Bob Dylan has spent more than five decades avoiding his popularly anointed role as the voice of a generation.
But the old song and dance man, who marks six dozen years in May, still totes a sack full of worthy messages. He doesn’t pronounce words of wisdom, but embodies them in song and performance, as he did during a recent appearance at a downtown amphitheater in Raleigh, N.C.
“Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose, any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose,” he sang in “Things Have Changed.”
That’s one of the messages: The choices that seemed clear when Dylan sang “The Times They Are a-Changing” in 1964 have branched into a world full of dangerous ambiguity, open malignity and concealed threats.
He’s no longer out to instruct senators and congressmen to heed the call, as in his ‘60s anthems. But even in the magnolia-infused atmosphere of the bluesy “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan expressed anger and disgust at the ways of the world: “Power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.”
Message two: There’s joy and redemption in creativity. Performing in Raleigh, Dylan was clearly having fun. During the compelling, serious “McTell,” he pulled an old show-biz stunt, keeping his harmonica solo going after the band had apparently ended the song. In on the joke, his veteran players cranked up again, only to have Dylan roll them once more. Crowd hysteria. Dylan amused.
A sort of unspoken agreement at Dylan shows allows fans to come down to the stage front during closing numbers. Seen from a few dozen feet away, Dylan clearly loves to play, to exercise his terminally cracked voice, to trade licks with his band, to entertain.
As is his custom, Dylan left the stage after his allotted 100 minutes. But a young woman near the stage sadly kept shouting, “From a Buick 6,” referencing a 1965 album track.
Message three: There was life before the baby boom. Born in 1941, Dylan harks back to the era when radio and movies ruled and, as John Cheever once wrote, nearly everyone wore a hat. In his music, especially in live performance, Dylan is offering up reflections not just of longtime influences such as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, but also of bluesman Charley Patton, crooner Bing Crosby and the orchestral jump blues of Louis Jordan. This stuff is great, he signaled, and if Bob Dylan likes it, you ought to like it, too.
Since the beginning of his career, but especially since the early ‘90s albums “Good as I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong,” Dylan has served as the premier booster of hard-core American roots music. That continues in the sound of his band and in the world-class songs he keeps writing.
Message four: There’s life after youth for the baby boomers, and fulfillment ahead for the younger crowd. “Don’t get up gentlemen – I’m only passing through,” he sang in “Things Have Changed.” That is, important work, as well as love and sex, will abound on the road ahead. They won’t live just in memory.
That road will be rough and rocky, and murderous men in long black coats will lurk nearby. But relentlessly hard work will pay off, as it so evidently has for Dylan.
He never spoke a word in Raleigh, but in 2012’s “Early Roman Kings” he sang, “One day, you will ask for me – there’ll be no one else that you’ll want to see.”
For people searching for an unflinching worldview in 2013, as in 1963, a knock on Bob Dylan’s door remains a key starting point.