In the last few weeks, I’ve had two cultural experiences that I’m still trying to get my head around: Bob Dylan on his ‘Rough and Ready Ways” Tour and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” Each, in their singular way, speaks to the struggle for authenticity in one’s art.
Bob Dylan, who recently turned 81, performed three nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. I attended the first night’s performance: Dylan spent most of the night behind the piano, occasionally venturing beside his piano to sing, play harp, and occasionally play guitar. He was clean-shaven and still has a full head of hair (although it can’t really be that dark). Dylan was dressed in one of his Western suits. Whether this was an actual Nudie confection or another’s – it spoke to Dylan being of the West, and at the same time, being a creature of Showbiz with a nod to those other rhinestone cowboys such as Hank Williams. Dylan didn’t seem as sure footed on stage as he did in his earlier days (in keeping with Dylan’s recent Shadow Kingdom film, the stage was pretty dark) but he seemed strangely excited to be there.
Dylan performed a 90-minute set of some 17 songs that was heavily weighted towards the recent material from his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album. The audience were mostly Dylan afficionados of longstanding, who had weathered the storms of Dylan’s varied performances and were eager just to see him appear again.
The first time I saw Dylan perform live was in January 1974 in Montreal at the early start of the “Before the Flood Tour” backed by The Band. At that show, which to my teenage mind was like boarding a spaceship to a deeper appreciation of Dylan, the Bobster opened with a defiant version of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” Which, at the time, I took as Dylan’s attitude towards his audience.
At the Pantages, that was the second song he played, and it hit me this time as truth – for some 60 years Dylan has gone his own way. At this show, Dylan opened with Watching the River Flow, a 1971 song that Dylan performed on his “Shadow Kingdom” filmed performance and whose lyrics carry great resonance (and even offer sustenance) for these challenging times.
People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow
Several songs Dylan performed hark back to the 1970s including When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971), and I’ll be Your baby Tonight (1967) and Gotta Serve Somebody (1979) from Slow Train Coming.
Dylan’s band, with Bob Britt and Doug Lancio on guitar, Tony Garnier on Bass, Donnie Herron on pedal steel, and Charley Drayton on drums, were so tight that at times I wondered if Dylan was actually playing that piano (I’m going to say he was). Nonetheless, with a sound that carried from early blues, through Texas Swing and honky-tonk juke joint, they created the sonic hammock that cradled Dylan’s performances.
Dylan’s voice was rich and full – perhaps, as a result of having had time off during the lockdown – perhaps, due to all he learned singing Sinatra’s songs – perhaps, it was the voice with which he once sang, “Lay, Lady, Lay,” returned again for these performances.
At the Pantages, Dylan seemed to be once again chasing that thin wild mercury sound. So much so that there were moments when I imagined and wished that a guitar solo would explode, or that Mike Bloomfield would take the stage to take the music to its vanishing point in ways only he could.
To explain: In a 1978 interview for Playboy Magazine, Dylan told Ron Rosenbaum, a great journalist and legendary conversationalist, “The sound I’m trying to get across, I’m not just up there recreating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody … I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things…. The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time.”
At the Pantages, Dylan performed many (if not most) of the songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways, which much like his performances for Shadow King, seem to occupy a space between talking blues and spoken word song, more Allen Ginsberg than Jack Kerouac, more 1950s than 1960s or 70s. I even imagined a silent tribute to Leonard Cohen in the way Dylan came out to face the audience and even seemed to thank them for being there.
At various points in Dylan’s early career he seemed to abdicate from touring (particularly during the post-motorcycle-accident Woodstock/NYC years), and often expressed disdain for engaging with his audience. To that point, over the last several decades as Dylan took sail on his “Never Ending Tour,” although his performances ranged widely, Dylan has never wavered in his commitment to whatever material most interested him at the time. He has consistently demonstrated that what he cares about is not the audience but the songs.
