Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Busy Being Born

Bob Dylan has been campaigning to be understood as a musician rather than a demigod for most of his career, and if his concert last night at the Nassau Coliseum doesn't clinch the point, nothing ever will. Musically, it was a triumph. As a result, the evening's cultural ambience was also healthy. The persistent rumor that the old master's grand tour was turning into a self-incriminating orgy of nostalgia can be scotched permanently. Dylan is still a man of the present.

The reason Dylan can never give in to the blandishments of memory was set down succinctly by the man himself almost 10 years ago. "He not busy being born/Is busy dying," the lines go, and they're a bitch to live up to. Dylan has proven himself willing. By undertaking his first live performance in almost eight years Dylan thrust himself into an entirely new environment. Many of his fans have never seen him live. The competition is much stiffer. The physical requirements of the music have changed dramatically. There must have been a temptation to avoid these unfamiliar difficulties and just coast.

That Dylan has rejected coasting doesn't mean he's shy about past accomplishments. On the contrary, he assumes that his audience cherishes a detailed awareness of his musical history. Without such an awareness, his current performance would be almost incomprehensible. Like the rest of Bill Graham's production, the sound last night was just about flawless, but when Dylan sang his Billy the Kid ballad--since I barely know the song, I'm not even sure that's what it was--I could make out maybe four or five of the words. The other songs I followed only because I already knew them. And if I hadn't followed, I doubt that I would have enjoyed.

Anyway, I wouldn't have enjoyed as much. There still would have been the Band, which backed Dylan with some miraculously lithe and muscular rock and roll and provided two more-than-pleasant interludes of its own. But what Dylan did was a whole lot more than pleasant. Like his Greatest Hits Volume II collection of a few years back, his current tour does nothing less than recast his entire oeuvre.

In a sense, Dylan has no choice. He is not only the greatest songwriter of the rock era, he is also the greatest singer, and like his writing style, his voice has evolved continually through the years. If Dylan were merely to reprise his hits he would have to do impressions of himself for two hours. The effect would be ridiculous. So he went and found a voice.

Like most of Dylan's voices, this one is far from operatic and doesn't even try to be pretty. It's a variation on the rough-but-right timbres he's explored since New Morning, a little less spare than the one on his current album, Planet Waves. In fact, the voice is almost juicy, as if Dylan could come up with a gobbet of spit on demand, not out of hostility, but in careless, confident health. In addition, his phrasing has become very jagged, his emphases skewed, so that the dramatic parts of "Ballad of a Thin Man" stand out in new relief and the title of "Lay, Lady, Lay" sounds as if it's sung backwards. All of the songs are rearranged, and some of them, notably "It Ain't Me, Babe," have been provided with altogether new melodies.

Not every reinterpretation worked--I had my reservations about "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Just Like a Woman"--but on every song we were forced to listen instead of just recall. On a few--my favorites were "All Along the Watchtower" and "It's Alright, Ma"--Dylan's renewed intensity completely revitalized a lyric. Any icon who can do that for himself needn't worry about being busy dying just yet.

N'day, Jan. 29, 1974