About a month ago I splashed out on a ticket for a concert in Manchester. The face value of the ticket was £60, but I paid a further £10 in “card handling fees.” Tack on the costs of transport and accommodation, not an inconsiderable sum, but considering the headline act would be none other than Bob Dylan, supported by the distinguished Mark Knopfler and his band as an opening act, it was an outlay I was happy to make.
September had been a good month from a financial perspective, probably my best since arriving in the UK in ’09. I felt enabled; besides which, I had missed out on so much of the mainstream summer entertainment – the outdoor festivals and concerts – that I almost felt obliged to attend a big name event. Did I have any reservations? I did. A couple of months earlier I had worked with a blues/folk musician on a landscaping job in north London. I’ve checked out his band on YouTube and they’re okay, good enough anyway for me to take Francis’ opinion seriously. “Has Dylan been an influence?” I asked him.
“Of course, but it’s a pity he still insists on playing his old stuff. His voice isn’t what it was and he’s just spoiling them” he replied, somewhat to my consternation. He was playing at Finsbury Park in the capital that weekend and I half-hoped that I could scrape together the funds to attend. I couldn’t and I didn’t. Another member of the team, Bodie, had attended and I eagerly anticipated his verdict the following Monday. Alas, the young man had been in a state of insobriety and couldn’t enlighten me on the calibre of the great troubadour’s performance.
Fast forward four months or so and it seemed as though my prayers had been answered. Dylan was returning to Europe on a whistle-stop tour starting in Dublin, thence to Glasgow, before sweeping down southward to Bournemouth. The last UK venue before the show headed to the continent appealed to me because I have family there. However, seeing that the tour was stopping off in Manchester, at the MEN Arena no less, I was inclined to change my mind. It was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, now the Radisson Hotel, that Dylan had famously gone electric after opening with an acoustic set. He had been riled and booed, but nonetheless persisted with characteristic obduracy; the performance came to be seen as a watershed moment in contemporary music. One can read about it on numerous sites and commentary pages on the web with particular emphasis on the anguished cry of “Judas” from a young Keith Butler, to which Dylan retorted, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”
With the momentous events of yesteryear in mind I booked a ticket for the MEN Arena performance on Monday, October 10th, 2011. At the last minute I secured a coach ticket to and from the city. Despite being unable to print my ticket and almost failing to make my connection in Birmingham as a result, I arrived in a murky Manchester around midday on the 10th. Undecided on when to make the return journey (later in the evening or the following day) I wandered into the city centre, intrigued by the wonderful architecture, and stumbled upon a tourist information bureau. “What is there to see in the way of cultural attractions?” I asked a young lady behind a desk. She referred me to an older woman who punched a URL into a desktop monitor with painful deliberation. What she retrieved I forget, but the city map she gave me proved far more useful, and the suggestion that I might like to visit the Lowry Gallery near the Salford Quays.
At first mention the name Lowry meant nothing to me. When it was pointed out that he had made his name painting the early 20th century industrial landscape of Manchester I large gong sounded in my head. My mother had had a Lowry print in her study when I was growing up. As it was, the exhibition at the Lowry gallery was fascinating. I tagged onto a small group following an animated guide who conveyed her love of the artist through an enthralling zigzag march across the gallery halls. There was the original of my mother’s print – a busy street imposed upon a bland background of factories, but the contrast being the key. I hadn’t realised the breadth of his work, nor the controversy and ambiguity that much of it aroused, especially his drawings; drawings of androgynous individuals, girls and boys in each other’s attire, oddly anthropomorphic cats and dogs set amongst his human subjects, and always a sense of contradiction or conflict tacitly implied.
By all accounts he was a loner who had made his name by being unconventional; a man who turned the judgemental gaze of society back upon itself. Some drew back in disgust, yet most took another look and realised that the mirror-view was not quite so deplorable. Indeed, his work was by turns humorous (take his painting of the cripples and amputees mingling with ordinary folk in the park), testimonial (his pictures of the crowds of men leaning forward in anticipation as they congregate upon the football stadiums), and always insightful, even when the subject matter was the factory-urban landscape laid bare.
Perhaps it was fitting that I was in the city to listen to another man who courted controversy and shook the existing establishment so profoundly through his musical endeavours. In many ways Dylan and Lowry aren’t so different. Both men grew up, at least initially, in urban settlements profoundly influenced by human activity: Dylan in the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, and Lowry in sprawling Manchester. These early impressions of blighted landscapes may have set the stage for one or either artist, striving to find a poetic or artistic dimension to the drabness of industry sprawl and gaping holes from which ore was extracted. Will Lowry be remembered as a protest artist, like Dylan, who was acclaimed as a leading, albeit reluctant, voice in the civil rights movement in America? Probably not, although he may have been, but in a different sort of way.
