Bob Dylan and Paul Simon: A mismatch made in heaven?
(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., July 15, 1999) -- The announcement that Bob Dylan and Paul Simon would be teaming up for a barnstorming concert tour of the U.S. this summer - which brings the '60s icons to Albany's Pepsi Arena this coming Tuesday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m. - initially raised more questions than it answered. Among these questions were why, why now, and its corollary, why not before now?
Dylan watchers in particular were initially left scratching their heads in befuddlement, especially over reports that in addition to their own, separate sets, the two would team up for a medley of duets at each concert. How would Bob Dylan, the restless iconoclast who changes his arrangements and set list every night, get along with Paul Simon, the legendary control freak who needs to have every note in the "right" place? How would Dylan's rootsy music, played by a small, versatile rock 'n' roll combo, blend with Simon's polished gems arranged for a 12-piece pop orchestra?
And just what was in it for Bob, who is enjoying his greatest creative and commercial resurgence since perhaps the mid-'70s -- in sharp contrast to Paul, who hasn't toured in nearly a decade and whose only project during that time, "The Capeman," the Broadway musical and cast album, was a commercial and critical flop?
Sure, there are the superficial resemblances between the two singer-songwriters. Both rose to stardom as avatars of 1960s counterculture and as genuine, folk-rock poets who invested popular music with theretofore unknown heights of literacy. Both wrote songs of cultural and political protest. Both had landmark recordings produced by producers Bob Johnston and Tom Wilson, the latter who in each case is rumored to have added an electric backbeat to their wordy folk melodies without their prior approval (but with their subsequent assent). Both even went on to direct self-indulgent, feature-length films about characters based on themselves (Dylan's "Renaldo and Clara," Simon's "One-Trick Pony").
Clearly, putting them both on the same concert bill might attract potential concertgoers who haven't touched base with either of them - or with their own formerly rebellious selves - in years. Presumably these older, more established fans might also be more willing and able to spring for some of the tour's more exorbitant ticket prices, which range up to $125 at some venues. (Tickets for the Pepsi Arena show, which were still available earlier this week, are modest in comparison, ranging from $35 to $50.) Still, Dylan and Simon are an odd pair. In fact, until this recent rapprochement, there was little concrete evidence that the two even liked each other. The recorded evidence was at best ambiguous or at worst suggested a seething rivalry. Simon's "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission)" was widely regarded as a spiteful parody of Dylan, notable for the tossed-off comment, "Where's my harmonica, Albert?" -- a sly allusion to Dylan's manager at the time, Albert Grossman. Some believe that Dylan returned the "favor" by recording a version of Simon's "The Boxer" (a song which is thought by some to be a cleverly disguised narrative about Dylan), in which he sang both melody and harmony parts as sort of a one-man Simon and Garfunkel. Dylan has been known, however, to cover other Simon songs in concert or rehearsals, including "Homeward Bound" and "Boy in the Bubble."
It has widely been assumed that Simon - no slouch of a songwriter himself -- resents the deification of Dylan by fans and critics alike, while on the other hand Dylan can't be too pleased that for all the reverence he has inspired, Simon's record sales - including the string of Top 10 hits he enjoyed with his partner, Art Garfunkel, in the '60s, and as a solo artist in the '70s - dwarf his own.
The differences between the two go beyond mere public perception. Their styles and approaches could not be more opposite. Simon's meticulous approach to recording and performing stand in stark contrast to Dylan's seat-of-the-pants approach. Where Simon labors for months or years in the recording studio, Dylan seemingly can't get out of one fast enough -- much to the dismay of many of his fans. Where Dylan takes his strongest musical cues from America's most deeply-rooted populist musics - the blues, country, gospel, folk - Simon's palette is at once more diverse and more commercial, including world music (he recorded "El Condor Pasa" in 1970), show music, doo wop and classic pop.
