Midnight in the Garden of Dylan and Stones

Madison Square Garden housed a big blast of the 20th century all weekend. The Rolling Stones played the 19,763-seat arena and Bob Dylan played the 5,600-seat room called the Theater (formerly the Irving M. Felt Forum). So maybe it was nostalgia weekend at the Garden, but it was a little more complicated than that.

The cranky 56-year-old man in the Theater asked to be accepted on his own terms, and he was; his playfulness on stage showed him reveling in the victory. But up in the big arena, the most famous fiftysomething band in the world worked their asses off in a mad effort to match what might have been in their audience’s memory.

Just prior to the Rolling Stones show on Jan. 18, the cell phones were flipped open and during the concert, the whiff of pot smoke mixed with the smell of cigars. Donald Trump and Ronald Perelman stood together in a gate entrance. A father with gray hair and goatee sat with his daughter, about 14 years old. She looked bored out of her skull. He must have wanted to show her what real rock-and-roll looked like, before it disappeared from the earth. So what was once a rapturous experience for a girl-“You know what they say about his lips?” said Baby Jane Holzer to Tom Wolfe just prior to seeing Mick and the boys play New York in 1965. “They say his lips are diabolical” -has, in 1998, become an educational outing, a loathsome field trip. Father and daughter left the building before the encores. Maybe they walked in silence to the parking garage and she was embarrassed when he tipped the attendant upon receipt of the BMW and she slept all the way back to Upper Montclair or Summit, N.J.

The Rolling Stones were a replica of themselves. The first thing that strikes you when you finally get settled in and stop having those evil thoughts (i.e., when Mick Jagger “dances” now, doesn’t he look like Homer Simpson’s father having a tantrum?) and really begin to listen , is that these songs are indestructible . A song like “Tumbling Dice” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” seemed, in the fine performances on Jan. 16, as inevitable and natural as air.

The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon tour, the highest-grossing tour of 1997, is popular because everybody knows that if one more Rolling Stone quits or dies, the band is through; they’ve already lost two original members, Brian Jones (overdose) and Bill Wyman (retirement). So the crowd’s motivation for shelling out money for a ticket is partly morbid. Better catch the wild men before they’re done.

The image they created for themselves was one of the great rock-and-roll concoctions. The brand of hip they sold became ubiquitous. So when Mick Jagger came out on stage the other night in leather pants, boots, gold lamé shirt over a tight chartreuse chemise, he didn’t look much different from a Long Island housewife in the audience.

High above him hung the banners commemorating the New York Knicks World Champion teams of 1969-70 and 1972-73-years that coincided, more or less, with the Rolling Stones’ own championship seasons. Those Knicks teams played Red Holzman basketball. Mick was beautiful then, too. He was so beautiful that it was almost disgusting. He could wear a sweater like a snake’s skin. He played the rich rock star better than anyone, with cockiness and without any guilt; and he always had his foil, scruffy Keith Richards, the artist to Mick’s huckster. It was not only a great act-the traveling lusty rogues looking for the next party-it was also too much fun and too lucrative to give up.

They could have traded in their sexual authority, their dirty, glamorous image, for an old bluesman’s authority, as Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi John Hurt had. Instead they decided to remain locked in some never-ending 1975. That is what the Garden crowd came to see. So the show was simultaneously thrilling (Look! They sound just like the Stones!) and dull (Hey, it’s “Honky Tonk Women,” and it sounds exactly like “Honky Tonk Women,” complete with cowbell, whoop-de-doo).

The sexy backing vocalist, Lisa Fisher, had a big gospel voice. She and Mick engaged in a little interplay on “Gimme Shelter,” but for most of the night they stayed out of each other’s way. At one point, she went stage left and used a railing as if it were a stripper’s pole to win the attention of an entire section. A moment after she was done, Mick, the jealous old fool, went over there and did his jig, trying to reclaim that piece of the Garden with everything he had.

The audience looked like what you might see in the Route 46 Eightplex for Titanic or As Good as It Gets . People in sweaters. There was one spoilsport seated a couple rows behind me who, after a stretch that included “Satisfaction,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “You’re So Respectable,” sarcastically cried out, “The hits just keep on comin’!”, which is the motto of WCBS-FM, the oldies station.

Down to the left, there was a furious dater, one of these guys who behaves aggressively on a date-to make sure the woman he’s with is having a good time, goddamn it . He gave dirty looks to the guy who nearly spilled his beer on the lady’s jacket. And when the dudes a few rows up were standing during “Tumbling Dice” (there was mayhem in this song, beautiful playing by Keith Richards), he got up and said, “Hey! Siddown! We can’t see the stage!” They sat down. A few minutes later, jazzed by his victory, the mad dater got up again to make another guy sit down-but this poor schmo was just blocking the mad dater’s view of the giant TV screen.

