For the purpose of an experiment go and gather all of your prized possessions. Now walk to the window, toss them onto the street and run wild-eyed down the stairs with a can of petrol in hand. Dance around the heap, douse it in the flammable liquid before striking a match in the full glare of your (quite possibly terrified) neighbours.
That might sound like the outline for an Ari Aster film scene but it is actually the feeling evoked watching the legend, the icon, the one-time genius Bob Dylan butcher his canon in 2019. A sorry spectacle that, unlike his famous 1966 tour when he raised a middle finger to the prissy prudes of the folk scene by plugging in his electric geetar for beat-driven bombast, demands that any cries of ‘Judas’ now should be fired from Dylan towards himself.
Firstly, let’s make one thing clear. Bob Dylan’s catalogue and all-round cultural contribution is of incalculable significance. He stands as a capital ‘L’ Legend. Dylan devotees, Dylanologists and Bobcats spend their waking hours untangling cryptic clues, hidden meanings and nonsensical red herrings sprinkled in and around his art like hundreds and thousands for a reason. He is a one-off. Unsure? Just listen to Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie from The Bootleg Series 1-3. It remains the only time he has read one of his poems publicly. It’ll make your head spin.
So how did it come to this? Well, it has long been rumoured that the 78-year-old is suffering from the ravages of debilitating arthritis. So much so that it has forced him to swap the guitar for the piano and, as those who have seen him over the decades can testify, his voice has similarly been shot for years. He is diminished; impaired beyond repair. Now it is time to say ‘enough is enough’. Let us preserve the memory of how brilliant he once was and not remember him as this fragile figure who steps out dutifully from behind the piano to pose awkwardly for his audience with a hand placed limply upon his hip whilst he groans and croaks his way through his imperious oeuvre.
This isn’t 1988, when his self-professed Never Ending Tour commenced, or even the 90s. An artist can no longer carefully select which of their shows gets to see the light of day outside of the obsessive bootlegging community. It is impossible to stem the tide of fan recorded material. Cameras are everywhere and they are in the hands of curious casuals as well as avowed acolytes. There is YouTube. And there is nowhere to hide. We can see it all.
Which makes it all the sadder. You can click and peruse the masterful musical acuity of the likes of the Rolling Thunder Revue and then fast forward and see something that now bears sad similitude to a bumbling, travelling circus. We would surely much rather have the next volume of his book Chronicles or even a new album (although not another Christmas or covers record, please) than this pitiful, dispiriting present-day sight.
‘Make it stop!’ you could plead from behind a carton pint of beer at one of his gigs but he can’t hear you. And based on the evidence of nights such as those at Hyde Park this summer the chances are that he doesn’t really care. It’s enough to make you wonder if the man whose typewriter once punched out the lyric ‘money doesn’t talk, it swears’ might be doing the rounds for that very mistress. A big, fat payday.
If not, maybe it is the adulation; possibly the trickiest of drugs to surrender, and some might argue why should he? He could bend over and blast wind into the microphone and delusional disciples would still hail it as the savant-like instruction from the twentieth century’s very own Shakespeare. (In fact, considering the incoherent mumble jumble that constitutes his vocals these days, most people probably wouldn’t notice any difference between warble and wind).
We are left with one thing to consider then. How many times can you bludgeon your songs before they are forever harmed? The answer, my friends, won’t be found here. The answer will be found on another night in another town on the winding highway known as The Never Ending Tour. A depressing procession that chisels away at an extraordinary legacy with each and every stop, and with increasing urgency begs someone close to Bob to procure one of those curve-handled walking sticks, pop it out from the side of the stage, wrap it gently around his neck and lead him humanely away.