Dylan in Vietnam was a surprise at every level. Surprising that it was happening at all given his stage in life, surprising that he is still touring and surprising that he would want to play in a place with no recognizable fan base. In Vietnam his work along with most popular music was inaccessible, suppressed here for many years. Today’s sixty year olds have no folk memory of Dylan and no nostalgia fest to inflict on their children. Not the least of the surprises for me was the serendipity that I should arrive here they day before the event to witness his latest reincarnation at first hand.
Maybe Bob got tired of waiting for me the last forty five years or so to show up at one of his gigs and decided that he had better come find me instead. After all we have been together through life. And at a time in my life when I could afford a VIP ticket, though in truth there was little need of that exclusivity as in the end the venue was half empty, illustrating perhaps his relative anonymity over here. He should have had Lady Gaga as a warm up.
Much was made in local press of his music in the sixties being Vietnam war inspired. I am not sure if I buy that narrative for reasons of chronology if for no other premise. I asked some foreigners in the crowd of a certain age who were privileging this narrative to name me one of Dylan’s songs directly relating to the American War. They couldn’t. One Vet now living here did say that Bob did hang with Joan Byaz who did do protest songs by way of ending the argument and the inconvenient truth that were no such songs unless the sad eyed lady of the low lands lived in the Mekong. So I guess Dylan caught dissent by association or maybe the protest virus was transmitted airborne, just a little something blowing in the wind. The Vietnamese get tired of the constant reference to a war that happened a long time ago. ‘Vietnam is a country not a war’ they say.
The crowd were an interesting mix of young well-heeled ex-pats, many with glamorous Vietnamese girlfriends and their equally lustrous friends, mingling with visiting fogies such as me. I attempted to seek out likeminded souls to striking up conversations on the topic of Dylan’s oeuvre and his purpose in being here beyond the romanticised protest narrative but this mission proved hard yakka, even the discussion of his music and its development.
In these conversations there prevailed a generalised and highly sentimentalized view of his part in our individual and collective destinies rather than an appreciation that was located in time, place or song cycle.
In fact the best Dylan specific conversations that I encountered were with a number of younger French and Irish women whose parents were devotees and who had over time infected then with an interest and passion for Dylan history and discography. Perhaps they viewed me as some sort of historic reference point if not a parent substitute, saying to me admiring things regarding their parents dedication to the music that they could not say directly to them, for fear of squirming embarrassment. One young French woman said that she yearned for Bob to play ‘that Mr Jones song’. I said that from 600 songs it would be doubtful if he would choose that song even though I loved it too – but he did!! Lucky woman lucky me lucky us. Something is happening here and I don’t know what it is …
The band were for me a total highlight and part of the surprise; coherent, blues inflected, stirring and unobtrusively led by Bob on organ. This was driving rockabilly that compelled and set the feet into spontaneous agitation. I felt a tear well up as the first chord was stuck after long waiting through the succession of Vietnamese ballads that comprised the warm up, hardly necessary on a tropical night. Greater than that entirely acceptable wait was the shameful fact that I have been forty years waiting to hear this live and this was the moment.
The set was a mix of old and new though both were treated to changes in tempo and often key too, with Dylan using lyrics in a gestural fashion; oft times repeating phrases in an echoing way, reminiscent of later Van the Man treatment of his landmark songs, relying on a strong band to pick up any pieces that might fall on the floor, giving himself the freedom to play fast and loose with the material, working with the essential fragments of something long ago spun yet still seeking fresh expression. Or was it as some said that he really didn’t care at all about the audience, that he turned that back on them, showed no respect for his own lyrics never mind his reverential audience.
Ever the enigma I guess, keeping us guessing – he aint there, some said. I hear that critique but ask if Miro in his later work really needed to paint ever detail of sun moon stars birds when a brush stroke would let us know the diference if we were attentive. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, especially through Tangled Up in Blue and Highway 61 which were really stirring. I don’t think I has really allowed that song line ‘Where do want that killing done?’ to seep into my soul before I had heard it live from his own mouth but now it drove right home in all its stark murderous matter-of-fact darkness. I had personal resonance with ‘It Ain’t Me Babe it ain’t me your looking for babe’ after a previous evening refusing offers of female company that seemed to be based less on my irresistible attraction and more on my ostensible wealth – and wishing I had remembered that song line at the time. Someone to pick you up – each time you fall.
Middle of the set the young French woman stood next to me broke off from texting her papa regarding the ‘ambience plus sympathetique et exceptionelle’ to ask me to dance. Surprised once more by the trajectory of this already surprising day – and more than delighted, flattered to oblige – we soon created between us a kind of sacred space in the mosh pit, perhaps one of the politest mosh pits of recorded time as they all moved over in deferential Asian fashion. This empty space stayed long after our gyrations to the endless treatment of the ‘Levee gonna Break’ had exhausted itself. I felt that her inspiration to dance together was perfect.
