ON THE RECORD BOB DYLAN - Bob Dylan at Budokan (Columbia PC2-36067)
Even at his artistic peaks, there is something disturbingly theatrical, almost expedient about Bob Dylan. He has both restless creativity and a sure sense of the commercial, as well as the willingness to exploit both. The fact that his creations, once complete, have their own vitality and relevance has often obscurred the nagging fact that most were written when their time had come - certainly when the audience had come.
Moreover, in the '60s, when we were looking for preachers and prophets to lead us into the Sinai of social unrest, Dylan's hoarse exhortations had the ring of authority. The long, repetitious verses were mesmerizing; their mysticism and metaphors were the parables of the Woodstock generation.
But the '60s breed of intellectual wanderers in the wilderness is no longer the audience Dylan seeks. The new children of Dylan want their music loud and their mysticism muted, and he has bent his obliging aesthetics to the blowing of the commercial wind.
"Bob Dylan at Budokan" is the authoriized American version of a three-record import set that began circulating late last year. CBS, remembering the demand for Cheap Trick that the relative inaccessibility of the Budokan album had produced, sat on its hands for several months while anticipation mounted.
This more-or-less-live recording is taken from the same tour that came through the Capital Centre last October, sometimes known as the "Disco Dylan" tour. It's slightly less obnoxious than the live show was - possibly because you can't see Dylan in his studded Presley leather and eyeliner, backed by the Supremes-style heavenly chorus - but precisely for that reason, it's less interesting. It's boring where the concert was revolting.
And his voice, whose very mediocrity we treasured because we saw in it a proof of authenticity, is a stunning handicap here. At various points he sings cute, and occasionally sugary, and it grates on the nerves like a fourth-grade talent show. He has the season's "in" instrument along - the saxophone - but since his writing has neither Springsteen's intoxicated desperation nor Joel's up-yours brashness, the sex seems clumsy and trendy. In fact, the whole album is terrifyingly trendy.
Actually, by the time Dylan had arrived in Tokyo, he had learned a few things about his "new" arrangements. The super-reverential gospelizing that smothered "Blowing in the Wind" has been toned down; the strident, almost metal-rock "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" has been strengthened into a wail of hopeless desperation.
But the disasters are far more numerous. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" has been saddled with a bubble-gum reggae rhythm that renders it mindless. This same reggae staggers through "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," although it's marginally successful with that laconic lyric.
"I Want You" has all the self-conscious twitter of a Shirley Temple sunshine song. "Shelter from the Storm" has absolutely no variation in melody for all its dozen verses of four lines each. "I Shall Be Released" has gained a Jr. Walker lick, a one-two-three-four-pause-pause line before the chorus ending. "All I Really Want To Do" has a new chord progression that sounds irresistibly like "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)". "Ballad of a Thin Man" comes close to working, except that the Begas-style background vocals distract so. And most saddening, "Like a Rolling Stone," which cries out for a dramatic performance, has no emotion whatsoever.
Of course these are Dylan's own compositions, and nobody ever said that he should be condemned to repeating them, Sisyphuslike, year after year, world without end. If Dylan can hear his own songs more than one way, more power to him.
But his songs, like anyone else's he might choose to interpret, have their own integrity, and he has not respected it. There is nothing but commercial greed and artistic contempt in this album.
The album includes a psychedelically colored poster of Dylan, even more trendy, and lyrics to the songs, even the verses he doesn't sing, which is a benefit. CAPTION: Picture, By Kerry Waghorn.