To many, the most telling fact about this odd couple is that up to this point their paths have never crossed, at least not publicly. Simon, for example, was notably absent from the star-studded "BobFest," the 30th anniversary tribute to Dylan that otherwise packed the bill with rock 'n' roll royalty including members of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. All of this, of course, is merely to provide some context in which Dylan and Simon have decided to forgo whatever slights or animus may have existed between them in the past and to venture out together on the road, as the Simon song goes, "to look for America."
Still, the question remains why? Why at this late date, when Dylan's star is rising the highest it has been in nearly 25 years, has he chosen to embrace Simon and share with him his own hard-earned moment in the spotlight? Perhaps a closer look at Dylan's own modus operandi might reveal another aspect of him, one that might explain the impetus behind such a move. What might be necessary is to temporarily dispense with the idea of Dylan as lone ranger, as the world-weary road warrior going in his own way, leading his own charge from his isolated perch on high as "Bob Dylan." In fact, there is another aspect to Dylan. From the very beginning of his career, Dylan has bounced back and forth between the lone prophet and the community organizer. While this has never resulted in the level of collaboration that Simon enjoyed (or didn't, as the case may be) with Art Garfunkel, there is plenty of precedent that suggests Dylan finds it artistically invigorating - or least fun -- to share the road and the spotlight with other artists. In fact, the list of artists that Dylan has brought into his performing sphere over the years reads like a shadow history of folk and rock music.
This dynamic began most obviously in Greenwich Village, when as part of a greater folk community Dylan shared stages and songs with people like Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Dave van Ronk. Later, he would go on to a more fully-rounded collaboration with members of The Band, which including touring, recording and even writing songs together.
But over the years, Dylan has also enjoyed creative collaborations with a host of other musicians, including Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Emmylou Harris, Patti Smith, Keith Richards and Ron Wood, Carlos Santana, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn and the Grateful Dead, as well as playwrights Sam Shepard and Jacques Levy, poet Allen Ginsberg and filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. The Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975-1976 was one, huge revolving stage featuring many performers from Dylan's Greenwich Village days as well as others, including Mick Ronson and T-Bone Burnett. In the late-'80s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys was a conscious attempt at establishing communal creativity among old pals Petty and Harrison and new ones including Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
In more recent years, Dylan has shared stages with contemporaries like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello, while championing younger artists such as Jewel, Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, BR5-49 and Natalie Merchant. Heck, he even co-wrote a song with Michael Bolton a few years ago.
Clearly, the picture we have of Bob Dylan as a reclusive, anti-social crank needs to be re-thought. While it's debatable how much influence any or all of these collaborations has had on Dylan's style, which at this point seems etched in granite, it's clear that Dylan does not see himself as operating in any kind of vacuum.
Which brings us back to his current round of concerts with Paul Simon. The two alternate top-billing each night, with their duet taking place at the end of the first set. Thus, if Simon opens the show, Dylan comes out during Simon's encore and they sing with backup from Simon's band. Conversely, when Dylan opens the show, Simon joins in during Dylan's encore. So far, Dylan and Simon have duetted on Simon's "Sound of Silence," Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Forever Young," Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," and a medley of '50s rock hits including Dion's "The Wanderer" and Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day." Simon's set typically includes ample selections from his late-career hit albums, "Graceland" and "Rhythm of the Saints," plus a smattering of classic Simon and Garfunkel hits and solo Simon hits from the 1970s. Dylan's sets have consisted mostly of his best-known songs from the 1960s, a smattering of songs from his Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" album, and a few folk standards. For the first time in several years, however, he has shaken up his band and the pacing of his program. His concerts now open with an extended acoustic set followed by a shorter electric set. Long-time pedal-steel guitarist Bucky Baxter is gone from the ensemble. Lead guitarist Larry Campbell has assumed some of Baxter's multi-instrumental duties on fiddle and bouzouki, and rhythm guitarist Charlie Sexton has been added to the lineup, with long-time bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper still providing the bottom.
Ultimately, the answer to why Dylan and Simon? - why now, why at all? - is not to be found blowin' in the wind, but emanating from the stage, in whatever magic the two unique voices of their generation can conjure, alone and together, in whatever harmony or dissonance they convey.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 16, 1999. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1999. All rights reserved.]
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