On Monday I went along to Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End to see a “Dead Poets Live” show, in which three actors – Toby Jones, Sheila Atim and Robert Sheehan – performed the songs of Bob Dylan. Without the music. The poetry of Bob Dylan. The tickets for the show were a retirement present from a friend, Annabelle, even though she doesn’t like Bob Dylan! Or didn’t. She might explore a few of the songs after what we saw on the night.
Dylan, of course, recently won the Nobel prize for literature, which many purists hated. I thought it was great, and well-deserved. And if you ever needed proof of the power and profundity of words, this was a night that provided it. This wasn’t an evening that concentrated on the obvious “protest” songs, or many of his well-known songs at all; but a range of songs that focused on relationships – lost loves mainly. Lost but not forgotten. A touching example of that was a song called “Most of the Time”, which came from the 1989 album “Oh Mercy”. It was hailed at the time as a return to form for Dylan. The album was produced by then in-demand producer Daniel Lanois, who specialised in echoey atmospherics and had worked extensively with U2, amongst others. Dylan describes the recording of the album in New Orleans in his autobiography “ Chronicles Volume 1”. The process was difficult, but the outcome was probably the best album since “Desire” in 1976. “Most of the Time” is a song about getting over someone – or maybe not. Toby Jones read this one beautifully, with a touch of sad humour. His phrasing was such that each most of the time stood on its own, a wistful reflection on the claims that went before that everything was fine, really.
Most of the songs/poems were read by one of the actors, but in a few they combined, which gave the pieces another dimension. One, “Brownsville Girl”, which I didn’t know, really came to life when Sheila Atim, sitting at the piano, sang the choruses. It’s a song from the 1986 album, “Knocked Out Loaded”, one of those which I studiously avoided at the time. When I got home I listened to the song – it’s very long and a bit too gospelly for my liking, but I can see the appeal. As a spoken word piece, with just the chorus in music, it worked really well.
Along with “Most of the Time” my highlights were the versions of “Visions of Johanna” from “Blonde on Blonde”, “Tangled up in Blue” from “Blood on the Tracks” and “Isis” from “Desire. The first two of those I founded incredibly poignant. They are songs I love, and stripped back to just the words, the poetic form, the sadness, the regret, was palpable. “Isis” is an epic story as it is sung – Dylan the storyteller at his best. As the spoken word, it was truly compelling.
There was a compere, James Lever Rowse. He introduced the pieces and explained their meaning afterwards. We didn’t really need that, as the meaning is wrapped up in our individual perceptions, but he did offer some interesting insights. And, assuming he had some hand in the curation of the show, then massive credit to him.
So is Bob Dylan a poet, or just a simple troubadour? He has often liked to claim the latter. But he is unquestionably both, and a lot more besides – spokesman for a generation, etc, etc. Tonight’s show was evidence of that.