Bob Dylan had a great time in Sydney last week. He gave two concerts of his own and also attended the Opera House for a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Rod Quinn interviewed Opera Australia’s artistic director on ABC radio.
Lyndon Terracini said Bob turned up trying not to look conspicuous, ‘wearing a hoodie, a hat and huge scarf’. Dylan loved it and was really fascinated by the fact that the singers didn’t use microphones, he asked Terracini: ‘How do these guys do this? I can’t see her diaphragm moving and she’s so small’. They spoke about the microphone as third person—operatic voices projected directly to the audience.
Quinn asked Terracini what he thought of Dylan’s voice, the director said: ‘I see Dylan as a poet who uses music as a mechanism to communicate text—his lyrics affected generations of people.’ (I’ve always preferred Dylan’s voice to Opera myself.)
I went with Anna Johnson, the best art critic around these days, Juno is in Paris so gave Anna her ticket. We headed out from Hawkesbury River on the M1 Pacific Motorway, and few of hours later slid into the outer suburbs of Newcastle. After a couple of U-turns the Entertainment Centre at Broadmeadow appeared. It looked like a B-Grade concrete space ship from a sci-fi movie that had been plonked down onto an outsized football field: a far cry from the Sydney Opera House or the venerable Enmore where Dylan played last Sunday.
Happily we were able to park in the road outside the entrance. At the gates we found ourselves joining a band of Dylan fans keen to be early. By the time we were seated, the centre was a packed house, the show started at 8pm exactly. The lights came up on Dylan standing legs apart at his piano. He often takes on the stance of a boxer, and he was smiling.
(Dylan wrote in Chronicles: ‘Lou introduced me to Jack Dempsey, the great boxer. Jack shook his fist at me. ‘You look to light for a heavyweight kid, you’ll have to put on a few pounds. You’ll gonna have to dress a little finer, look a little sharper—not that you’ll need much in the way of clothes when you’re in the ring—don’t be afraid of hitting somebody too hard’)
Well, it seems Bob took all that advice seriously.
Dylan launched into ‘Things Have Changed’ quick with irony; Bob’s piano leading the guitars into a yet another unfolding previously unheard arrangement, fluid and seemingly spontaneous. Maybe not so much irony as I first thought.
These days the lyrics make more sense than when the song was featured in the movie Wonder Boys. Think of current headlines and Dylan’s line, ‘The next sixty seconds could feel like an eternity’—it brings to mind Ezra Pound’s dictum, ‘Poetry is news that stays news’.
We were connected now, plugged into Dylan’s electric freedom and his voice rode with a rough edge over the tight music.
‘Concert’ was not quite the word for this performance, as words cracked in the air, I was aware I liked it more than any ‘singing’ I have heard before. When Dylan sang Pay in Blood (But not My Own) his voice sounded ancient, harsh and merciless,
Night after night, day after day,
They strip your useless hopes away
The more I take, the more I give,
The more I die, the more I live
The musicians rocked as Bob spat out iron lyrics: ‘This is how I spend my days / I came to bury not to praise’.
I listened as my projection of time dissolved, memory and its million golden birds sang through years I may or may have not lived: this could be where Dylan met those Early Roman Kings. A limbo stretching throughout history, ‘Another politician coming out the abyss/ another angry beggar blowing you a kiss’—Dylan’s humour can be agile, blunt or acidic, ‘Gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court’
Back to the river again. ‘Wading through the muddy water, I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere.’
Such a great set list of songs: It Ain’t Me Babe so final, so bleak yet hopeful, that’s it and think about love.
Some of my favourites were Love Sick, with existential echoes not bouncing back, and a Boogie Woogie arrangement of Gotta Serve Somebody, lightened up and more ambiguous than on record. Desolation Row was airy and almost lovely, Dylan sang it in a haunted melody and changed some of the lyrics and his dark humour licked and twitched playfully around phrases in each verse.
Then the most unexpected song of the night, When I Paint My Masterpiece, emotionally charged and I loved some new lyrics, ‘I’m going to lock all my doors and look inside’ some others I’ve forgotten. This was a rare treat because Dylan has hardly performed it since he was with The Band.
At this stage I was reminding myself we were in Newcastle. Other highlights were Duquesne Whistle, Honest With Me, Tryin’ To Get the Heaven, Tangled Up in Blue—a dreamy version—tilted with pain and rueful. Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, clean and perfect with the band holding back.
I think Dylan’s last five albums of original songs are some of his best; like the great poet W.B.Yeats the work improves as he gets older. It was a brilliant set list, best of all the seven concerts I’ve seen, from the 1st April 1978 to last night.
Dylan’s triple sided sense of humour threaded the songs together and also when he needed to, he poured forth his furies, so many aspects. When he sang Ballad of a Thin Man it sounded as if he still meant every word of it.
I have to end with my favourite performance. Soon After Midnight, where Bob sings :‘It’s soon after midnight And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen’ It took me back to Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene (1590) and here I’ll end by quoting the first verse of Dylan’s song back to him:
I’m searching for phrases
To sing your praises
I need to tell someone
It’s soon after midnight
And my day has just begun.
Robert Adamson is an internationally recognised poet and one of Australia’s most respected and awarded writers. From Canticles on the skin (1970) to Net needle (2015), his 13 collections have won just about every prize available, including the NSW and Victorian Premiers’ prizes, the Age Book of the Year, the CJ Dennis and Banjo awards, and the Grace Leven prize, and he has been awarded both the Christopher Brennan and Patrick White prizes for lifetime achievement.
Adamson was the inaugural CAL Chair of Poetry at the University of Technology.