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Taking it Furthur – Waking the Dead

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Taking it Furthur – Waking the Dead

CANNABIS CULTURE – The Grateful Dead has never really been a band as much as it’s been a culture that has to be experienced to be believed. The band’s latest incarnation, Furthur, continues the tradition and finds new ways to deconstruct and express their musical creativity.

Furthur concert poster. (Click to enlarge)Furthur concert poster. (Click to enlarge)Cuthbert Ampitheater, Eugene Oregon – September 24, 2011

“The way things were going, I never would have expected to be here at this moment. This is the overtime round, and every gathering like this is a blessing. And the way the band is playing, you can tell they know that and they’re making every note count”
– Delirious elder Deadhead between sets

Who’d have thought that forty-six years after playing their first gig together, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh would still care so much about their music? It would have been forgivable if after so much time, their live show had ground down to a well-rehearsed routine or nothing more than a workmanlike celebration of their greatest hits; there are plenty of classic rock acts on the road that give their audiences just that and still manage to send them home happy.

But, simple crowd-pleasing has never been the forte of anyone associated with the Grateful Dead. From the very beginning, they’ve asked more than that from their audience. Being a Deadhead has always been more of a back and forth two-way conversation between the artists and fans. It’s never been simply about consuming pre-digested entertainment that can be carelessly disposed of and forgotten as easily as a fast food wrapper. There’s always been lots of gristle to ruminate over and chew on as the music Bob Weir and Phil Lesh are conjuring these days continues to demand so much of the listener. In the public imagination, The Grateful Dead may always remain as little more than a psychedelic band – a throwback to the summer of love who lull their soft-headed fans with utopian ballads about peace and contentment. Fortunately, that’s only the tip of the iceberg as anyone who’s followed the music’s nearly fifty year history knows. Songs like ‘Trucking’, ‘Ripple’ and ‘Uncle John’s Band’ are classics of the hippie era and still figure prominently in Furthur’s repertoire, but if that’s all that Jerry Garcia and company contributed to the history of music, it wouldn’t account for the dedication and diversity of the crowds that continue to gather and follow the band as it selectively tours around North America.

A good show - Phil and Bob.A good show – Phil and Bob.By playing music that ranges from crass roadhouse boogie to covers of Marty Robbins country classics with generous doses of everything from techno to free jazz thrown into the mix, the Grateful Dead have always thrown a huge musical net. As risky and improbable as such a creative approach sounds, it’s paid off hugely over the years as their longevity certainly attests. When they’re on – as they were this last weekend in Eugene – it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that no one plays better than they do. To hear them navigate the elliptical twists and turns of “Estimated Prophet”, “Dark Star”, “Caution…” and “The Eleven” – some of the most challenging compositions in their repertoire – without flinching or hesitation should convince the most skeptical of music fans that the members of Furthur are at the absolute peak of their musical game. Furthur’s ferocious and eclectic approach to sound encourages the audience to listen – really listen – and engage with the hidden potential that rests inside of every song, no matter how many times they’ve heard them before.

Going to a Furthur show in 2011 might be more than a little overwhelming to the uninitiated because the Grateful Dead has never really been a band as much as it’s been a culture and an extended nomadic community of freaks and diverse individuals whose gatherings have a power and appeal that has to be experienced to be believed. A person parachuted into ground zero – the centre of the Furthur parking lot – during the band’s weekend stand in Eugene could be forgiven for wondering if they’d somehow been sent back in time to 1968 rather than the early fall of a year more than a decade into the new millennium. For to look around at the tie dyed buses, burrito kitchens, freak-out tents and spontaneous drum circles that were forming all over the property around the stadium, the atmosphere that was created felt more like Woodstock or a Rainbow gathering than anything one would expect to experience in contemporary America. Scantily clad young men and women wafted through the crowd holding huge kind buds, chocolate covered mushrooms and banners offering a variety of psychedelics and no one batted an eye. Baskets of hash brownies were passed through the throng of people gathering outside the gate. No one took more than their share. People who had taken too much of a substance were kindly escorted to a quiet place, supported by compassionate individuals who patiently talked them down. If there was another America somewhere outside of Eugene this weekend, it was a universe away and nobody here wanted to know about it.

