It was 1965 and a young Bob Dylan was performing at Cornell University in New York. Outside the auditorium was a fellow American of similar age listening to the rising star, but was not able to see him.
Joe Swartz, who migrated to Australia in 1974 and now lives in sleepy Bungendore, had no idea then that he was embarking on a lifelong journey with popular music’s most influential identity.
“For some reason I didn’t get a ticket. Maybe I couldn’t afford the $5 or maybe I wasn’t quick enough, I can’t quite remember,” Swartz says. “But I do remember wandering around the parking lot listening to him. It was kind of surreal and I didn’t then know a huge amount about Dylan. But I liked his music.
“After that I guess I really grew into him. Over the years I came to recognise him as being of the times. When I think of Dylan now I think of Vietnam and of the civil rights movement and for me his music is in the context of those times.”
Although once revering Dylan as an almost redeemer-like figure (he wanted him to run for US president), Swartz never again took the opportunity to hear the folkie-turned-rocker play live, let alone actually be inside a stadium or concert hall watching.
Swartz was at the original Woodstock festival in 1969. Dylan wasn’t. So he has seen Jimi Hendrix, but not Bob Dylan. That is all about to change. He recently won two tickets through an ABC Radio National promotion requiring contestants to write lyrics in the style of Dylan.
He will attend the Canberra concert at the end of August. “It was pretty nice to win the tickets, especially for writing in a so-called Dylan-esque fashion,” he says. “I don’t know what to expect from his concert. I hope he can still play.”
Uncertainty about what a Dylan gig might reveal is a sentiment shared by many concert-goers these days.
His Bobness, as millions of fans like to call him, can’t sing so good anymore. Some say he never really could sing, but they would be wrong. It was Dylan’s unique vocals, matched with his supreme ability to write powerful songs and his relentless insistence on doing things his way, which shot him to stardom in the sixties.
Five decades later, the 73-year-old is still recording music and still playing live shows around the world – always to mixed reviews. A Dylan concert in the twenty-first century offers some of the world’s finest musicians playing some of history’s greatest ever songs, with an old man croaking into a microphone out front and barely acknowledging his audience. Yet they continue to be moving and compelling musical experiences.
Seeing the creator of Like a Rolling Stone, Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, and Maggie’s Farm singing those songs live is rewarding in itself. Discovering how he has reworked some of those classics is refreshingly confronting. Amateur music journalist Simon Tatz says it is Dylan’s wont to reinvent songs that makes his concerts a must-see each time.
“He has varied his styles and approach constantly for five decades,” Tatz says. “I absolutely love how he rearranges his songs. “Lou Reed would come out on stage and sing Sweet Jane the same way every gig. But with Dylan, sometimes he’s half way into the song before I can recognise what song it is. He’s put a reggae beat on some and things like that.
“That says to me that he’s still interested. He’s still being creative. He is the greatest influence on and the greatest figure in modern music. He is more than an old man whose voice isn’t so good theses days. It’s about who has changed the course of popular music more and who has impacted our culture so much.
“If I were on a desert island and could only have one artist to listen to it would be Dylan. No other artist has such a vast repertoire. I would never get bored.”
Another Dylan tragic, Melbourne’s Ben Ruse, puts it in perspective from yet another lifelong admirer. “My Dad raised me on Dylan LPs, so he has been a part of my life since before I knew what music was,” Ruse says.
“He was usually referred to as ‘Uncle Bob’ in our house, and in some way I still see him as part of the family. “I still try and listen to some Dylan every day, and it has never sounded stale or worn out to me. His best songs mean something different to you at 38 than they did at 18, not because they’ve changed but because you have.
“Dylan has colonised my subconscious to the point where it’s hard to go a day without a Dylan lyric popping into my head in response to some situation. I can’t think of any other artist whose work has so much depth and power, or repays listening so many times. He is writing about emotions that other songwriters don’t recognise, with a sweep that compresses hundreds of years of music and poetic traditions into incredible lyrics.