One can argue that Dylan’s touring was not just (or not only) an obsessive compulsion, an act of repetition that was never the same twice. Dylan’s dogged determination that has so frustrated and mystified fans over the years, that sometimes left them unable to discern what song he was singing, has kept Dylan from being an “Oldies” act or a “Greatest Hits” tour (as is the case with so many of his contemporaries).
Over the last decades, Dylan has chased whatever music mattered to him, from American roots classics, early gospel, Christmas songs, and songs recorded by Frank Sinatra, regardless of what the audience hoped to hear. To some fans, it was mystifying, a quirk of Dylan’s contrarian personality, an indulgence allowed only because he was Dylan.
However, the Pantages show was different. What Dylan revealed was that his motivation, which was always there, has been hiding in plain sight. What Dylan cares about is that his songs live, that they are heard, that they are performed – by him as he sees fit.
This is also the theme of Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis which makes the case that what Elvis cared about was the music, the gospel and rhythm and blues music he was exposed to as a child and continued to love and perform throughout his career, the music which possessed him and that he loved. Elvis was so flamboyant a performer that in this movie, Luhrmann is more restrained than in his other films such as Moulin Rouge. What Luhrmann conveys, magically, is the impact Elvis had on his audience.
Austin Butler gives an electric performance as Elvis. There are moments where you no longer see Butler and only see and hear Elvis and those are some of the most exciting and unforgettable moments on screen. The camerawork, art direction, costume design and editing are superb and really work together to deliver strongly on what it was like to see Elvis perform.
I am also glad that Luhrmann chose to make Elvis’s 1968 “Comeback Special” as the emotional center of gravity of the film, giving its director and producer Steve Binder his due. Binder, who I profiled in 2008 (“Elvis at the Crossroads”), is 90 and it is so wonderful and a tribute to Luhrmann’s generosity that Binder is getting this much-deserved valedictory victory lap, appearing on 20/20 and other TV and radio outlets.
In discussing Luhrmann’s Elvis, you will hear that Tom Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker in a fat suit and with a wandering accent that sounds as much “Old Jew” as “Dutch Carny.” The Elvis legend casts Parker as the villain who squandered Elvis’ talent, and ruined his life personally and professionally, all to the Colonel’s own financial gain. There is no denying that the Colonel was a con man, and that he made Elvis make all those movies, and in some ways repressed or restricted Elvis’ to Las Vegas rather than touring the world. All true.
However, in a dramatic twist, Luhrmann makes Parker the narrator for much of the story and allows Parker to mount his own defense. Parker’s counter-narrative would have us acknowledge that without the Colonel, Elvis would have disappeared like his contemporaries Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dwayne Eddie, even Bill Haley, and a host of other 1950s performers who never reached the popular acclaim that Elvis did and whose careers never held the public in thrall for as long as Elvis did. Parker makes clear that Elvis’ career could have ended when he entered the Army and that it was those terrible Hollywood movies that allowed Elvis to remain a presence in the lives of Americans and fans all over the world; and that the TV specials affirmed his talent.
The satellite ‘Aloha Elvis’ special was not only innovative but reached an audience of more than a Billion viewers in over 40 countries. It is hard to argue with that success. Also, Parker suggests that Elvis’s inclination was to be easily distracted and self-indulgent — if not for Parker, Elvis might have stopped playing altogether or been unwilling to get on stage, record and release albums. I’ve heard other journalists who’ve written about Elvis make this same argument and there is no doubt some truth in it. This makes “Elvis” a more interesting film.
Finally, I am grateful that Luhrmann includes as the summation of Elvis’ empathetic relationship with Black Americans, the iconic song written by the late Mac Davis, “In the Ghetto,” that was Elvis’ late career hit. In these and a thousand other ways, Luhrmann’s film is generous and inclusive, upbeat and inspiring.
Dylan and Elvis could not be more different, yet both share a simple credo: To be true to the song.