It may have been many years since any of the members of the Grateful Dead took any acid themselves, but the imprinting of the thousands upon thousands of trips they took left its mark on them many years ago. No one anywhere – to this day – can create a more psychedelic soundscape and environment than the members of Furthur when they’re on a roll. It’s a power they came by early and honestly as in their most embryonic form, back when they were called ‘The Warlocks’, Jerry Garcia and company served as the house band for Ken Kesey’s acid tests. Those early gigs, that often stretched out to eight hours or more, essentially unhinged their conception of what a song had to be as the crude blues and Beatles covers that once formed their set took on extra dimensions and dissolved into huge exploratory jams that mirrored the stages of the psychedelic experience.

Acid and marijuana helped take down the gates imposed by the conformity of the fifties and the Grateful Dead – along with other Bay area outfits like Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service – were happy to provide the soundtrack to the burgeoning Haight Ashbury scene that was influencing youth culture throughout the western world as the Sixties went on. A decade later, the hippie scene had all but faded as the culture moved into ‘the me decade’ and other musical forms from ‘prog rock’ to disco expressed the values of a new generation.

Whatever changes were afoot during the ensuing decades didn’t seem to faze the Grateful Dead in the least. They continued to tour and record at a regular pace as they, somewhat bafflingly, continued to increase in popularity the further away the Sixties became. Their concerts were more like tribal gatherings or meetings of counter cultural survivors than rock concerts. The campsites and parking lots around a venue were like hippie retreats where a person could eat great vegetarian food, learn about sustainable agriculture, trade high quality pot seeds and score great acid. It’s a scene that was cherished by thousands upon thousands of musicians, political visionaries, spiritual advocates and eccentrics of all descriptions before the Grateful Dead suddenly retired their freak flags in the late summer of 1995 after the death of Jerry Garcia in August of that year. For many, ‘the long strange trip’ was over and real life loomed threateningly around the bend. But, again, you’d never have any inkling of that if you happened to drop right into the middle of the crazy throng of humanity that gathered to hear Furthur unleash the psychedelic beast lurking in the heart of their music in Eugene last September.

At this moment in time, Furthur are undeniably on fire musically, and their loyal and sometimes long-suffering fans couldn’t be happier. Several times during Furthur’s weekend run in Eugene, people in the audience threw up their arms, hugged friends and wept with joy as if the band’s triumphs and redemptions mirrored their own.

The moment Lesh and Weir are experiencing now is one to savor as it hasn’t always been an easy ride being a member of the Grateful Dead. Since Garcia’s death, it’s safe to say that there have been a lot of bumpy patches and the moments of pure crystalline musical joy have at times seemed few and far between. The muse that channeled such sweet, complex and riveting sounds throughout a September weekend in Eugene has often been conspicuously absent in recent years, though it’s not been for lack of trying.

Since Garcia’s death, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have continued to experiment with playing music in many permeations and formations of their former group. The whole ensemble – with a revolving set of keyboard and guitar players – have toured as ‘The Other Ones’ and ‘The Dead’ on several occasions, and while each tour has had its share of interesting musical moments, the magic that characterized the Grateful Dead for so many years has often been in short supply. It’s been said that Jerry Garcia was the glue that held the whole group together and that the transcendent musical conversations that morphed between songs during live sets were really conversations that each member was having with Garcia. His death created a huge emotional and musical void, so it’s not really surprising that it took years for the others to find new approaches and creative territory to explore with each other.

The Dead tour of 2003 shook things up by adding R and B singer Joan Osborne into the mix with some very interesting results, but many of the band’s older fans found the young singer’s wailing and rapping hard to take. For their 2004 tour, they ditched Osborne, having little to offer in her stead. Acrimony and accusations marred the tour and for several years it appeared that it was all over as Lesh and Weir toured constantly with their own groups (Phil Lesh and Friends and Ratdog respectively). Percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann intermittently played together as The Rhythm Devils while each cultivated their own groups, Planet Drum and The Trichomes as additional side projects. The surviving members convened again in 2009 for the Dead 09 tour which unfortunately – despite some great shows late in the tour – failed to create any new chemistry or memorable innovations when it came to interpreting The Grateful Dead’s old material. The Dead 09 tour ended inauspiciously as Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart took up with their own bands again to tour without indicating any desire to play together again.

