EDITOR’S NOTE: This originally posted in November of 2014.
The Academy of Music opera house in Philadelphia opened in 1857, which, if memory serves, is where and when Bob Dylan first went electric — much to the consternation of the stovepipe-hatted folkies in attendance, who felt he was selling out the purity of old-timey steam-powered protest anthems. It is said that Stephen A. Douglas was so incensed he attempted to chop the cable supplying power to the Academy stage with an axe and had to be wrestled to the ground by none other than Abraham Lincoln, who “licked him,” as Huckleberry Finn used to say. Historic records indicate that the mutton-chopped Whig Judge Theophilus Lyle Dickey shouted out ‘Judas!’ from his stage right second floor luxury box. A yellowed and wrinkly YouTube of the incident records Dylan responding with a laconic “I don’t believe you…you’re a liar.” Then he turned to Robbie Robertson and yelled “Play fuckin’ loud!” as The Band kicked into “Like A Rolling Stone” with amps set on KILL. Thus began the The Never-Ending Tour, which, after 157 years, came full-circle with a three night stand at The Academy Of Music that kicked off Friday night.
Never one for nostalgia or sentimentality, Dylan made no reference to those historic events of 157 years ago when he took the stage last night dressed in a cream suit and matching, wide-brimmed hat, as the band launched into the slow-gait gallop of the ironically-titled “Things Have Changed.” In fact, the only thing Dylan said all night was “We’ll be right back” before exiting the stage and signaling the onset of intermission. Many of us declined bathroom and smoke breaks to parse Dylan’s gnomic utterance for generational import on our newly acquired iPhone app designed specifically to parse gnomic Dylan utterances for generational import. Results were inconclusive. The only things that’ve changed about Bob Dylan shows in the last century and a half is that he shuffles his feet instead of picking them up when he walks and he doesn’t wear a guitar anymore, which used to give him something to do between verses. Instead he steps back from the mic, takes a wide stance and puts his hand on his hip like an old man at a urinal and nods slightly to the crowd as his magic band takes flight. “Look, Bob’s dancing!” the septuagenarian fellow next to me enthused to his wife. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that wasn’t dancing, that was rheumatism.
After 157 years of howling in the wilderness, Dylan’s voice sounds like the proverbial emphysemic cow with its leg caught in an electric fence, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Beyond that, the Platonic ideal of Dylan remains immutable and all the eternal verities still hold true: He’s still tangled up in blues. His hat still balances on his head like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine. He’s still keeping company with jokers and thieves and sword swallowers and sideshow freaks. He still has many contacts among the lumberjacks who get him facts when someone attacks his imagination. Willie McTell is still blind. The levee still breaks — high water everywhere — and there is still plenty of thunder on the mountain. Down in Ferguson they’re still selling postcards of the hanging and the beauty parlor is still full of sailors whenever the circus is in town. The fiddler still steps to the road, writing that everything’s been returned which was owed, on the back of the fish truck that loads while my conscience explodes. The harmonica still plays the skeleton keys and the rain and these visions of Johanna are now all that remain. — JONATHAN VALANIA
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