“His old stuff still sounds fresh and his new stuff sounds timeless. Like most cult members I have to deal with non-believers a lot of the time. I try not to be prejudiced, but I don’t think I could fully trust someone who didn’t like Blood on the Tracks.”
Younger still is Gareth Hutchens (disclosure: Hutchens is also a Fairfax reporter). He is preparing to follow Dylan around a little during his upcoming Australian tour.
“I’m seeing him a couple of times in Sydney and once in Canberra,” Hutchens says. “I like to see my favourites as many times as possible. People like Neil Young, Nick Cave and of course Bob Dylan. These guys are worth following up the east coast and across the country if you can afford it.
“Dylan knows that words shift and bend, that we’re constantly pouring our own meaning into them. That’s a big part of the reason why his songs still speak to us – they sound like they were written yesterday, partly because their sentiment is so modern, but mostly because his words are clear vessels.
“That’s the gift he’s giving us. He’s saying: ‘Here you go, have some beautiful words and music, I’ve given you a head start but it’s up to you to fill them in with stories from your own lives.’ They’re like a book of proverbs you can carry with you. Pull them out when you need some help.”
Hobart’s Peter Skillern travelled to Melbourne in 2007 to see Dylan for the first time. He has a completely different point of view. “It was a major disappointment. I travelled all that way and paid all that money and it was still a major disappointment,” Skillern says.
“He didn’t play an acoustic guitar all night; he changed the arrangements of the songs; and there were not enough of the old classics. His voice is completely gone and I reckon he struggles to play these days.”
Canberra’s Bronwen McCrohon saw Dylan for the first time in 2011, at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. She was delighted. “I love the fact that Dylan is his own man and is not afraid to go his way,” McCrohon says.
“Take, for example, how he turned his back on being the darling of the folkie set. He went electric and they went ballistic, but he still followed his own path. “In some sense I think It Aint Me Babe could be a bit of an anthem for Dylan and his refusal to be put into one particular musical box.
“I had heard that his concerts could be hit or miss, but when I saw him, it was a terrific show. Dylan even smiled a few times and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. I’m not sure the same could be said for his backing band who seemed to have to adjust to the Bobster’s improvisations at the drop of a hat. The thing that blew me away about the concert was really the depth and range of his repertoire.”
Financial coach John de Ridder, 54, says he has been into Dylan since 1976 when some friends asked him to mind their record collection. “They were going to New Guinea for six months and asked me to look after their records. They had five or six Dylan LPs and I thought he must be okay if they have that many records from one artist,” he says.
“I listened to Highway 61 Revisited and it blew my mind. It was great music and the lyrics really got to me. It is an impression that has never left me and I have now seen him perform many times and I am a collector of all things Dylan.
“He writes about so many issues and tells really good stories through his songs. And he can rhyme anything with anything. I like how he reworks songs. To me, that shows he cares enough to do the old stuff but without them being numb. He always does what he wants to do and that earns my respect.”
It will be smaller venues this time around for the man who gave the world such powerful lines as: Majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds, seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing (Chimes of Freedom), and To live outside the law, you must be honest (Absolutely Sweet Marie), and With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow (Mr. Tambourine Man), and How can the life of such a man be in the palm of some fool’s hand? To see him obviously framed couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game (Hurricane).
Dylan has opted mostly for more intimate concerts during his latest month long stint in Australia. But whatever the size of the hall, Dylan concerts always sell out. And his music, new and old, still jumps off the shelves.
Phil Place, of Dynomite Records , Canberra’s only store dedicated solely to second-hand records, says Dylan LPs are big sellers. “People have really got back into vinyl in recent times and they can’t seem to get enough Dylan records,” he says.
“I have a hard time keeping up with the demand. He is one of those classic artists who people just want to keep listening to. “Beatles records and Bob Dylan records always sell well and to all ages. I can’t imagine the day will come when I’m not selling Dylan on vinyl.”
Bob Dylan plays the Royal Theatre, Canberra on the August 29.