Rumbles of change began to be heard later that year as the news leaked out that Lesh and Weir had had a pow wow and expressed a desire to play together again. Both were apparently discouraged by the ‘restrictive format’ imposed by touring under the banner of ‘The Dead.’ Hart and Kreutzmann were not invited to participate in the new venture as the ‘drums’ section of the show as well as the improvisational ‘space’ sequence were central to the predictability that Lesh and Weir wanted to sidestep.

Many in the Dead camp felt that the formation of Furthur was the last straw, the final coffin nail in what remained of the Sixties spirit and that their favourite musicians had finally lost the plot, plugging in their instruments to the twin amplifiers of greed and senility. Fans held their breath, a few gigs were played, and surprisingly the initial reports were good. By the time they swung through the northwest in the fall of 2010 for gigs in Oregon and Washington, the band was on fire. Focus and intensity had returned with a vengeance and skeptical listeners had to admit that the unmistakable Grateful Dead sound hadn’t been as robust and interesting in a long, long time.

By the fall of 2011, if the music they play during their three night stand in Eugene was any indication, Furthur sound even better than they did last year. Flashing back to the midway point of the first set of the second concert of their Oregon run, it was obvious to everyone that this was all about music and legacy and not about anything as trivial or transient as fame and lucre. To paraphrase an old Grateful Dead song, these days Weir and Lesh are not playing ‘for silver, but playing for life.’ The fans know it as they continue to be surprised by how Furthur’s band of grizzled veterans can find new ways to deconstruct and express songs and musical ideas they’ve toyed with, in some cases, for almost five decades.

The road can’t go on forever. Bob Weir appears healthy and consumed by creative fire, but he is in his late sixties and Phil Lesh tilted onto the septuagenarian scale a few years ago. But, for the time being, the Dead’s ‘overtime round’ in its latest incarnation is in full blossom. Furthur is charging forward at breakneck speed. There are plenty of twists and turns ahead. Time’s passing and there’s no better time than now to jump on the bus.

Essential Listening – A beginner’s guide to listening to the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead recorded several studio albums during their thirty year history, but if a person restricted their experience of the band’s music to listening to those records, they’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about. First and foremost, The Grateful Dead have always been a live band and it is their concert recordings that are most prized by their fans. In the old days, tapes were traded back and forth for free – without any money changing hands – but it can be difficult to track down music that way. For the curious, it’s never been easier to access high quality recordings of their music than it is today. To begin with, there are over 100 official Grateful Dead live shows for purchase to choose from. Check out the band’s official site at www.dead.netto start looking.

Here are some of my favourites:

Road Trips series is an inexpensive way to sample live shows from throughout the band’s career. Typically offers the best songs from a run of shows rather than complete shows (much to hardcore Deadhead’s dismay, but sometimes it’s nice to just hear the good stuff)

Dick’s Picks contains archival recordings of complete and near-complete shows. These warts-and-all sets are highly prized by collectors who want to hear the highs and lows of each show. Very reasonably priced and perhaps the best way to experience the whole spectrum of the Grateful Dead experience.

If you’re willing to splash out a little more money, there are several great box sets of complete runs of shows to choose from. My favourites are the bargain priced Winterland 1973 and Winterland 1977 box sets. Played to a hometown crowd, these nine-disc sets feature the band in all their ferocious, tender, psychedelic glory.

There are lots of Grateful Dead videos out there to watch, but for my money, the only one really worth buying is The Grateful Dead Movie. Filmed in 1974 and released in theatres two years later, it presents the Dead at the peak of their powers and offers lots of background into the band as well as great footage of Seventies Deadheads getting their freak on. If you really love watching straight up concert films (I personally find them quite boring) there are tons of vault releases of complete shows available on the Grateful Dead’s website.

