By Mark Guarino
Is that Bob Dylan in the latest Victoria’s Secret commercial? Was that his cowboy hat falling to the floor, later to land on top of that supermodel’s head?
Yes and yes. Dylan followers have every right to be amused by Dylan’s impromptu cameo in the ad campaign, but not surprised. In his 40-plus career, Dylan has allowed himself his share of brilliant mistakes and head-scratching moments that seem to, but never do, deflect the power of his mighty songbook.
These days, as the lion in winter, he is having it both ways: cavorting with lovely ladies on a TV shoot in Venice while touring the world nonstop receiving some of the best reviews of his career.
Shifting personas and sometimes juggling a few of them at once is the definition of how Dylan has managed to stay relevant — or at least interesting — all these years. Which can be first traced back to “Live 1964” (Columbia), a recent two-disc release of an entire 19-song, nearly two-hour show Dylan performed on Halloween night of that year.
Performed solo with only guitar and harmonica, the show is a document of Dylan’s first change of clothes, confusing and aggravating some and exciting and inspiring the rest. It’s a pattern that would repeat for 40 years.
By late 1964, the world was changing. The U.S. was still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy a year earlier and coming to terms that the optimism of the ‘50s was a distant memory as violence had become the standard reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and the U.S. commitment to Vietnam had heightened to the point of no turning back.
The folk revival movement that had previously offered cheery solutions to world ills was not capable of catching up. A new generation was turning to the Beatles who had arrived in the U.S. just months earlier. Music, like society, was becoming more complex. Although it would take a year or two for Dylan, the Beatles and others to create rock music that had the maturity of their folk elders but with the added influences of drugs, Beat poetry and the blues, there was already a sense that something far more interesting was coming down the road, offering something far richer than one-dimensional protest music ever could.
The show at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City was Dylan’s arrival home, not having played New York in almost a year. He was 23 and already seen as the sole torch carrier for the folk revivalists, having filled four albums in two years with straightforward protest songs with references to Woody Guthrie.
His homecoming had elements of strain. In August, he released “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (the title tells all), which offered more impressionistic songs like “Spanish Harlem Incident” and love songs, not political screeds. Soon after its release, he was famously criticized by Sing Out!, a folk music magazine, for having fallen for the lure of pop music, a charge that would not simmer for months to come. The 1964 concert was a chance for Dylan to dip into the past as well as preview the next step.
You can hear the mixed reaction in the crowd. Dead reverence greets the early Dylan standards like “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as well as polite laughter for “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a comic talker that scours the Red Scare proponents of the ‘50s. The indignation of some of his earliest protest music — “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” — still manages to sound scathing even though the stories that influenced the songs, 40 years later, have been long forgotten.
But Dylan is not exactly a stoic folkie you’d associate with such serious material. He giggles from start to finish, tells aloof jokes (“it’s Halloween — I have my Bob Dylan mask on!”) and frequently loses his place or pauses to remember lyrics (although familiar now, at the time, some of the songs were only months old). When sometime partner Joan Baez arrives during the second set to sing four songs, Dylan clumsily tries to match her pristine harmony and they both playfully bicker when he makes her lose her place.
Some in the crowd cheer the quirks but others — like the guy who angrily yells “c’mon!” when Dylan forgets the opening lyrics to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” — are less forgiving.
The spine of the show are the new songs Dylan debuts for the first time. They are turning points, not only for him as a songwriter, but also for his audience. Before launching into the 15 verses of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” he jokes, “yes, it’s a very funny song” and then proves otherwise. The lyrics are a world removed from the linear songs of just a year or two earlier. Instead, they deal with disillusionment, fools and hypocrites. Although it offers one of his most quoted lyrics — “he not busy being born/is busy dying” — the song’s answer is a nihilistic shrug (“It’s alright ma, it’s life and life only”).
This original is probably Dylan’s scariest, having since been transformed into the swamp blues version played on tour as recently as last month. Although his voice has been both scorned and celebrated for its mumbled phrasing, here he hits each line with staccato precision.
Hear him sing this verse — “a question in your nerves is lit/yet you know there is not answer fit/to satisfy insure you not to quit/to keep it in your mind and not fergit/that it is not he or she or them or it/that you belong to” — and you hear the punctuated anger of Eminem. Like rappers in his wake, rhythm is Dylan’s real ally as a songwriter. Starting then and continuing through today, his songs survive because he keeps finding new ways to make their flow succinct, making how you land on the words just as meaningful as the words themselves.
You can imagine the audience that night leaving feeling they’ve been hit by a tidal wave of words and imagery they would not be able to make heads or tails of in just one sitting. Yet the songs would appear on subsequent albums to be examined and the following year, in 1965, Dylan would shut his door fully on the folk world by plugging in an electric guitar, making volume and poetry his regiment from then on. Until then, “Live 1964” was the bridge to get there.