Intriguingly, at the time I was in Manchester to hear Dylan, he had kicked up a storm of controversy back home in the US, through the subject matter of his latest exhibition of artwork, The Asia Series. Many, if not all, of his pieces have turned out to be copies of photographs, some dating back a century or so. He has not, apparently, violated any copyright of the images in question. Assuming that this has been done deliberately, and such a “trick” would appeal very much to the sensibilities of the artist, why did he not accredit the photographers in his reproductions? Perhaps that was the point. It’s quite likely that the curators of the gallery were unaware of this imitation artwork when they inaugurated the exhibition. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of authenticity, the “aesthetic ideal” and whether it even matters whether one is original.
But this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, the musician who led the countercultural revolution and spoke up most defiantly against conformity. But then again, if everyone embraces non-conformity, does that not become conformity in itself? Perhaps it is an indictment of Western perceptions of the East. Could one honestly expect to find that silk-gowned woman in the painting “Opium”, clearly modelled on a photograph by early 20th century photographer Léon Busy, in latter-day Japan or China? I don’t know, but I imagine it unlikely. Whatever the verdict, he had courted controversy once again, and I dare say Lowry himself would have given a wry smile and a nod of acknowledgement.
As for the performance itself, it was a disappointment. I found a review on the website citylife.co.uk by Neal Keeling, who writes: “Bob Dylan arrived and shook the place up. Dressed all in black and snarling from the start he looked and sounded like a survivor from the Alamo.” Yes, and no. It was far punchier than Knopfler’s lyrical Celtic-inspired compositions, but it was too loud (more than one comment on the aforementioned review to this effect). From where I sat in the upper tier of block 213 his voice was lost in the clashing instrumentals. Was this intended to be an affirmation of his ’66 gig, where he went defiantly electric? His opening number, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, was disharmonious, the words indiscernible until it came to the punch-line of the chorus. Three tracks later “Tangled up in Blue” was similarly far removed from the original and, quite frankly, awful. Sure he has the right to sing them his way, but the question remains, why? Perhaps I should have done my homework and listened to the critics like Francis or perhaps gazed at a few You-tube videos of recent performances. Many of us walked out of the show (I after Highway 61 revisited), whilst others whistled and applauded and obviously enjoyed themselves.
For me to walk out is unusual. I’m one of those who try to put myself in the artist’s shoes and empathise with him or her. To walk out is insensitive and offensive. However, here was a man who so evidently delights in doing things his way, via his interpretation, regardless of the opinion of his audience that I did away with such self-imposed notions. The only song that had any merit to my mind had been one I hadn’t heard before, “Things Have Changed”. A perusal of his discography reveals it to be a more recent release (’07) which would explain why it sounded fresher and less contrived than his older stuff.
So, for what it’s worth, I’ll give you my opinion. To be a musician or artist is to create something; perhaps for its own sake, perhaps only for the satisfaction of the creator, but when displayed or performed in a public space it asks to be evaluated, to be judged. In taking a beautiful ballad like “Tangled up in Blue”, “spat out” as Mr. Keeling puts it, he defiled the original recording; the recreation was ugly. Perhaps that is even more pertinent for “Simple Twist of Fate”, the recorded version of which is wistful and nostalgic, whilst the Arena performance is too jaunty and completely indifferent to the original sentiments.
On my walk back to the Aurora Hotel, incidentally managed by a high school friend from Harare, my hometown in Africa, I passed under the alluring bright lights of uptown Manchester and reflected that there was far more to this city than could possibly be taken in on a trip like this. I had failed to find the spirit of musical revolution that Dylan had evoked 45 years ago (yes, 45 years!), but to label him “Judas” would be unjust. Not far away in the shadow of St Peter’s Square, I had earlier set eyes upon a small, tented encampment of those protesting against the global financial system and advocating reform in banking and corporations. Whilst I stood there a man called Mike had approached me and asked if he could help. “What are you standing for?” I had asked him.
“I’m just fed up,” he had replied without being specific, and in his eyes I sensed his frustration, perhaps a hint of resignation? He looked like a man who needed to hear the words of a prophet. A generation ago many would have pointed to Dylan as that prophet, but when I mentioned to Mike why I was there he only raised his eyebrows ever so slightly before turning away and muttering something about returning to the camp. “Find us on Facebook and support the cause” was his parting declaration. I didn’t, but the “Occupy” movement swiftly gained momentum, grabbing the headlines in the process. But who is their voice? Perhaps we need a latter-day Dylan or Lowry, to inspire and deride the status quo, to set us stomping off fervently in a definite direction. I’ve no doubt he (or she) is out there somewhere; they always will be I fancy. They just weren’t in Manchester that evening of the 8th of October, 2011.