They’re giving out flyers outside of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. They are a communion, they say.
“A communion of what?” a passerby asks.
“Of Bob Dylan.”
Inside, an elderly woman is talking to another. She claims to have seen him seventy-seven times. “I have seen him a hundred and nine times,” the other boasts. Two middle-aged men close by are disagreeing about his best musical era. “I saw him with The Band in ‘74” the man adds, stroking his crooked white beard. The other man slants his eyes with a look of concern and bites his lip. “This may not be a very good show,” he mutters cautiously. They nod, and upset, they both begin to shake their heads.
The flyers are still being dispersed outside. It’s a newspaper actually. A marvelous black-and-white portrait of him takes up its entire front page. There are snapshots of the man’s half-century-long career on every other, all in beautiful black-and-white – almost ageless and immaculate. “We’re a communion,” they say again as they continue to hand out their paper. “A communion of Bob Dylan,” they confirm once more, without making clear which Dylan it is that they adhere to.
There never has been just one Bob Dylan after all. There have been many: the somber young prophet of the folk revival; the haughty electric rebel of the mid-1960s; the resplendent carny of the Rolling Thunder Revue; the converted gospel-crooning emissary of a newfound God; as well as the wizened agent of malice and mortality of the late 1990s. What distinguishes Bob Dylan’s different personas from, say, David Bowie’s, however, is that while Bowie would famously refashion himself with costumes and make-up and with distinctive musical arrangements, Bob Dylan would simply change skin. And he continues to do so as his Never Ending Tour unwaveringly carries on and as mortality leads this mystical creature to the murky waters of old age and introspection.
Dylan is among the last of his kind, and yet he refuses to yield to the remnants of bygone days and bygone eras. In fact, he’s never had any, because when the Bob Dylan of today sings the enchanting Visions of Johanna or Like a Rolling Stone, he is not performing something that is his own. He is covering the song of a different artist from a different time, because this isn’t Dylan’s music, even though it bears his name. This is music that his past personas proffered to different generations in different times for different generations, including those that were to accommodate the future incarnations of the man himself. When the Dylan of today materializes on stage, discreetly sitting and striking at his piano with an odd and beautiful compulsion, it is immediately evident that this man is in no way associated with the curly-haired beatnik of the 1960s or the vaudevillian white-faced emcee of the 1970s. He’s a bluesman now. He’s a minstrel.
The compact stage with its overhanging dark green curtains and its closely-packed performers seem to evoke a minstrel setting as well, and every song the band tears through seem as if they are adjoined together. They all seem related in one way or another as if they are all a parallel progression of the same song and the same sound and the same era; and the era that Dylan is channeling is an era that never did age like the others. It’s the blues, and it is a space for reinterpretation (Visions of Johanna), for celebration (Early Roman Kings), and even for spite (Ballad of a Thin Man).
These are all the defining attributes of minstrelsy, and fittingly, the show is also peppered with wonderful moments of deliberate farce and tawdriness. Off stage, in the empty hallways, Dylan’s merchandise booths offer silver badges with the words “Deputy of Bob Dylan,” etched onto them, while his own herdsman-like attire on stage seamlessly complies with this marvelous form of kitsch as well. So does his whole on-stage demeanor, as he tiptoes with a peculiar sway when removed from his piano while crooning jovially and wistfully and sardonically into his microphone.
When he speaks to introduce the first-rate group of musicians accompanying him, he speaks with a twang, but it is not a very recognizable twang, and that is the point: This new persona of Dylan’s doesn’t exist in reality. He isn’t from Greenwich Village or Woodstock or Duluth, Minnesota. He is simply a rambling twenty-first-century minstrel, detached from time, and in possession of his greatest instrument: a ruined larynx that heaves wisdom and persistence. It all works in his favor, adding to the spectacle, and to the new guise of a man who shows no hint of having a fixed identity.
The element of kitsch and the minstrelsy that permeates throughout the show is both a statement and a gift. It is the purposeful refusal of the show to be conceited in a time where everything has become so solemn and so humorless. It also offers its audience an escape from reality and from time and territory. This carnival exists nowhere else but wherever Dylan is at a specific point in time. It functions like a non-permanent otherworldly crossroads. Music is played here, songs are sung here, and this whole realm is unaffected by the passage of time. But it can also dematerialize at any given moment, hauntingly akin to the mortality of its enigmatic ringmaster, this modern mythmaker who carries on his own myth by continuing this construction of personas and semblances and veneers.
Dylan’s identity, like his music, is fated to be tinkered with and reinterpreted, and he has donned too many of them to be deemed as anything but a phantom. He sings, in his old age, of worlds and of legends that have existed and will continue to for many long years, and uniquely so, he himself is among these very legends. He is a modern myth, just as he is a mythmaker, just as he is a human being, but he is still shrouded in the unknown, as a man who both exists and doesn’t, because there never really was a fixed persona to associate him with. Like Robert Johnson who sold his soul for the blues, Robert Zimmerman seems to have sold his identity in exchange for Bob Dylan: a strange and deathless figure whose mortality is overshadowed by the stories he’s told and the legacy that he continues to create. It’s almost as if Robert Zimmerman never existed. Bob Dylan, however, does, and he will continue to, with or without Zimmerman.