WSJ: When To Hang It Up

The article devoted two full pages to it: Is Bob Dylan still worth seeing live?

The answer, for many fans, is yes. For being the troubadour of his generation, Dylan is not the mysterious J.D. Salinger of music; there is plenty of accessibility. Maybe Dylan isn’t the best at trade shots and meet-and-greets but he plays for the public more than 100 times a year. And not just at flagship venues but at more proletarian baseball parks and college campuses. And he still mixes it up – it’s not the cavalcade of hits, but something true fans would consider diverse.

Yet, there is the deteriorating voice and a lack of vitality – and the Wall Street Journal’s John Jurgensen addressed it.

The Dec. 3 article ends with an invigorated Dylan playing at the hip, new Terminal 5 in New York City, where Dylan played three nights, seemed “fired up” and even “bared his teeth in either a grimace or a grin.”

The article begins with the other side of the equation: Dylan playing at the “no-frills ballroom” at the Borgata in Atlantic City, his voice a “laryngitic croak,” with security guards wandering the audience enforcing Dylan’s no-photos policy.

“A trickle of people peeled off for the exit,” the article says. “One of the walkouts, 50-year-old Warner Christy, said he wouldn’t be paying to see the singer again: ‘I’ve been scared straight.’”

Dylan live is an acquired taste. He is known for reworking his songs live, creating new melody lines on the fly. It’s in stark contrast to, say, The Rolling Stones who launch every show with a by-the-numbers “Start Me Up.”

“With every concert, he’s saying, ‘Think again,’” Sean Wilentz, author of “Dylan in America,” told the WSJ. But longtime fan Jim Waniak had a different take: “I know every word to ‘Desolation Row’ but I couldn’t sing along. What you’re used to feeling from his music just isn’t there.”

Chicago music writer Jim DeRogatis, recently unshackled from the Sun-Times, was candid with the Journal. He doesn’t have to see Dylan anymore: “I’ve been burned too many times.” DeRogatis did offer that, even in defeat, Dylan’s attempt to rework his music is nobler than the crowd-pleasing standards of, well, the Stones.

“Why single out Mr. Dylan when Judy Collins and other graying veterans are out there touring unmolested?” Jurgensen asks.
Of course, the answer proposed is Dylan’s insistence on mutating his body of work with the voice he has left and saturating the market with it. Meanwhile, Roger Waters is playing “The Wall” note-for-note and getting rave reviews.

Meanwhile, as noted in the article, artists like Jay-Z and David Bowie announced their retirement from the road only to have resurrected, successful, and applauded live careers. And, plain and simple, despite all the gripes agents hear from their clients, many actually like to live on the road. “Now the nights are long, the driving’s tough, hotels stink and the pay sucks,” Todd Snider sings, “But I can’t dig what I do enough. It never gets me down.”

Which begs the question, is there ever a time to hang it up when the artist wants to keep going? Maybe the answer is simply when the audiences stop coming.