Monday, March 16, 2009

Walking with the King


He's the greatest writer to ever cross the bows of rock 'n' roll, though I'd put Pete Townsend, Richard Thompson, Lou Reed, Ray Davies, and a few others in the same pantheon. And part of the reason, beyond the absolutely transcendent songwriting, and the impossible prescience with which he *always* managed to be a month, or a year, or two or three genre-shifts ahead his audience or any of his contemporaries, is his utter, absolute commitment to change.

None of them really got it: The folkies who thought he was nothing but a Woody rip-off. The traditionalists who thought he was "betraying" them when he stopped singing Woody's songs and started singing his own. The acoustic musicians who screamed "traitor" at him for playing electric guitar. The radicals who thought he'd "betrayed" them when found Jesus, and on, and on, and on. Like Miles Davis, he was absolutely adamant about questing ahead, finding something new, and no sooner did he arrive on a new shore than he'd cast-off for unknown territories.

Brought home to me again watching Bogdanovich's 3-hour opus on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers--an overblown hagiography which indulges Petty (a great songwriter, but as much of an egomaniac as rock stardom requires) entirely too much. But even Petty--like the Butterfield Band, the Byrds, the Beatles, and the Band--was forced to ramp down the ego and ramp up the respectful attention in order to hang with the King.

There's a remarkable moment in the film from an old piece of tour footage, of Dylan with Petty's Heartbreakers, on tour in Australia, when, in the ridiculous leather and eye-makeup he wore in '80s, he steps up to the microphone and starts sawing away on the harmonica with his patented sort of half-learned honking chordal approach (never did learn to play the harp like Sonny Terry) and just as the Heartbreakers are open to blast into whatever the song is about to be, Bob flings out a hand behind him and wards them off the entrance, and keeps honking away, poised at the front of the stage, until he drops his hand and they tumble together into the mantra-like opening chords of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

It's like Miles with the Second Great Quartet, like Mingus with the Jazz Workshop,like Monroe when Bill Keith went onstage with the Bluegrass Boys after zero rehearsal, like Zappa with Terry Bozzio and Little Stevie Vai. It's a musician whose commitment to make it new is so great, his commitment to the tightrope over the abyss of chance where new things are possible is so total, that he will risk everything--including every success he's ever created in the past--in order to break new ground.

This is where art lives. And is re-born.

Thanks Bob.

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