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Wednesday, 11 June 2008

More on Bob Dylan in Russia (with mp3s)

Left: Falconet's statue of Peter the Great, who built St. Petersburg as his "window on the West."

For the first time in 30 years I am able to combine my day job (as a translator of the Russian press) with one of my main hobbies (appreciation of the music of Bob Dylan). So to follow up on my blog the other day, in which I translated the review of a highly perceptive Russian beat fan, here is a look at what the Russian press had to say about Bob's recent concert in St. Petersburg.

Right: bootleg art by StewART.

It was Peter's city, or rather the great poem about it by Alexander Pushkin, "The Bronze Horseman", that inspired me to take up the learning of Russian 30 years ago. Peter built his city in spite of nature, at an enormous cost in human life, as his "window on the West" through which he hoped Western culture would pour, enabling him to rouse up Mother Russia from what he perceived as her oriental backwardness, symbolised in Falconet's statue (above left) by the snake beneath the feet of Peter's fiery steed as he rears it up before the abyss on its giant pedestal, the Thunderstone, sometimes said to be the largest stone ever moved by man. To this day "Peter", as the city was known to its habitants even in Soviet times when it was officially named Leninngrad, remains the most Western of Russian cities, and hence, as the Russian website notes, much more suited to Bob Dylan than the "white stone city" (i..e. Moscow), where Bob performed three songs at an invitation-only poetry festival way back in 1985.

The Russian press is, as regards youth culture, like the British and American press of 40 years ago; it claims to speak for the fans, but rarely makes any attempt to canvass their opinion. Whereas the admirable beatgene stated quite clearly that she hadn't expected Bob to perform her favourite songs, Kommersant (one of the few bastions of independent journalism remaining in Putin's Russia) assumes that the fans had been expecting the most familiar Dylan songs, and that Bob was guilty of showing contempt for the St. Petersburg public by not performing them.

The setlist looked as if the the maestro had no idea of where he was playing, or before whom. Or else he sincerely and entirely didn't give a damn. Fans of Paul McCartney, for instance, have seen him perform twice already on the territory of the former USSR, and only now are able to permit themselves to timidly ask the idol to play at his concert in Kiev on 14th June one or two things apart from a gentlemanly selection of "greatest hits." From the point of view of world culture, Bob Dylan is a figure of equal weight, but he was performing here for the first time since 1985, for the first time since an unsuccessful performance before an ideologically irreproachable and absolutely indifferent audience at an evening of world poetry that was timed to coincide with the Festival of Young People and Students in Moscow. To all intents and purposes, the concert in the Ice Palace was his first proper performance in this country. And he comes onto the stage and sings the following collection of songs:

"Cat`s in the Well" from the 1990 album Under the Red Sky. "Don`t Think Twice, It`s All Right" and "Girl of the North Country" from The Freewheelin` Bob Dylan (1963). "Honest with Me" from "Love And Theft" (2001). And seven of the 10 songs on the 2006 album Modern Times.

No one expected Mr. Dylan to perform a programme consisting only of songs from his "best of" collections; clearly he is still promoting his universally very well received album "Modern Times". But take the 2007 three-CD collection "Dylan", a more thorough compilation than many "best of" CDs, based as it is not just on the sixties golden period. Of the songs enumerated above, only one is on this compilation—"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." In other words, for his d├ębut in Russia, Mr. Dylan chose songs that aren't too well known anywhere in the world.

At least that was the concert blueprint by and large: to play the little-known and completely new. But he nevertheless did offer a few of his calling cards. "Just Like A Woman" and "Highway 61 Revisited" were there, and the final number was the song that comes to mind when you figure out how Bob Dylan should end his concerts—"Like A Rolling Stone. But if "Just Like A Woman" was performed with at least some kind of hint at the possibility of singing along with it, the two other hits were played as if deliberately without even the most minimal hook that an audience wishing to express their respect for a classic could latch on to.

