyme or melodies that didn’t make you hum.
He said the answer to moral questions was blowin’ in the wind. He urged congressmen and everyone else to wake up because the times they are a-changin’. He questioned a woman from a different social class by asking how does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?
Last Friday at Desert Trip, the first words out of the mouth of the first act were “Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good.”
The crowd of mostly graying baby boomers went crazy. Dylan was serving up a classic, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” And a sea of humanity joined in on the punchline: “Everybody must get stoned.”
Those kinds of lyrics affected nearly every child of the ’60s. And definitely every act that followed Dylan during the rest of Desert Trip — the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the Who and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.
But Dylan wasn’t just a songwriter for the 1960s. Or the ’70s. He’s still writing with the same acuity, urgency and poignancy that he manifested at the height of his career. “Tempest,” released in 2012, is his latest album of original material, followed by two collections of his interpretations of standards in 2015 and ’16.
Last year, I authored a book, “Dylan: Disc by Disc,” in which I moderated conversations between two different commentators for each Dylan studio album. Frances Downing Hunter, an associate professor who teaches a class on the poetry of Dylan at Arkansas State University, was one of the analysts for “Tempest.”
She dissected it as a professor of English would: “The images perhaps are looser than they were [on ‘Blood on the Tracks’], but he’s moved to a universal stage, away from personal pain. The maturity shows through … I do think it’s going to be remembered as one of his best, partly because of what he says about America.”
At Desert Trip, Dylan scorched with “Pay in Blood,” a song from “Tempest” that Hunter described as “he’d like to kill somebody for what they’ve done to this country.” Maybe he was addressing a terrorist, a political candidate or the entire Congress. Dylan is always open to interpretation. But “Pay in Blood” seared like 1963’s “Masters of War,” which was part of the Desert Trip set list as well.
Dylan also crooned “Make You Feel My Love,” a love song so sweet that Garth Brooks and Adele have recorded it. And he uplifted with several vintage gems including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Traveling home with a Desert Trip high, I sat next to a woman from New York City on a plane. She was reading the new memoir by Bruce Springsteen, I was reading the one by Brian Wilson, two musical icons who, like just about every songwriter since 1962, owe a debt to Dylan. We struck up a conversation about the marvelous music we’d just witnessed.
I said, “That was the best Dylan performance of this century.”
She held up her hand and we high-fived.