Of all our family members, it is really only Uncle Bob who regularly comes to visit. He visited us when we lived in Shanghai, in north London and now in Lund. Yes, he was in Lund last night, our little medieval university town in southern Sweden. I brought Diane and two daughters. Blood is thicker than water.
Bob has once again reinvented himself. “Why change me now?” he asks in a borrowed Sinatra lyric, but it is not us trying to change him as much as he continuously changing himself. At the age of 75 that’s pretty remarkable. Those who are not busy being born are a-busy dying. And Bob Dylan is not dying.
He has, however, gotten quite a bit older since we saw him in Helsingborg three years ago. He moves more slowly on stage. He dances — yes, dances — but it’s all a bit awkward. And he has to leave the keyboard and stand in the middle of the stage with his legs wide apart in order to be able to belt out the jazz standards which now feature as a regular part of his repertoire.
The jazz standards are not bad. Dylan’s raspy voice works well in combination with the silky smooth arrangements. And yet, I can’t help thinking that he is doing karaoke. Dylan karaoke is better than most kinds of karaoke, and I respect him deeply for doing what he wants to do, but it does sound to me like a hobby project rather than something to take with him around the world.
The real reinvention, however, concerns his transformation from a blues and rock ‘n roll artist into a sort of vaudeville performer. He and the band are playing circus music, in a Sergeant Pepper vein, or in the style of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. You fully expect acrobats, jugglers and bearded ladies to come on stage. Yet it is not festive as much as grimy — “After Midnight” — grim — “Paying in Blood” — and sad — “Long and Wasted Years.” The furrows in the face of the clown have grown deep, the make-up of the septuagenarian prostitute is running. It’s a remarkable world into which Bob inserts the songs from his 1960s song-book as well as the new Sinatra classics. Yes, they all fit, and thanks to the tight accompaniment of the band and the imaginative arrangements of the songs it’s always interesting.
But how good is it? I like my blues rock and the Dylan who stopped by here in Sweden only a few years ago was a first-rate blues and rock man. I liked his harmonica playing, for one thing, but there was no harmonica in sight last night and he made no pretense at playing guitar. The clothes are the same as before — that riverboat gambler outfit — but the band members should really be wearing jester’s costumes. I must confess, the vaudeville musician Bob Dylan is all in all less interesting to me than the bluesman, but OMG, he remains endlessly creative, enigmatic and remarkable. We are lucky that he still comes to visit. Come back soon uncle Bob, we already miss you.
I’ve gone into an external exile. I don’t follow the news anymore, don’t read things on-line and I don’t watch TV. It was Trump and Brexit that did it. I guess I’m in denial. I just don’t want to hear about any of it, I don’t want to follow the ins and outs of what someone said; who was appointed to what job; what some report is saying. Even the very intelligently argued and perfectly convincing critique is like poison. Even the jokes are concessions. I don’t want any of this in my head. This is no longer my world.
I’m reminded of the way some scholars and artists survived in Germany during the Nazis or in China during the Cultural Revolution. Disgusted with the turn events had taken, yet utterly powerless, they decided that the best thing they could do under the circumstances was to focus on maintaining their humanity. When the world is going crazy, maintaining your humanity is the ultimate act of defiance. There were for example these Chinese artists who took to the forest, far away from the Red Guards. To mimic the official art was of course unthinkable, but so was lampooning it. Instead they spent their time painting beautiful things, landscapes, city streets and flowers. See above.
This is of course not good for me professionally. I teach political science at a university after all; I’m supposed to know what’s in the news. The time has already come when my students refer to things I know nothing about. What did I make of Trump’s inauguration? “What inauguration?”
Basically I feel like it’s 1913 all over again. There is a hard rain a-gonna fall. Btw, the works of some of those Chinese artists was recently exhibited at the Asia Society in Hong Kong — “Light before Dawn.”
These web pages have existed in various incarnations for some 15 years. During the last two years, however, they have been down more than up. I switched from WordPress to Joomla and it first it was a great choice. Joomla is powerful and I could do a lot of things that weren’t possible on WordPress. But increasingly Joomla became vulnerable to attacks by spammers and in the end it was too time consuming to defend the site. I just took it down. This past Christmas, however, I’ve moved all the material back to WordPress again. Coming back has been great. WordPress is in wonderful shape with lots of excellent features. And most important of all: it seems very secure against spammers.
I will not be blogging like I did in the heady days of 2006, but the pages are indispensable for the various projects I’m working on — I use them to collect primary sources, gather links, and develop textbook chapters. There is, and there will continue to be, a lot to read. Enjoy!
We went to see Uncle Bob last night — Bob Dylan was playing in Helsingborg which is only one town over from Lund where we live. I see Uncle Bob more often than most other members of my family, mainly since he comes to visit more often. I saw him in Shanghai two years ago, and in England a couple of times before that. The really crazy time was when he played in Finsbury Park in London, literally in our own backyard. Since Bob is stopping by we simply have to show up and say hi. We rented a car and drove to Sofiero, a royal palace and garden, with Helsingor, of Hamlet fame, on the other side of the water. The sky was dark and ominous-looking but it wasn’t cold and it only drizzled a bit in the end. A large crowd had turned up. Well over 7,000 people.
The stage was simple, with none of the light-show of an indoor arena, and suddenly Bob and the band were just standing there. No introduction, no symphonic overture. We found a place a bit off to the side of the stage, but really pretty close. Bob came on at 10 and by that time it was getting dark and quite intimate despite the outdoor setting.