This quality of "podpevayemost'" (literally 'being able to sing along with') appears important to Russian audiences: beatgene herself mentioned being surprised and disconcerted by its absence. Is this what one goes to rock concerts for in Russia? To sing along with the songs just as they are on your records (or illegal downloads, more likely) at home? At any rate, this is not a quality that many songs as performed on the Never Ending Tour, or at any other stage in Bob's career, have had. He is not interested in being "the legend", or in the Russian phrase, "a classic" demanding respect, but in recreating his songs according to his current whim. Nevertheless, as this is likely to be his one and only performance before a Russian paying audience, I can't help wishing that for once the old bastard had been willing to acknowledge where he was and meet the audience half way. Russians do have an almost religious reverence for poets and performers, and they do like to indulge this bardolatry wherever possible. Their troubled history of the Russian people has meant that artists and poets in Russia have always carried the burden that Bob shook off early on in his career; that of expressing the true thoughts and feelings of the people. But they revere the poet for his words, not for his fame or whatever goes on in his private life. Should Bob have forgotten the lyric sheets that of late have become a fixture on his keyboard, there is little doubt that the entire audience would have been able to prompt him, in thick Russian accents, of course, just as readily as they did me when, at some dinner party or other in Moscow 20 years ago, I attempted to recite a poem by Aleskandr Blok while fully loaded on bootleg vodka and forgot some of the words. Everyone in the room joined in reciting the long dead poet's words.

Just who was the audience for this particular show, apart from beatgene and her fellow beat fans, as we have seen? According to it was

a curious symbiosis of members of the older generation and young people. There were hippies and kids in trendy gear. What didn't happen was any sense of a "crowd." It was perfectly obviously that each of the spectators had his own Dylan, his own history of relations with his songs, it was impossible to speak of any kind of mass concert ecstasy. The audience was predominantly male, and the women were from the intelligentsia category. There were no "dumb blondes." Many spectators, with serious-looking faces, whispered the words of the songs in English; there were quite a few foreigoners. You would thing that such a tedious concert would quickly become boring; after all, nothing was happening outwardly on state; but there was in both a musical and poetic sense. internal drama. The sound was not loud; it was even like chamber music; but the band played with impeccable style. And for a man of 67, Dylan sung very well: the timbre was clear, the voice strong, even, and far more powerful than on the records.

A rather tepid review; and yet, considered as just another show by the modern Bob Dylan, the St. Petersburg concert was actually pretty good, on the evidence of the already circulating recording by the ubiquitous taper who goes by the name of Bach (hence the inevitable "Bach in the USSR" jokes). As on the US and Canada leg of the tour, Bob is in very good voice, and the performances are anything but indifferent. The band is even coming to life a bit, with noticeably more dynamic solos by Denny Freeman. Although it would be stretching things to suggest that the setlist was in any way tailored toward the audience, it's possible to imagine that Girl of the North Country was chosen as a tip of the hat to the "Venice of the North", as the city of Peter the Great is often called, or even to the name of the venue itself. And Workingman Blues #2 would have struck a chord with many in a nation that has gone from a drab, but equitable socialism, to an unbridled form of capitalism in which the rich are very wealthy indeed, and the poor can barely make ends meet. The buying power of the proletariat has certainly declined since Soviet times (when there was nothing to buy, but all necessities were dirt cheap). Modern times in Russia are very hard for a large percentage of the population.

Nevertheless, Tangled Up in Blue was in the setlist as if to remind everyone that Russia was just "another joint" on Dylan's endless road (or it could be because it was one of the songs written under the influence of Dylan's Russian-born art teacher, the mysterious Norman Raeben; or even just because it is the only Dylan song that mentions revolution!). It's a shuffling, bluegrass-tinged version with some new, somewhat half-baked lines:

He drifted down to New Orleans where he was lucky enough to be employed
Three times on a sailing boat, three times it was destroyed

Ouch. Rather better are:

She was working in "the Tropicana"
I stopped there for a beer
told her I was goin' on later (?)
She said, "I'm gonna stay right here."

Bob whips out the ol' harmonica before and after the last verse. Altogether a more enjoyable version than some of the breakneck versions of the recent past.

Other songs worth mentioning are Just Like A Woman, well sung with a lengthy harmonica intro; a smouldering rendition of It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (Russians need no reminding that "propanda, all is phony"), with Dylan's keyboards maybe higher in the mix than usual; and a mesmerising Ain't Talkin'.

Here are some mp3s, with thanks to the aforementioned "Bach":

Girl From the North Country

Tangled Up in Blue

Just Like A Woman

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

Workingman's Blues #2

Ain't Talkin'


Anonymous said...

interest POV of Dylan concerts from russia - a few errors though -

in the 3 disc dylan set,
like a rolling stone
just like a woman,
don't think twice,
tangled up in blue
are all in it, not just 1.

secondly, this isn't the 90s, early 2000s anymore - if you look at the setlists, dylan has fazed out Tangled up in blue and now only plays it a few shows each tour, if that. I have seen him 9 times since 2003 and have yet to hear this song live for example.