Or, if you want to sample without buying, there are hundreds of Grateful Dead, Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Rhythm Devils shows that can be streamed for free online. Try Archive.org for a comprehensive list.

You can listen to the 9/24 Furthur show in Eugene (or the complete Eugene run and many more can be heard at Archive.org)

Happy Listening!

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How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird?

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HOW DID BOB DYLAN GET SO WEIRD?

Bob Dylan, 1964
Photo: © Daniel Kramer.

In August, a Bob Dylan album may well arrive in stores concrete and virtual. It may be called Shadows in the Night. It may have a song called “Full Moon & Empty Arms” on it; a stream of the tune was released without comment on his website a couple of months ago. Why Dylan chose to record a cover of an old Sinatra track isn’t clear; it may, or may not, be a clue that the purported album will consist of covers. Dylan has just finished shows in Japan, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia; will head next to Australia and New Zealand; and may or may not be preparing for a swing through the U.S. in the fall.

We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.

You have to start by disregarding the well-told narrative: The soi-disant vagabond’s rise through folk music to a place of utter domination at the highest level of literate, passionate, and difficult pop and rock music, all by 1966; a retreat and Gethsemane until 1974, when he came back, roaring and vengeful, more passionately focused than before, adding a remarkable personal dimension to his ’60s work. After that, depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity, culminating in the triumphs, late in life, of his five most recent albums.

For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him. First, you have to appreciate the many layers that make up his peculiar but unmistakable aesthetic. His work is grounded in acoustic folk-blues—­ballads, chants, and love stories, populated with mystical or just plain weird meanings and themes, rattling and farting around like tetched uncles in the attic of our American psyche. To this add the dread-filled dreamscapes—unexplainable, ­unnerving—of French Surrealism, and then, arrestingly, the punchy patois of the Beats, who originally intuited the substratum of social stresses that would whipcrack across the ’60s and into the ’70s. Then factor in personal songwriting, a strain of pop he basically invented, doled out first with obfuscations, payback, tall tales, and lies—some by design, some on general principle, some just to be an asshole—and then the signs, here and there (and then everywhere, the more you look), of autobiographical happenstance and deeply felt emotion.

And remember that some of his narratives are fractured. Time and focus shift; first person can become third; sometimes more than one story seems to be being told at the same time (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples). And then there’s plain sonic impact: Even his earliest important songs have a cerebral and reverberating authority in the recording, his voice sometimes filling the speakers, his primitive but blistering guitar work adding confrontation, ease, humor, anger, and contrariness, presenting all but the most unwilling listeners with moment after moment of incandescence.

And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks,which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I mightbe somewhere by now.”

He came to New York in early 1961, telling anyone who’d listen he’d ridden the rails, played with Buddy Holly, all sorts of nonsense. In reality, he was a fairly middle-class kid who’d hitchhiked, in winter, from the far north of Minnesota; in a way, this single act of propulsion toward reinvention by a 19-year-old is braver and more interesting than all his later tall tales of travel. He arrived in New York on the coldest day the city had seen in many years.

He was a prodigy, with a natural affinity for a medium that would, unexpectedly, afford a few people like him international acclaim and a permanent place in the cultural firmament, and lots of money too. His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career. He also had a first-class mind, quick (almost too quick) of wit and relaxed enough to let inspiration flow without forcing it, yet also wiry, retaining permanently the complex wording of many hundreds of tunes. He soaked up the songs and the lore of folk and blues, cobbling together a shtick—an Okie patois, a shambling affect, and a fixation with Woody Guthrie, the socialist troubadour of the ’30s and ’40s and the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who at the time was dying in a New Jersey hospital. It all served to disguise, at first, a mysterious charisma—with eyes, as Joan Baez remembered them later, “bluer than robin’s eggs”—and an apparent ambition that left a few damaged friendships, and egos, in its wake.

Baez, stentorian and humorless, recorded her first album in 1960 and was a star the next year. (She moved to Carmel and bought a Jaguar.) Dylan got an early rave in the New York Times, which led to his record contract. His second album contained several tracks that became standards. One, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was a strikingly imagistic portrait of a child returning from a journey to impart wisdom to an older generation. It’s the place where Dylan’s self-definition begins to merge with his songs. On his third and fourth albums, Dylan showed he was capable of increasing nuance. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the compellingly told true story of a barmaid carelessly killed by a moneyed young drunk, still able to make one’s blood boil, never mentions Carroll’s race.