We had had a fragmented conversation together, working with fragments to piece together the Dylan enigma from different ends of the generational telescope, but somehow the dance dissolved differences in time and space and language and made perefect sense of the music and its attraction. Then she suddenly disappeared saying she had to have the motor bike burns on her leg treated as they had opened up mid dance – which made her devotional impulse to dance in homage all the more heroic. She truly bore not only the Dylan stigmata but those of the modern day Vietnam veteran also, as all young Vietnamese have scooters and most bear the scars. And there was I left alone though by this simple twist of motorcycling fate. Bob rasped ‘You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go’ into the star lit night but gone she was, smart phone twinkling behind her until the light faded entirely.
But then nature abhors a vacuum. Clearly emboldened by the success of the direct French approach a young American woman who had been observing us – I thought critically – stepped into the now vacated sacred space and asked me to dance also. Did they think I was part of the performance? She could not match the French woman for any culturally derived sense of Hot Club swing but seemed happy to appropriate the space in a strutting Brittany- esque sort of way. I asked her how she was enjoying the concert.
She moaned ‘Okay I guess – but when is he gonna like play anything we all like know?’ As Dylan had just been playing Hard Rain i didn’t quite know how to respond to this culpable lack of classical lyric recognition, instead silently allowing another excellent number from Modern Times to roll over the assembled heads towards us. Meet me in the bottom bring me my boots and shoes. But then why should she know any of this stuff anyway, modern times or ancient times, whether offered in brilliant disguise or the anaesthetised renditions that can be heard in elevators the world over. She filled the silence by offering me a post – jive cigarette which in that heightened moment and in the context was highly tempting.
The urge to accept impulsed perhaps by an involuntary transportation back to a time when my sixteen year old rebelliousness was stoked by listening to Bringing it all Back Home while plotting an escape that signified a quite opposite emotional direction, a flight from suffocating suburban ennui, puffing away all the time on a cool cigarette while I hung out my bedroom window, assuaging the restlessness. Before I could mutter a reluctant refusal her boyfriend returned to reclaim her, spilling some beer over me in passing, by way of friendly salutation mixed with possessive territory marking, then leading her deep into the crowd where no antediluvian dancers lurked. Last night I danced with a stranger but she just reminded me you were the one.
Many of the Vietnamese in the crowd afterwards expressed with empathic concern their sadness that Bob had lost his voice before such an important concert. This naïve sentiment was entirely sincere but they needed to know that he always sounds this way nowadays, that this was another side of Bob Dylan. And that even in his prime his voice was not the greatest but that was not the point of him. Not the point but an inseparable part of his identity. I tell one of the locals that my wife loves his songs – as long as they are sung by someone else, in fact I think she means by just about anyone else. By contrast I have developed an affection for the gruffness of his recently developed cadences,
I enjoy the enduring sense of Willie Nelson style indestructability that they evoke. Our conversation was rudely interrupted by one baseball capped good old boy lurched in front of us to shout drunkenly from zero inches into the hirsute ear of the buddy that he was leaning on for necessary if unreliable support – ‘well maybe he can’t sing anymore but at least he can still play the harmonica’. Up until that point I had not realised that harp playing ability was age dependent. But hey it is something Bob can do on the stoop in his dotage when the endless tour is over and the setting sun is about to bring it all back home, awaiting the man in the long black coat.
But maybe the exiled down-home hombre knew more truth than he realised for Daniel Lanois who produced Time Out Of Mind said about the recording process of this 1997 album, “We treated the voice almost like a harmonica when you over- drive it through a small guitar amplifier.” I love that notion – that transposition of voice as instrument – and it could explain innovative method developed from this necessary age-related vocal accommodation. “I’m walking through streets that are dead Walking, walking with you in my head My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired And the clouds are weeping. I am sick of love and I am in the thick of it.”
The mosh pit dwindled to almost nothing as the evening went on – we were encouraged to walk along –all along but not down along, Bob hasn’t gone that folkie yet – the watch tower but only the security guards who were paid to be there seemed to be rocking along to that one. Dylan finished with Forever Young which i have to admit was a hard sentiment for me to identify with in that moment as I looked around at the remaining crowd and remembered that 50% of the population in Vietnam are under 30.
Ahh when i was their age … well when I was their age i was listening to Dylan and at 60 I still am but that is no reason in the world why they should do so either now or in their dotage. However part of me would wish this burgeoning global audience to catch the bug infecting the younger French and Irish generation who are reaching beyond referred parental nostalgia towards a musical appreciation and interpretation of Dylan that they are making all their own. It’s all good.