Wednesday, 2 April 2008


Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour reaches Sheffield Arena,
22nd September 2000, Andy Darlington was there to take its pulse,
buy the T-shirt, and wonder what price you pay going through
all these things twice... three times, and more

“Look up in the sky. Those stars died a billion years ago” muses Dylan’s alias ‘Billy Parker’, autobiographically, in the dire ‘Hearts Of Fire’ movie. “They’re still stars to me” replies Molly, sweetly supportive. And they are. An arena that’s a huge spatial anomaly star-warped ghost-walked with Torville & Dean, the Sheffield Steelers Ice-Hockey team, and Westlife’s pallid wraiths, re-filled with different intensities of wish-fulfilment and impossibly high expectations. Neat rows in tiers of disparate demographics. And when Dylan appears in black frock-coat, button-down shirt, and white snakeskin boots, with four-piece band - drummer in white Stetson, they tidal-wave beyond the attempts of massive attendants to drive them back... it’s only when a giant loud-mouth threatens to have me thrown out that I execute partial retreat, only to re-route back. “I Am The Man”. Black hatted stand-up double-bass, banjo. “Its Alright Ma”. Then ‘drug-stores and the bus stations’ driven on dobro lines, “Love Minus Zero” leading into the ‘ruptured lives’ of “Tangled Up In Blue”, Beat to beatific to beaten lives lazered out with harmonica. Lights extinguish in sudden punctuation after every song. There are no left and right video screens to pick out facial grimace or emphasis. No elaborate backdrop. A physical presence so insubstantial it barely casts a shadow. Yet totally mesmerising. This is Dylan present tense, intense, and tense. It’s enough that he’s here... Memories unspool back to the Blackbushe Festival. He had no screens there either. And people were emerging afterwards debating whether or not he’d worn a hat on-stage. He had. I know because I wound out through to the event horizon, leaving Steve, Rita and Dix with the dosed-out guy wrapped in a flag who sleeps through the entire set. To catch him close-up (almost). “Another Country Mile” switches to electric, then “All Along The Watchtower” with metallic guitar held chest-high, electric bass, and lyrics amputated and cut into chunks beyond all possible meaning. ‘It’s not dark yet - but it’s gettin there’. It’s only now he deigns to speak. ‘Thank you’, accelerating speed through band intros so I pick up only Charlie Sexton on guitar, before “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” leads into a 9pm break. Clinton Heylin’s 763-page 2001 revision of his 1991 ‘BEHIND THE SHADES’ (‘TAKE TWO’) suggests the restless Never Ending 150-gigs-a-year Tour sublimates for creativity-loss. The need to keep illusioning some kind of forward-shift where there is no forward-direction left. Dylan’s career was always a series of paradigm-shifts. Mercurial, cool, erratic, icon of hip. Then he stops innovating, becomes a master of contrariness, a specialist in undercutting assumptions of himself and his music. Exploring the power of quietness way out beyond what Coleridge (in his ‘Marginalia’) calls the ‘narrow idolatry of the present times and fashion’. Now he further confounds expectations by playing anagrams of his songs. Rorschaching motives beyond further attempts to decode them into truth… Back now - and “Sick Of It All” leads into “Rolling Stone” - lyrically scrambled to deliberately frustrate any attempts to chorus along. Who else would purposefully dislocate his audience this way? Van Morrison perhaps. Few to no-one else. And “Tambourine Man” almost recited, harmonica and acoustic, with completely new melody and phrasing. But still not too dead for dreaming. The absolute immaterial beauty of it shimmering in the air. That stillness. Still. Or perhaps just echoes of it, as seen in your dreams. Then just harp cupped into a hand-held mike. “Only Passing Through” - ‘just for a moment there / I thought I saw something move’ and the bitter self-recrimination ‘I used to care / but things have changed’, later to be spatchcocked bleakly live (along with “Country Pie” and “Somebody Touched Me” a few days from now, 24/25th Sept, in Portsmouth) onto the ‘LIVE 1961-2000’ album (Columbia SRCS 2438). “Forever Young” gets vocal harmonies from the long-haired guitarist, and a knees-bend little swaying dance from Dylan, before “Highway 61” mutates into hard electric Rock with ‘next time you see me coming / you better run’ punched out with real menace. Only the country harmonies of “Blowing In The Wind” to go now, a ‘stoical world-weary conversation with himself’. 10pm. Was this good? If it had been anyone else but Dylan would it have been good? But then, the whole point is that it is Dylan. Uniquely so. Unspooling back to Waterboy Mike Scott gushing to me in the tombs beneath the ‘Leadmill’ about the battered magical minstrelsy of seeing Dylan play live even in the early ‘80’s, at his lowest Born Again nadir. When even I wavered. “Boys and girls used to follow me round like I was the Pied Piper” muses Billy Parker wonderingly. Some of them still do. They are now…
Published in:-
‘THE SUPPLEMENT Issue 23 Edit DJ Tyrer’ (July 2005 – UK)

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