3. he played summer days in russia, a song that USED to haunt the last spot before encore but lately has been absent, this was a rare performance on this tour and indeed all tours since the release of Modern Times

4. using the recent Dylan 3 disc set as a barometer for whether a song is a 'hit' or well-known is a mistake, to think that any average dylan fan wouldn't know hwy 61 or it's alright ma is silly, since they are among the most enduring of his 60s songs, particularly live, where they have been 'crowd pleasers' for decades.

5. While Dylan has anti-war songs, he might not wish to play all of them any given night, so rather than sing Masters of War, for example, he chose John Brown, which describes a son being sent off to war, only to realize the soldiers on the other side are just like him - considering that his early political songs dealt with the USSR-US conflict, this rare gem could be a subtle acknowledgment of that history -more so than hard rain or god on our side, for instance

6a. dylan doesn't do greatest hits shows - as mentioned, that's paul McCartney's territory, when he wants to - Macca just played liverpool for the first time in years and ended up playing lots of rare stuff he never plays, stuff that no one would call hits.

6b. In many of his interviews, he has mentioned how when he started touring extensively again, he purposely chose cities he'd never played before, to people who hadn't seen him before. now, you can argue that people in st petersburg have had less opportunity to see dylan than any of the other european countries he's been going to or the countries in south and central america, or in japan, or the dozens of middle america communities that are just too far away to get the metropolitan area (or perhaps too expensive), but the fact remains, that dylan's always striving to find that new audience. he considers every audience new (except when he plays several nights in one city - then he often will change half the set - but not the whole thing). if he had played that greatest hits show, 2 things would be true -
1. some people's definition of greatest hits wouldn't match his - if you look at the different compilations he's released, changing of the guards, gotta serve somebody, blood in my eyes and brownsville girl are all on them...but i doubt most of the buying public could sing a verse to any of them.
2. those same fans would cry out, quite legitimately perhaps, that they've been denied the opportunity to see this artist perform his most recent work, and given his age and the rareness of russian shows, they might never get another chance to see dylan be contemporary. one thing about dylan, he plays a lot of different songs on tour, many of them 40 years old, but he doesn't forget that he's an artist, a 'song-and-dance man' and that he still has something to say. if you don't want to hear it, fine, stay home and play blonde on blonde till dawn, he doesn't care. his whole career, he's played what he's wanted, why would the russians expect anything less?

7. the journalist makes a special point of saying that it's been so logn since dylan has played, that this is a momentous occasion to the russian ppl and that he should recognize that...well, what did the russians do? did they have a special parade or award for him, since it was their government and not his unwillingness to play that kept him out. It'd be like refusing to eat at a restaurant because it's owned by someone you hate, disagree with, had an argument with, etc and then one day, years later, walking in, and expecting him to provide you with a special, one-of-a-kind meal that encompasses everything you've missed. i mean, c'mon! look back on the first shows he did anywhere, like germany after the wall came down and see if the set lists corroborate any acknowledgment of the events.

8, i was lucky enough to see him in boston for a three night stand a few years ago - each show was great, the first night he played hazel, a song he's only played 6 times or so ever,
tomorrow is a long time - a song elvis covered that i can't remember on any other setlists in recent times
tough mama - another rarity from planet waves
and mississippi - a common song a few years back that has becoming increasingly rare live
the 2nd night, it mostly unsurprising songs, but with if you see her say hello and every grain and sand, except he played lenny bruce for the first time 5 years
the third show again had songs i hadn't seen before - ring them bells, it takes a lot to laugh. but it was i dreamed i saw st augustine - the first time in nearly 12 years, that made this show 'famous' in dylan circles and special to everyone there - he played it, i believe, one other time a few nights later and that was it - my point is, why boston? i had seen him there 3 nights in a row the year before and was given amazing shows, but not with such rarities, such uniqueness -the answer is, it's what dylan felt like doing, it's not the city he's in. the night after boston, he played absolutely sweet marie, shooting star, and tombstone blues, 3 songs i'll probably never get to see live - in newark nj! hardly st petersburg, but that's not how he works, i think.

anyways, this is just a long rambling from another ragged clown,

Strangermusic said...

The altered lyric Dylan usually uses on Tangled Up In Blue is: "I told her I was going to Atlanta/She said I should stay right here."

raggedclown said...

Thanks for the lyric correction, strangermusic. I knew I hadn't got it right.

Thanks for comments, anonymous.