It was the best of Dylan. It was the worst of Dylan. It didn’t take long for even the casual Dylanologist to see that Bob Dylan’s performance at the Prospect Park Bandshell on Tuesday night was going to serve up that classic Dickensian schism.
For me, the moment came during the second song, a garbled, growling version of “Lay Lady Lay” that turned the classic from a coy come-on into an old man’s futile plea.
I know the words refer to a big brass bed, but the way Dylan was mumbling and twitching, the only bed I could picture anyone laying across was in a hospital.
Two songs later, “Girl from the North Country,” one of Dylan’s sweetest songs, also got the steel wool treatment from the singer’s no-longer-nimble throat.
And his machine-gun patter on “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” turned this early career lyrical masterpiece into a throwaway that proved to warn that he not busy being born is busy — well, sorry, Bob.
As a Dylan fan, I’ve always been shocked when people — let’s call them fools — say that Dylan never could sing. In fact, that’s a blood libel; the man actually could sing. His voice may have been grating to some ears, but his style of singing — his phrasings, his emphasis, his tone, his pacing — influenced generations of musicians.
His style worked in silly songs (“Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance”), protest songs (“Masters of War”), personal songs (“Like a Rolling Stone”), up-tempo numbers (“Obviously Five Believers”) and, yes, the under-rated Born Again stuff (“Property of Jesus,” “When He Returns”).
It’s heresy for any Dylan fan to say it, but he can’t sing like that anymore. I’ve seen him four times now. After each concert, the Dylan diehards tell me the old man still has it — but it must be said: he does not.
Dylan’s best ballads become dirges. His best lyrics become lost in garble. His best phrasing becomes run-on sentences. An artist who crafted some of the greatest lyrics in rock history spits them out like they’re throwaway B-sides. On Tuesday night, “Masters of War,” the perfect song in a time of seemingly endless war, lost all the power that Dylan’s angry rasp once gave it.
“A world war can be won/You want me to believe” came out as a whisper, not the howl of two generations.
And yet, there was another side of Bob Dylan that showed up on Tuesday night: the new Dylan.
Any time that Dylan and his band broke into one of his new songs — mostly stuff from “Modern Times,” including “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Beyond the Horizon” — the joint really got jumping. It was as if Dylan realized that he can’t sing his old numbers, so he might as well trot out the songs that he can sing — and sing well. And the tight, five-piece band behind him kept this from being a novelty act for aging Hippies.
No, it wasn’t “Voice of a Generation” time in Prospect Park, but for about half of a 90-minute set, Dylan was truly the song-and-dance man he once professed to be.
Alas, when he kicked off a three-song encore with “Like a Rolling Stone,” he was back to his old tricks, botching what might be his most-famous song.
How does it feel? It feels a little sad.
The concert was a classic Brooklyn event, which brought out a crowd of pols (Borough President Markowitz and Councilman Bill DeBlasio), fellow musical legends (bluesman Danny Kalb was in the third row) and plenty of regular folk. … Thousands of people heard (but didn’t see) the show for free, laying out a blanket on the outside of the perimeter fence, which had been covered to prevent a good view. … There was so much pot-smoking in the Port-o-Potties that they should have been called Port-o-Parties. … Dylan’s only acknowledgement that he was in Brooklyn came during the encore when, apropos of nothing, he said, “Man, I wish the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.”