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Pounding on Heaven's Door

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Bob Dylan

Metro, December 13 & 14

By Kevin McKeough

Death was a good career move for Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur, and plenty of celebs in between, but as Bob Dylan proved this year, nearly dying is even better. In the months since his hospitalization in May for an inflammation of the sac around his heart, Dylan has been flooded with so many accolades and honors he must feel like a man attending his own funeral.

First came the cascade of glowing press, including a Newsweek cover story, for Time Out of Mind (Columbia), his first record of new original songs in seven years. Two weeks after the record's September 30 release, Dylan accepted the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for achievement in the arts. Early this month, he was one of five recipients of the 1997 Kennedy Center Honors, awards conveyed by the D.C. center's power-broker trustees for lifetime achievement in the arts. He was even nominated for this year's Nobel Prize for literature; given his current state of grace no one would've blinked if he'd won. Having suddenly discovered that Dylan's perishable, the nation's cultural arbiters are working harder than ever to enshrine him for posterity.

But though he pocketed the Gish Trust's $200,000, shook Colin Powell's hand, and by at least one press account didn't mind getting smooched by fellow Kennedy Center honoree Lauren Bacall, the last thing Dylan has ever wanted is to be preserved in amber. As folk savior and then folk destroyer, political protester and romantic balladeer, born-again Christian and Traveling Wilbury, he's consistently refused to accommodate the expectations of others. "I try my best to be just like I am," he brayed on "Maggie's Farm," the opening salvo of both of his performances at Metro this past weekend, "but everybody wants me to be just like them."

His lack of cooperation ensures that once the immediate threat of losing him wears off, the hype surrounding him will do the same. When it does, he'll almost certainly carry on as he has for decades now, moving from one passion to the next with little regard for the approval of critics or fans. "The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on" he sang both nights on "Tangled Up in Blue," as the song's ringing acoustic guitars and coltish rhythms conjured highways stretching to the horizon and the impulse to ride into the sunset.

These days there's a lot of Sam Peckinpah in the way Dylan and his band of gentlemen outlaws ride from town to town, showing up in dark suits, fedoras, and long-tailed coats to raise a ruckus and move on. His decision to play small clubs--saloons, if you will--rather than concert halls in support of Time Out of Mind adds to the music's Wild Bunch feel; during the string-band renditions of "Cocaine Blues" and "Roving Gambler," all lullaby harmonies and sparkling mandolins, you could practically see the dust drifting across the high plains.

Dylan's outlaw derring-do includes the willingness--the gleefulness--with which he remolds and reinterprets even the most sacred of his songs. Lately, his music has been sleek and funky, and he applied that aesthetic retroactively to "Silvio" and "Highway 61 Revisited," both of which kicked off with ZZ Top boogie and turned into blast-furnace guitar jams worthy of the Allman Brothers.

The four songs Dylan performed from the new album stood out as radically different from the rest of the material. Dylan sounded like Lear battling the elements on "Cold Irons Bound," his tattered rag of a voice pleading amid his and Larry Campbell's snarling guitars and drummer Dave Kemper's rolling thunder. While a near reggae groove and Bucky Baxter's lilting pedal-steel riff tried to buoy "Can't Wait," Dylan's against-the-beat vocals maintained an unresolvable tension. The playful blues shuffle of "'Til I Fell in Love With You" was caught in a cross fire of ricocheting guitar riffs, and "Love Sick," with a midnight-monster-movie lurch and ominous power chords, made for a supremely dour encore on Saturday.

On Time Out of Mind, which Dylan recorded before his illness set in, there's an audible sense of alienation that brings to mind another voice of a generation: Kurt Cobain. With his gnarled rasp enveloped in Daniel Lanois' dark, murky ambience, Dylan sounds overwhelmed, adrift, no longer game for the game of life. "I was born here and I'll die here / Against my will / I know it looks like I'm moving but I'm standing still....It's not dark yet / But it's getting there," he sings on "Not Dark Yet." And on "Tryin' to Get to Heaven," he reprises Woody Guthrie's lament that "Some trains don't pull no gamblers / No midnight ramblers like they did before," and admits, "I'm just trying to get to heaven before they close the door." At times on Saturday, Dylan seemed to find solace in the intricate, sympathetic interplay onstage; he and his band mates seemed to be speaking a private language, as if, like a gang of outlaws, they could rely only on one another.

On Sunday, however, the mood was more relaxed, the pace brisker, the music lighter in tone. A song of union ("Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You") replaced a song of separation ("Shooting Star"); and instead of getting bogged down in an overly dramatic rendition of "Blind Willie McTell," Dylan delivered a yelping rendition of the outlaw ballad "Joey." Most significant, the circle opened to admit another member to the fraternity, as hometown folk hero David Bromberg joined Dylan's band for a brief set of blues songs, then returned to swap vocals and guitar solos on "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry."

Performing "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" for an encore, Dylan sang about moving on once again. The frisky rhythms and his transcendent guitar solo gave the song a jubilance that betrayed its original sense of regret. He truly seemed free of second thoughts--about the unreliability of fame or the burden it imparts, about his myth or his mortality. For the moment, at least, he seemed to be not so much seeking refuge in the road as taking pleasure in the journey.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bob Dylan photo by Mark Seliger.

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