The Norwegians behind me got their seats at Kennedy International Airport. Somebody saw them and said he couldn’t use the tickets and just handed over the pair. It was their first night in New York and the Norwegians were in heaven-especially when Mick did “Out of Control,” a beat-heavy, synth-driven number from one of his solo albums.

Mick was like the host of the party and had all the host’s grim duties. He was the one to break the news whenever the band played a new number, like when he said, in a street tough’s voice, “This one is called ‘Flip the Switch’!” He strapped himself in for the meandering verses before barking out the supposedly fiery refrain: “Flip the switch! Flip the switch, bay-bee!” The audience got restless.

Given this crowd, it probably came as a shock to the people in the front, when Mick tossed his cup of water on them. In 1972, they would have been like, “Water! From Mick’s cup! On me !” But now they were like, “What’d you do that for? You ruined my sweater .”

The audience really came together, oddly enough, when the band played “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Bob Dylan anthem that the Rolling Stones have been playing for the last couple years. Playing something so familiar but more or less new to them, sounded fresh. The lyrics-the protagonist is a middle-class character infatuated with hard living-really suited the singer, and the audience sang along.

Bob Dylan’s Garden show on Jan. 18 was utterly different from the Rolling Stones’ grand production. He stood there, in his black western suit and Fender Stratocaster, with his four band members, and played straight at the audience. His voice was low and craggy, but clear.

He’s a creature of the stage. This is what he lives for.

He’s in the middle of heady times, even though his son Jakob’s band, the Wallflowers, is outselling the old man. Bob Dylan’s first album of original material in seven years, the death-haunted Time Out of Mind , went gold late last year and earned him three Grammy nominations; he was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. And on Jan. 17, just before he hit the stage, Stanford University held a daylong conference on his work, with T.S. Eliot scholar Christopher Ricks giving the keynote lecture. (“He’s only the most amazing phenomenon in our lifetime,” said Professor Ricks.)

Unlike the Rolling Stones, who have embalmed the best incarnation of themselves, Bob Dylan keeps changing. He hit his crossroads in about 1975, after a year of playing 15,000 and 16,000-seat basketball arenas across the country. Maybe he could have continued like that, but instead he went his own way. He went fundamentalist Christian on them in the late 1970’s; in retrospect, it seems almost like a desperation move to keep himself invigorated. His real religion is the music itself, the music born as a release from pain in the Delta.

“What phase is he in now?” said the annoyed girl seated behind me.

“Phase?” said the major fan who had dragged her to the show.

“What phase is he in now?” She had just survived the Van Morrison set, the first part of the double bill, and Van the Man had played nine new songs and only one-“Domino”-that she knew. But back to Dylan: “First he was born again,” she said, “then he was almost dead. What phase is he in now?”

“Now he’s just … not dead,” said the guy. “He’s in the I’m-not-dead phase.”

He really came alive for the third song of the night, a new one called “Cold Irons Bound.” What is a phrase like “Cold Irons Bound” (a metaphor for heading off to prison) doing in the head of a man who lives in Malibu, Calif.? Not only is the protagonist of this song going to prison, but he’s also heartbroken. It was chilling when he started to sing after the rumbling start of the song, “I’m beginning to hear voices/ And there’s no one around.” He had his post-1988 basso profundo voice working for him. The new songs celebrate his connection to the root of American music, a connection he must feel he has earned by now. His band was ringing out with a sound conjured out of old Memphis, home of Elvis, where gospel, rockabilly, folk, blues and country came smashing together. When the band played too slick, Bob acted as the wrench in the musical works, throwing in dissonant, repetitive riffs. Don’t get too comfy, guys.

When he was young, the middle-class Bobby Zimmerman longed to have the authority that comes with age, the authority of Woody Guthrie, or the old bluesmen. He even started dressing like a 1930’s hobo and even altered his diction to match the Okie drawl of Guthrie. Then a strange thing happened. The transformation, however calculated, stuck; it also freed him to unleash the songs inside him; then he hit a cultural chord and became the intellectual’s Elvis Presley; instead of fans tearing at his clothes, he had the Dylan Liberation Front going through his garbage.

The fans at the Theater tried to sing along during his sped-up version of “Tangled Up in Blue” (a version that emphasized the song’s storytelling over its heartbreak) and he outran them with fast, crazy phrasings. He played a pretty safe show, for him, the highlights being the four songs from Time Out of Mind . Mostly, he seemed interested in the instrumental breaks of rock and roll songs like “Silvio” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” He did quick, Charlie Chaplin-esque moves around the stage and even a mock Chuck Berry duckwalk.

He was exploring the past, and the music he loved, the music he ripped off and reinvigorated, and he seemed to be trying to find himself in there. Up in the big room that weekend, the Rolling Stones were laboring to preserve what was gone.

On Jan. 19, Bob Dylan was off, the Rolling Stones had left town, and the Knicks beat the Celtics at the Garden, 98-82.