At the same time, his mash-up of influences was creating deeper, subtler work, producing mysterious moments like the end of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The song, spare and lulling, is a dialogue between the singer and his lover, who’s going on a journey. The woman wants to bring the guy back a present; the guy keeps saying he wants nothing besides her return. She finally says she won’t be coming back for a while—at which point the guy asks for a gift: some “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” It’s not clear why the word Spanish is repeated. Maybe the guy’s heart was broken, or maybe the woman was right—he did just want something from her. But there’s a self-referential meaning to the song as well: Dylan’s own journey. Stars, after all, promise devotion to their fans and then disappear, leaving a simulacrum of their former selves that fans can never get something authentic from.

Beginning in 1965, in a 14-month rush, Dylan released three albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—each with two or three (very) major songs, three or four relatively minor (but still mind-blowing) efforts, and some doggerel and fun for leavening, all in a great spew of poetic verbiage. Dylan’s voice had deepened and matured; it rang with clarity, snickered with derision, led us compellingly, at its best hypnotically, through nightmares and fever dreams. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” introduced a modern, rock-and-roll Dylan, blasting off political aphorisms softened with absurdities—“Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters.” Lacerating new epics made his old epics seem trite. Take “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”; the title, and a potent Cold War reference in the first line, fixes our narrator seemingly as a wounded soldier, who then spends the rest of a very long song reflecting on the society he’s dying for. “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the second half of the decade in advance, a Scud missile of mockery directed at an entire pampered generation adrift. When Dylan howled the words “no direction home,” it was hard to tell if his tone was exultant or pained; it was a conundrum he and his audience have gnawed at ever since. In a telling example of how Dylan’s words can leapfrog meanings across decades, the song’s final silky lines—“You’re invisible now / You’ve got no secrets to conceal”—capture precisely the predicament of a new generation paradoxically rendered faceless by electronic connectivity and yet entirely without privacy.

Bob Dylan in Bratislava, Slovakia, 2010.

Dylan’s remarkable work from this period is sometimes trivialized by stories about how he freaked everyone out by “going electric.” In I’m Not There, his cubistic cinematic portrait of Dylan, Todd Haynes represents the moment with the singer and his band mowing the crowd down with machine guns. Please. There were some boos at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan and his electric band played there. But at least some of the reaction came from the high volume and poor sound quality of the performance, which was, after all, at a folk festival. Meanwhile, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first Top 40 hit, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” an unprecedented six minutes long, went to No. 2. Dylan’s move to electric is of course a key moment in his musical growth, and an interesting footnote in the history of 1960s American folk; but it was not a thumb in the eye of propriety. Everyone liked it!

Dylan is intensely private. More than almost any star I can think of, our understanding of his personal life is occluded and disjointed. His first wife was Sara Dylan, née Sara Lownds, née Shirley Noznisky. When they met, she was married to a guy in publishing in New York; early in their relationship, Dylan mentioned to an interviewer that he’d met a woman named Sara and that she was one of only two truly “holy people” he had ever met. (The other was Allen Ginsberg, though Ginsberg had never done a stint as a Playboy bunny.) “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is widely seen as a tribute to Sara; it has a title that suggests the name Lownds and other lyrical hints (“Your magazine husband / Who one day just had to go”) and is placed ostentatiously to fill up the entire final side of Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, some of which may be true, is at its most dyspeptic when the singer describes the hordes of hippies impinging on his and his family’s life by the mid-’60s. Using a motorcycle accident as an excuse, Dylan retreated in 1966 and began releasing country-flavored albums at long intervals to dampen his celebrity. In the meantime, he and Sara raised an eventual family of five in peace. The names and number of his children were widely misunderstood until the publication ofDown the Highway, a powerful, definitive biography by Howard Sounes, in 2001. (The children are Maria, from Sara’s first marriage; Jakob, whom you know from the Wallflowers; Jesse, a Hollywood and new-media guy, director of Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” Obama music video; Anna, an artist who stays out of sight; and Samuel, a photographer who keeps a low profile as well. This is not to mention his second, secret wife and at least one other acknowledged child, but that’s a tale for another time.)

