Watching Bob Dylan on stage made me yearn for the gigs of my youth

Somewhere along the line, I’d lost the punky irreverence that made me delight in iconoclasm for its own sake.

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A couple of weeks ago I failed in my journalistic duty. I went to see Bob Dylan at the Palladium, intending to review it, but I found to my dismay that I simply couldn’t.

I had assumed I would enjoy it, you see; that even if I didn’t love every musical moment, at the very least it would be something to be in the same room as a legend.

What I didn’t bargain for was that I’d hate every musical moment, not even make it to the end of the evening, and would then get home and sit glumly in front of the blank screen of my laptop, until the wordless hours forced upon me the realisation that, somewhere along the line, I’d lost the punky irreverence that used to make me delight in iconoclasm for its own sake, and I’d become respectful.

It wasn’t just that I knew, and wearily accepted, that a negative review would provoke angry responses, along the lines of, “Who do you think you are, puny songstress Tracey Thorn, slagging off our trailblazing genius Bob Dylan?”

It was that, at some level, a part of me would have agreed with them. I’m under no illusions about our respective status in the story of popular music: Dylan has a starring role, is a game-changer – a Nobel Prizewinner, for heaven’s sake. I had come to praise him, and I wasn’t sure the world needed me to bury him.

All I can tell you, briefly, is this. He doesn’t play guitar, spending the show either at the piano or standing at the mike. The hits are few and far between, and when he does a song we all know and love, “Tangled Up In Blue”, the crowd almost bursts into tears of relief – yet he sings it like a man who knows neither the words nor the tune, the sound mix reducing his vocal performance to a kind of endless two-note drone: na-NA-na-NA-na-NA-na-NA.

This from a man beloved and revered for his lyrics. If you’re nodding in understanding now, let’s leave it at that, and if you’re outraged and of the opposite opinion, again, let’s leave it at that.

After the show, someone tells me he has terrible arthritis and that’s why he can’t play guitar any longer. And I think of that wide-legged stance he adopts, both at the piano and standing to sing, and I wonder if he needs a hip replacement, and I feel nothing but sympathy. So perhaps I’m not cut out to be a critic, if I only like writing about things I like.

It set me thinking, though: what do I want from a gig? What are the nights that are seared on to my memory, and why?

There was Prince in his pomp on the Lovesexy tour, when even a long show at Wembley couldn’t contain all that he was, forcing him to carry on into the night at an after-party, unstoppable, untouchable.

Or the Smiths, young and triumphant at the Hacienda in 1983, where we wore secretive little badges printed with the word “Handsome”, and Morrissey hurled gladioli out to the audience, where they were caught and brandished, then dropped and trampled into a pulpy mess on the floor. Or the Kate Bush comeback gigs at the Apollo, which left me dizzy and weeping, more dishevelled than if I’d been on stage.

But nothing can match those vivid gigs of my teenage years, where the night out mattered more than who was on stage, where what I wore mattered more than what they sang. At Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1978 at Hemel Hempstead Pavilion, the atmosphere was more party than concert: balloons and streamers filled the air, and I was in a blazer covered in badges, dancing in front of the stage with a menthol cigarette in one hand and a plastic glass in the other, and I got off with a plasterer called Mick.

It was sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, indeed. Or snogging and smoking and dancing. No wonder I count it as one of the best gigs of my life – but was that down to the band, or the being in a room full of hormones and possibility, on the brink of discovering who I was, buzzing with nicotine and electricity? Past a certain age, can any gig hope to conjure up that type of feeling? Even Dylan? 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM