Beat the Devil

Bob Dylan supports a remarkable album with an equally remarkable performance

There is a small, forgotten gem of a short story by Fritz Leiber, an industrial-era tall tale called "Gonna Roll the Bones." The hero, Joe Slattermill, is a broken-down ore miner with a born gift for precision throwing. One night when he feels the pressure inside him building to the blow point, Joe leaves his wife and mother behind in the house they share and wanders--as a gifted, broken-down man must always wander--over to the night side of his small mining town, to a casino called The Boneyard, where he meets a nameless gambler with a low hat and courtly speech. Throughout the dice game that serves as the story's central action, Joe slowly comes to understand that the big gambler in front of him is, of course, the Big Gambler, the man in spotless black whose final proposal to Joe is as ancient as the stars: Joe Slattermill, on my part I will venture all my winnings of tonight, and throw in the world and everything in it for a side bet. You will wager your life, and on the side your soul.

In the end it's not Joe's talent that saves him. It never is, in the most uniquely American folktales; when you roll with the Big Gambler the dice are always weighted, and talent alone wins you nothing. Only a quick combination of ingenuity and insane risk allows Joe to slip through his opponent's grasp. Following his razor-close escape, Joe stands exhilarated and shaken on the streets of the little town in which he was born. He considers his options, finally musing upon the cracked road beneath him: Then he turned and headed straight for home,writes Leiber, but he took the long way, around the world.

Leiber published that story in 1967, the same year Bob Dylan slipped out of the public eye at the beginning of what was to become a six-year hiatus from touring. Dylan left the road following his May 27, 1966, Royal Albert Hall performance, at the bloody bottom-end of a tour that had become a nightly cross between a public flogging and a mortar attack. The rare occasions on which he played live between 1967 and '73 were mostly brief, special-appearance showcases, like George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, or the Band's December 1971 residency at the New York Academy of Music. By the time he came back in 1974, everyone else had picked up on what he'd done; the boos gave way to praise.

We forget a lot of things over the years. Once upon a time, to see Dylan perform live was to see history being made, to hear a young man push the limits of what American music could do and say and accomplish. But it's impossible to perform forever at such a white-heat pace and remain whole; and despite his occasional extended flirtations with self-destruction, the one instinct Dylan always seemed to possess, in unlimited supply, was self-preservation.

Often he indulged that instinct at his audience's expense, and it frequently showed in how much of himself he seemed to be investing in his live performances. In recent years, the overall quality of Dylan's performance on any given tour has been so irregular that the terms of debate, perhaps without our realizing it, ossified into a series of rote questions: Is he engaged or indifferent? Articulate or incomprehensible? Are the arrangements recognizable, or does it take a few verses to identify each song? Is he playing older stuff, or is he holding the line at his most recent handful of albums? Over roughly the last decade and a half, assessing the latest Dylan tour in a handful of words became such a mannered pastime that even the most casual listeners felt confident joining in the trainspotting. Like I said, we forget.

But Love and Theft, released (as we will never be able to forget) on September 11, 2001, changed the vocabulary of the larger discussion. Over repeated listenings, Love and Theft reveals itself to be the album for which Dylan had been rehearsing ever since he'd stripped all his influences down to their very bones on 1992's Good As I Been to You. Appropriating, robbing, updating, unraveling and reweaving the entire history of 20th-century American music, the album's very title lays bare the two most dominant methods in Dylan's own artistry.

It's an auspicious record, to be sure. And for the first time in many years, Dylan's live show turns out to be not only strong support for its source album, but a stunning piece of art all by itself. The brilliance--there is simply no other, more appropriate word--of Dylan's Love and Theft touring show doesn't answer any hoary questions concerning Good Bob vs. Bad Bob. It negates those questions, cancels them out to zero, burns them down and blows them away like the ashes of the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966.

Where that show saw a very young Dylan spitting folk's snobbish elitism and rock's complacent triviality back into his audience's faces, the current tour finds the elder statesman calling up the ghosts of America's musical past and conversing with them--even, at times, embodying them--in the service of establishing our common tradition. And at no time in Dylan's career has it been more evident that his music is, emphatically, our music, as well.

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