Dylan emerged in the mid-’70s to tour with the Band, release two of his strongest albums (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), and embark on a nutty and hilarious gypsy-­caravan tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. His relationship with Sara was strained at this point, though she came along on the tour and even starred in his bizarre four-hour movie, Renaldo & Clara. But in the end, Dylan’s womanizing fueled what became a bitter divorce. His most plainly personal album is Blood on the Tracks, a lancing portrait of a romantic death spiral. (Jakob has said he gets no pleasure from listening to it: “When I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.”) Among (many) other things, Blood on the Tracks is an exercise in emotional intensity, from self-pity and anger to ruefulness. There are obvious references to his wife in the wrenching “Idiot Wind” and also at the beginning of “Tangled Up in Blue” (“She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced”). Blood on the Trackswas recorded in bizarre circumstances, first in New York and then more than half of it rerecorded in Minneapolis with a pickup band; yet its shuddering atmospherics and controlled, specific writing combined to make it the most organic and emotionally fulfilling work in Dylan’s canon.

The Rolling Thunder Revue saw the return of the lovely Baez; she sang “Diamonds & Rust,” her greatest song, a poison­-­pen love letter to Dylan, and did the frug behind Roger McGuinn during “Eight Miles High.” A decade on, in the ’80s, she and Dylan toured again, this time in Japan, with what was supposed to have been shared star billing. Baez inevitably became an opening act and eventually told the tour to fuck off, as she later told the story. Granted an exit audience with Dylan, she found him an aged version of the immature ragamuffin. He was tired but slipped his hand up her skirt for old times’ sake.

The next two decades were tough for him artistically; as Greil Marcus has put it, Dylan was essentially committing a “public disappearance.” Beginning in 1979, he tested his audience’s expectations and goodwill more tellingly than any punk by releasing three albums of unimaginative Christian-themed songs, along with two tours in which he plowed stolidly through this material. The problem was not Dylan’s beliefs, though they leaned to the crackpot; lots of acts had religious leanings—Van Morrison among them. It was how Dylan articulated those beliefs. To listen to the albums today is to enter a (not very) fun house of mediocrity and intolerance.

Dylan began to produce his own albums. He wasn’t dogmatic about it; he would once in a while bring in an outside ­producer—Mark Knopfler helped on ­Infidels, and Daniel Lanois superimposed a decent setting (and demanded a suite of coherent songs) for Oh Mercy. Other albums from the ’80s and ’90s were weirdly inconsistent in the quality of both the songs and the production values. Even weirder is the fact that Dylan was actually writing and recording some of his best work during this time. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, “Blind Willie McTell,” “Caribbean Wind,” “Foot of Pride,” “Series of Dreams” … Authoritative and undeniable, they were better than anything his contemporaries were then releasing. Unfortunately, they were also better than anything Dylan was releasing and only turned up later on compilations albums.

In 1997, Lanois returned for Time Out of Mind. The critics went nuts over this work and the four regular releases since. I think these albums are woefully overrated, but they have sold well, and with the critics behind them, too, I’m willing to acknowledge the disconnect may be mine. But deep down I know that it’s hard to find, over the past ten or 15 years, more than three or four songs you’d stick on a mix tape to try to convince someone of this singer-songwriter’s greatness. Too many of his recent songs start with a pleasant-enough (or, more often, serviceable) riff—which is then beaten into the ground by his backing band. My hunch is that Dylan, producing in the studio, nods in inscrutable approval when he hears something he likes. The band, nervous but eager to please, obliges and starts playing the damn riff continuously. There’s no outsider around to tweak it or vary it or add dynamics.

