The more you know about Bob Dylan, the less you know. A truly enigmatic artist, Mr. Dylan’s work and life offer vaporous handholds, explanations and instructions. Attempt to grasp them, and they will only dissipate and re-form into another contexture or idea. When a door opens into his past-a glimpse of the Delvic Hotel in Hibbing, Minn., an old photograph of the songwriter reading the newspaper and drinking tea in a dingy backstage room in Birmingham, England-another door inevitably swings shut.
Trying to figure Mr. Dylan out-a full-time job for some fans-is about as easy as trying to get to Kafka’s Castle, or pasting together a history of Ireland from the verbal antics of Finnegans Wake ; the fun is inherently linked to the labyrinthine impossibility of success.
But for me, understanding Mr. Dylan and his work is actually as simple as putting an ear to the ground and listening to the vibrations of the freight trains that still lug goods along the CSX tracks that pass near my house and slink north along the western flank of the Hudson River. The sound of the trains-like that of Mr. Dylan’s music-remains rooted in an industrial past that spawned such now-arcane ideas as an empowered working class; an age that provided a backdrop for figures like Woody Guthrie, who sang of heroes struggling not to be devoured by the maw of the mighty machine. The fact is, the freight-train business is thriving big-time, and the suburban folks in places like Valley Cottage, N.Y., are writing letters to the local paper complaining about the incessant tooting of the late-night horns.
As if to coincide with this boxcar boom, Mr. Dylan has re-emerged over the past five years, beginning with his critically acclaimed Time Out of Mind (a phrase right out of Edgar Allan Poe) and culminating in his Sept. 11, 2001, release, Love and Theft , a recording that seemed to rise out of the detritus and dust of that tragic date. Love and Theft spoke with eerie precision of the complexity of our national identity, and our grappling for snake-oil cures and grace. A stunningly pliant, vaudevillian series of songs salvaged the hidden stuff of America, from the submerged history of the Johnstown flood to the shape-shifting antics of Slim Shady.
As a matter of fact, there are some correlations between The Eminem Show and Love and Theft . On both recordings, the songwriters playfully take stances, mocking and affirming them at the same time, tapping into the unlimited supply of submerged material. Take a listen to Eminem’s song “Square Dance,” for an example. And isn’t Marshall Mathers being Dylanesque when he performs himself performing a character nicknamed Rabbit in the film 8 Mile ?
On Nov. 26, Columbia/Legacy will release Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue , a compilation of live performances from the first half of that circus-like tour. Billed as the fifth volume of the label’s so-called “Bootleg Series” of Mr. Dylan’s work-a reference to those hissy homemade-concert and demo tapes that fans trade and examine with Talmudic devotion-the two-CD set is about as far from a bootleg as you can get. Not only is it carefully produced, using sound-truck recordings cobbled together from several shows (mostly in small, intimate venues around New England), but it sounds perfect, pristine, and reveals Mr. Dylan at his very best. In fact, it’s his best live recording to date.
Gone is the reductive, cavernous stadium noise, and the sense that he’s hooting out his words into a deep void; gone is the walloping, often submerging intensity of the Band’s backup performances. Instead, we hear Mr. Dylan meeting the audience on equal terms, gathering energy from their open ears and singing with a newfound precision. There’s a sensational sense, listening to the over two hours of music here, of loving intimacy, of a meeting between Mr. Dylan’s brilliance as a poet and singer and the deep, abiding care of those fans lucky enough to be out there, in the darkness, listening and shouting out occasional, clearly audible comments. And, it should be noted, Mr. Dylan answers them.
I suppose it might be called a magic moment. It’s the kind of thing musicians must hope for, and it was sparked in part by the background musicians-including the guitarists T-Bone Burnett and Bobby Neuwirth-who play with a surprisingly light touch that seems to draw exuberance internally, from the music and lyrics instead of the concept of an experimental road show. Nothing is being proved; it’s all up front.
Just about every song in the collection stands out as a gem. Even “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which by 1975 was as threadbare as anything, sounds rejuvenated and fresh. When Joan Baez joins Mr. Dylan to sing “I Shall Be Released” and “Blowing in the Wind,” there’s a charged energy in the air. Someone in the audience calls out, “What a lovely couple”-and then, when they sing, their voices helix around each other like old scarves. Ms. Baez’s voice sounds slightly hard, edgy, and she seems unwilling to meet her ex-lover halfway.
Underneath their songs-and the entire CD-runs the painful last remnants of the Vietnam era: the death of writer/musician Richard Fariña (as portrayed in David Hajdu’s fun Positively 4th Street ), the resolution of the Southeast Asian conflict, and the fact that merging politics with art has gone out of fashion. It’s as if Mr. Dylan decided one last time to recapture the vitality and urgency of his early folk days, a time when the audience and the artist put on a pretense of meeting on mutual terms.
Even the new songs from Desire , which was recorded shortly before the Rolling Thunder tour began, are thrust out at the audience with brilliant immediacy. And Desire ‘s “Hurricane”-a song that struggles, and fails, to expand Rubin Carter’s dilemma into a larger polemic-here sounds like a direct plea to the masses (in Worcester, Mass.) for action.
After several listens to Live 1975 , I tried hard to figure out the exact musical combination that makes this the best live Dylan release. I came up with two theories. One is that Mr. Dylan is not running scared on this album. Yes, I believe that even Bob Dylan has lived in fear, like any other artist-and when he’s spooked, he sometimes allows his bands to overpower him, and, in turn, finds himself singing in giant, bardic yelps that seem almost beyond the lyrics.
A second factor is the tour’s tight rhythm section, Luther Rix on drums and Rob Stoner on bass provide a precise musical counterpoint to Mr. Dylan’s tight phrasings, especially in such songs as “Oh Sister,” “Love Minus Zero” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” These elements combine with the aforementioned clarity of singing-and the charged energy of the venues-to make a revealing, historic recording.
All of this culminates in the album’s standout, “Sara,” which is sung with an intimacy that re-acquaints us with the radically confessional nature of the song and its astonishing beauty: a love confession in the painful vein of John Berryman’s Dreamsongs , combined with the clear-cut, no-nonsense vernacular of William Carlos Williams. It turns out that Sara was actually in the audience during that concert, so one might conclude-at least I do-that Mr. Dylan and his muse were in the same place at the same time.
Immediately, this new recording has slipped into my pantheon of favorite live recordings, sandwiched between Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York , nuzzled up against Sviatoslav Richter’s Richter Rediscovered: The Carnegie Hall Recital . With his usual talent for impeccable re-emergence, Mr. Dylan has released a masterwork. It’s like one of those Hubbell photographs of deep-space nebulas: light arriving after 9,000 years, unmarred by all that distance. And wondrously beautiful.