Bob Dylan in Prague

Jeremy Hurewitz reviews Dylan's recent appearance in Prague

Bob Dylan made an ass of himself in Prague the other night. I haven’t felt that bored and restless since I went to a Grateful Dead show. He had his moments but what we saw at T-Mobile Arena was mostly a recycled Bob Dylan revival band playing ill-conceived new arrangements of classic songs.

Someone needs to tell Bob Dylan that it doesn’t matter if he wrote those songs — they are not his anymore, they are a part of history. What he did to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was a real shame. One of Dylan’s most heartbreaking and tender ballads, it is meant to be played solo with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, played quietly alone in a room, or by the side of a fire, or at least sitting on a stool and played honestly for a crowd. But it is not meant to be beefed up into a power-balled played by a bunch of studio hacks with a tired rock star (not a folk singer any more) crooning and croaking those lines into awkward new deliveries that were generally incomprehensible. Gone were lines like “I’m a thinkin’ and a wonderin’, walking down the road / I once loved a woman, a child I am told / I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul” and “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind / you coulda done better, but I don’t mind / you just kinda wasted my precious time / but don’t think twice, it’s all right” in a pathetic wishy-washy mishmash of old man gruel.

The new stuff off “Love and Theft,” his latest album, was the strongest. On those songs the band was hot and Dylan easily tapped into a certain vitality that is clearly still there. The band sounded like a top-rate bar blues band, good fun, and he’s got some serious players up there with him, though both of the guitar players looked like rock-star action figures. The tall Southern-rock looking character who just stepped off a Harley circa 1976 and tears it up on the pedal-steel as well as well as the banjo; the Van Morrison look-a-like with his fedora and his zoot-suit and expressions of glee as he crescendos on his Stratocaster.

But I wanted Bob Dylan the troubadour, the folksinger, the Bob Dylan of “Blonde on Blonde” and “Bringing It All Back Home.” I wanted to hear him come out with his acoustic guitar and sing “Idiot Wind,” the most bitter and angry song on his famous divorce album “Blood On The Tracks.” I wanted to hear the seemingly out-of-place but somehow germane lyrics, “They say I shot a man named Gray, and took his wife to Italy / She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me / You can’t blame me if I’m lucky” or the hipster jive, “Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at / I couldn’t believe you didn’t know me better than that” and the unrepentant mix of beauty and violence, “Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are making me see stars / you hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies / one day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, blood on your saddle / the idiot wind blowing through the flowers on your tomb,” all in the same glorious song.

But instead of Bob Dylan the folk singer, Prague got Bob Dylan the vaudeville act. Maybe Elton John and Celine Dion should get some competition from Dylan playing for absurd amounts of money at one of the big casinos in Las Vegas. In that rhinestone getup I couldn’t help but feel bad for him when he tried to take a solo in between those two aces in his band. They stood next to him, urging him on like an old grandpa shaking his keister at the family ho-down. It was a sad sight.

Dylan just didn’t seem to have the dexterity to pull off playing those classic old folk songs. Instead, people come to hear “a legend.” It’s like going to the zoo (and I remember the feeling I had of wanting to poke the phlegmatic animals with a stick to spur them into action) not going to see art. But everyone seems strangely reluctant to criticize him. I like Dylan as much as anyone but just because he’s a legend he gets a pass on ruining his best songs because he wants to tour and make money and he’s bored playing them the way we love them? We wouldn’t stand for the Rolling Stones rearranging “Gimme Shelter” or “Satisfaction” and we shouldn’t stand for Dylan rearranging “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.”

Dylan’s been through it all. He knows better than anyone that we need something to get us through the long dark nights and he’s tried everything. He tried being Woody Guthrie; he tried drugs and alcohol; he tried born-again Christianity and he tried Orthodox Judaism. Now he’s a sclerotic old man whose vice, whose distraction from the long dark night of the soul and coming death, is constant touring. Dylan said nary a word on stage the other night, perhaps because he is a mercurial artist, or perhaps because the audience is only his support group. He played and walked off and everyone clapped not for the music that we just heard but for who he is. We should at least be prepared to look that in the eye.

"To say that Dylan doesn't own those songs anymore is totally out of line. He has the most original and wide variety music library out of any musician. What he wants to do with his songs are his choice. What did you do that allows you to decide what Dylan does with his songs? It's fine if you don't like them, but Dylan does what he wants... Period."
Jimi Kuliac
April 26th, 2006

"Few artists can lay claim to the controversy that has surrounded the career of songwriter James Damiano. Twenty-two years ago James Damiano began an odyssey that led him into a legal maelstrom with Bob Dylan that, to this day, fascinates the greatest of intellectual minds.

"As the curtain rises on the stage of deceit we learn that CBS used songs and lyrics for international recording artist, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan's name is credited to the songs. One of those songs is nominated for a Grammy as best rock song of the year. Ironically the title of that song is Dignity.

"Since auditioning for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the careers of music industry icons Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, James has engaged in a multimillion dollar copyright infringement law suit with Bob Dylan."

Law Journal Review
June 16th, 2006

"I love the Bob Dylan work, all his work. I'm a busker and I make my living playing his old songs (Hard Rain's gonna fall, tambourine man, etc etc) Those songs that he wrote made history, and everybody loves them, but we cannot force him to play those songs anymore. Everybody knows that Bob Dylan had a hard time after making those songs. If you play the same song for 40 years, exactly the same way, wouldn't you get tired?? I think bob dylan is the example of a complete non-sold-out. HE could keep on doing the troubadour thing and make a lot of money with that, instead he decided to go electric and play other kind of music, One should be grateful that there are artists performing nowadays that aren't moved by money."
Bernardo Rao Vieira aka Abel Tasmania
July 12th, 2006

"dylan wasn't in the best of moods - true - but how would u feel after decades of audiences ... and then you end up in flipping prague of all palces - were people don't have a hint of a clue about music anyway - i went to plenty of gigs here in the last few years, most musicians were telling people to go home if they're not into it ... Old Bob should've done the same. Jeremy you obviously haven't got a fricking clue about dylan, his time, carrying the torch of the beat movement et all so better shut up or keep your pseudo-intellectual diarrhea to yourself. peace!"
August 30th, 2006

"You sound like the people who booed him in '66 and then flipped a 180 when the herd changed their mind. What about One Too Many Mornings from the Manchester Free Trade show? Completely different, yet still beautiful. You judge his stuff negatively because you want your sixties nostalgia satisfied. Bad news: you're going to have to wait for the 2060's, bro before the sixties come back."
Smartass Joe
September 11th, 2006

"Jeremy I have to say that I agree with you. I was at the concert that night and was very disappointed. The venue was a vast cavernous hangar and Dylan seemed disinterested and uncaring - merely going through the motions for a big payday. The songs were incomprehensible and it was often quite a long way into each track before I recognised it (and Im a big Dylan fan). He did not engage with the audience or even acknowledge us in any way. I felt as though Dylan did not care whether the audience was there or not and felt no responsibility for their enjoyment. He did not seem to enjoy himself either and did not appear to take any pleasure in performing his songs. I wondered why he had done it at all."
September 27th, 2007

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