The ever-changing music icon Bob Dylan comes to KeyArena Saturday on his "Tempest" tour.
Legend has it that during the filming of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” director Sam Peckinpah advised novice actor Bob Dylan to appear natural. “Be yourself,” he helpfully suggested.
Dylan’s response: “Which one?”
Over 71 years, Bob Dylan has done an exceptional job of keeping us guessing what version of him might show up on any day. That might have been most obvious in a movie Dylan didn’t appear in, but which was loosely based on his life: Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.” The film used six characters — one played by Cate Blanchett, another by an African-American boy — to tell a rough biography of the singer. If it were 600 characters it still might not be enough.
No filmmaker or writer has managed to keep an audience guessing as much as Dylan. He’s presently on tour ostensibly promoting “Tempest,” his 35th studio album, and one of his best received in years. One might suspect that with a hit album out, particularly one filled with folk songs that should be riveting in a live setting, Dylan would heavily emphasize this material on his current tour.
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So far, Dylan has done the exact opposite. At the tour’s first date, he played only one song from the new album, and at the second date he played none. When he performs at KeyArena on Saturday though, all bets are off because if there’s one thing we know with certainly it is whoever Dylan was yesterday is not who he is today.
That constant state of artistic and personal transformation has never been more apparent than in Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on Dylan. In one of his widest-ranging interviews ever, he suggests he has been reborn, and that “transfiguration” — both artistic and physical — is a key element to his story. He also tells interviewer Mikal Gilmore that he might have come up with better questions. It is a humorous dynamic that seems to mimic the celebrated news conference in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back,” which first cemented Dylan’s personality on film.
At times the Rolling Stone interview reads like high performance art. Gilmore does have insightful questions, which Dylan bristles at. In particular, Gilmore pelts Dylan with inquiries on whether his recent songwriting style — in which he emphasizes Civil War legends, mythic storytelling and lyrics that sometimes have already been fractionally used in other songs — is derivative.
Uncharacteristically losing his cool, Dylan responds cursing his critics. “People have tried to stop me every inch of the way,” he says. “I’ll see them all in their graves.”
But perhaps the most controversial part of the interview is Dylan’s suggestion that the death of a Hells Angel who shared his birth name of Robert Zimmerman was actually the death of Dylan the singer. “It’s called transfiguration,” Dylan says. “It’s how I can do what I do and write the songs I sing, and just keep on moving.”
Dylan details the many parallels between his own motorcycle accident in 1966, which marked a retreat inward, and the motorcycle death of Hells Angel Bobby Zimmerman, which he mistakenly dates to 1964. (Rolling Stone hilariously points out that in his prophecy Dylan has wrongly dated his doppelgänger’s death, which actually occurred in 1961).
While some of this banter is obviously Dylan’s attempt to keep interviewers off guard, in a way he has undergone so many transformations in his musical career alone — from folk singer to electric prophet to born-again Christian — that calling it transfiguration isn’t much of a stretch.
While “Tempest” is less a sea change and more a progression on a continuum, it does prove Dylan can hit his top form in his senior years. But whether the sharp-tongued, fiery poet of the album’s 14-minute title track, about the sinking of the Titanic, shows up on Saturday at KeyArena is, of course, anyone’s guess.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Gilmore suggests that one of the benefits of being Bob Dylan is that his rabid fan base will applaud him before he sings a note. They really love Bob Dylan, every one of him.
“Of course,” Dylan replies, as if that was as given as his own transfiguration. “They think they do.
“They love the music and songs I play, not me.”