In the folk-blues tradition, older songs were reappropriated and built upon; in his later years, Dylan has played with this tradition and found himself in mini-controversies when researchers find that some words in his songs first appeared somewhere else. Amateur sleuths discovered that his album “Love and Theft” had a pattern of lines seemingly taken from a fairly obscure Japanese writer, Junichi Saga. More recently, some obsessives started looking at passages in Chronicles and found lines taken from an astonishing variety of places, from self-help books to The Great Gatsby. The pickings seem to be phrases bouncing around the ragged mind of a guy with a photographic memory. On the other hand, some of the inner workings are plainly mischievous, like an in-passing list of news stories; the headlines were all from a mocking take on the press in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.

To tweak the purists again, he’ll once in a while appear in a TV commercial—­distracting from the subtle attention he pays to how posterity will see his work. He goes out of his away to appear on awards shows when they beckon; he’s shown his artwork and sells it online; his memoir, while odd, was nonetheless transfixing and reminded us that he was once a young man groping for a future and placing his bets on a very long shot indeed. The Dylan camp is readying an extraordinary digital archive of his songs, recordings, and paraphernalia. Dylan owns a coffeehouse, it’s said, in Santa Monica; unprepossessing and iconoclastic, it has an extremely friendly staff and no Wi-Fi. There’s not much on the walls, but you notice the references contained in what’s there: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Leonardo da Vinci. There’s one big oil painting behind the counter, one that looks a lot like Dylan’s own work, silent and content in the company it keeps.

And then there’s the touring. In Chronicles, Dylan details, with seeming frankness, the aimlessness that brought him to a slough of despond at the end of the ’80s. He may have been facing what all rock stars who survive face, which is how to grow old gracefully in a medium cruelly tied to youthfulness. He resolved to get out and play his songs—and went back on the road in 1988 with a small, seldom-changing backing ensemble, with whom he delved into his back pages, including many songs he’d never played live before.

Here’s the odd thing—26 years on, he hasn’t stopped. He’s been playing about 100 shows annually ever since, growling through a set of songs old and new with a small band. It’s an endeavor that for a good chunk of each year keeps him on a private bus and, in the U.S. at least, in relatively crummy hotel and motel rooms. (He’s said to prefer places that have windows that open and allow him to sleep with his pet mastiffs. Beyond that, they are places fans wouldn’t expect to find him.) The shows at first may have been a tonic, but over time they revealed themselves to be a panacea. It must have struck Dylan: How could he look foolish if he just kept doing the same thing? If he were an artist, he would continue to create and show his art publicly. If he were a celebrity, he would appear in public. And if he were a seer, a prophet, or even a god, well, he would let folks pay and see for themselves how mortal such figures actually were. And far from saturating the market, he has created a new industry for himself as a touring artist. On a good night he makes some of his best-known songs unrecognizable, and on a bad one you come out wondering what it was, exactly, you’ve just seen. So far this year, the 73-year-old has played in Japan (17 shows), Hawaii (two), Ireland, Turkey, and nearly 20 other cities in the hinterlands of Europe; he’s headed now to more than a dozen shows in eight different cities in Australia and New Zealand—and this is before what should be a fall run through the States. Robert Shelton, the New York Times writer who first noticed Dylan, labored on a biography for more than 20 years; seeing the star’s unstable arc on its publication in 1986, he titled it, grandly, No Direction Home. Dylan hadn’t even begun not to go home.

 It strikes me that the one thing all of these bizarre behaviors have in common is that they tend to strip away everything that stands between Bob Dylan’s art and his audience but simultaneously occlude everything else. There was a subtle shift in emphasis in one of his most powerful images, and perhaps a hint of resignation, in the song “Not Dark Yet,” in 1997:

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will

I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still

Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb

I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from

Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from. The exultant cry of “no direction home” derived its power from the fact that, in the end, any place new was better than where we’d come from. In that context, not remembering what you left originally is a remarkable statement of anomie.

Still, we might have focused over the years too much on the word direction, as in “heading toward.”

Maybe “no direction home” means that there’s no guidance home, that you have to figure it out for yourself.

If Bob Dylan is a question, maybe this is the answer. Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be. Even his remoteness is a by-product; it’s what he deserves after having given his all. Call the work art, call it crap, call it Spanish boots of Spanish leather, but in the end it’s the creation of an artist who defies us to ask for something more.

*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.