No, I’m not the kind of Dylan fan who always loves everything he does. Some concerts — like the one in Bournemouth in 2006 — can be terrible, and beforehand I’m always apprehensive about how the evening will turn out. I so want it to be great, and it isn’t always. The opening number, “Things Have Changed,” gave me a sinking feeling. That cowboy beat takes all the power out of the song, and besides the band didn’t sync it right. Bob got the stresses wrong and it sounded off. Happily, things improved after that and very rapidly too. “She Belongs to Me” worked well and with “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” the band had definitely found its groove.
Very unexpectedly and slightly bizarrely, the evening turned into a jazz club event of sorts. The sound level was actually turned down quite low and the sound, from where we were standing, was crystal clear. You could hear every instrument very distinctly, neatly separated. Bob played the piano throughout, and it was very high in the mix. He sounded like a lounge lizard crooning his songs, despite the fact that he plays the piano mainly as a percussion instrument. And he sang really well. Better than in decades. He’s got to stop improving like this or he’ll turn into Frank Sinatra before long.
I got to hear “Workingman’s Blues,” and “Spirit on the Water,” but I must confess that I didn’t recognize the waltzy “Waiting for You.” I realize that this identifies me as a normal Dylan fan, not as a freak. I like his music, I like him, but I have a life.
I thought he botched “Love Sick” a bit. It sounded hurried. The song must be hard to do at an outdoor concert when there are a lot of different things going on. It must be difficult to build up the evocative atmosphere required. Or perhaps the band just needed to have a pee — it was the last song before the intermission.
After the break we got four songs from Tempest, and two from other recent albums, in excellent renditions. Bob may have lost the incredible power and energy of his younger days, but he has found other things — irony and tenderness and compassion. “Forgetful Heart,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” both give a very jaded view of middle age. But man, has he got things to tell us about ourselves? He sings the admittedly sometimes rather inane lyrics as though they conveyed eternal truths, and we listen attentively because we know he is right. He is right.
It doesn’t apply to all of the audience by any means, but the people around us seemed mainly to have showed up to gawk at a celebrity and to sing along with well-known tunes. When they had gawked enough and the well-known tunes didn’t come, they turned to their phones. They should have stayed at home. The reviews in the local papers complained: 1) that Bob doesn’t sing well; 2) that he rearranges his tunes so that we cannot recognize them; 3) that he doesn’t do his greatest hits. One of the local journalists even suggested he should wind up his Never Ending Tour. Oh well, what else is new? “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar!”
The thing is: a Dylan concert is about here and now and it has nothing to do with nostalgia and “old hits.” He’s got absolutely nothing to prove, and yet he insists on his right to do it at every concert.
Fans complain about “Watchtower” as an encore, but I think it really, really works. True enough, it too lacks energy, but at the same time it seems Bob finally has reclaimed it from Jimi Hendrix. He is singing it much more the way he did on the original recording. It’s mysterious and medieval. And here too there is compassion and tenderness.
After the concert I had this terrible the-circus-is-leaving-town feeling that I always get after a Dylan concert. The next day we suppressed an urge to drive the 250 kilometers to Gothenburg and see him once more. Seeing more concerts provides no cure. Dylan comes into our lives, to remind us of our better selves, of how creative and exceptional life can be, and then he is gone again. The only consolation is that he’ll be back again next year. We’ll be there too. Thanks Uncle Bob for stopping by. We love you.
The head of the Yale political science department just sent around an email saying that Robert Dahl has died. He was 98. Dahl was the leading political scientists in the US, and arguably the world, for some 50 years. He made a name for himself in the 1950s by advocating a pluralist interpretation of politics. It is indeed the case, he concluded, that we are ruled by elites, but there is not only one elite group but many, they are powerful within slightly different areas, and they take turns having an influence on political outcomes. Dahl called this system of rule “polyarchy” to distinguish it from the ideal-type of a democracy. His interpretation became enormously influential first of all since there was much empirical evidence for it, but also since it saved West’s image of itself. People in Western countries don’t want to think they are run by elites. We like to think that we live in democracies. Dahl forced us to acknowledge that elites indeed rule us, but he made us feel good again by concluding that there is competition among elites.
I just missed Dahl at Yale. He had finally retired a few year before I got there, and I never got a chance to take classes with him. Still he was very much onsite, regularly showing up in his old office and coming to various seminars and events. “I wrote a book about local politics in New Haven,” he once said in a seminar, referring to Who Governs?. and it suddenly struck me that this was the author of the most famous polisci book of the post-war era. In fact, when I worked for Bruce Russett, managing a journal he was editing, Dahl’s office was right next door. He used to come in and ask me questions about his computer. I tried to help him. Once I ran into him on York Street and he said “Hi Erik.” I returned a “Hi Bob!” — and I felt really, really cool.
Dahl got his PhD in 1940. His thinking was very much colored by the Depression and by the hardships of American workers. He was one of the very last representatives of American radicalism. Of course, we still have Charles Lindblom. He is only 97.
Today, June 6, is Sweden’s “national day.” Our 4th of July, our 14 juillet. This is the first year I’ve been in Sweden on the national day. When I last lived here — in 1994 — there was no such thing. Only something called “the day of the Swedish flag,” which everyone ignored, and it wasn’t a national holiday either. They started this national day business in my absence, and I strongly object!
I used to be proud of my country and above all I was very proud to belong to a country that didn’t have a “national day.” A country that didn’t hoist its flag and beat itself on the chest and call itself better than other countries and draw distinctions between Swedes and immigrants. Whatever still is great about this country is immesurably cheapened by this nationalistic nonsense. Besides, as Diane points out, national days are the days when the nation celebrates its liberation from foreign oppression (July 4) or from a nasty monarchy (July 14), but Sweden was never occupied by foreigners and we still have a monarchy. There is consequently nothing for the nation to celebrate.
I will never go along with this stupidity. June 6th next year I’m spending in Denmark.