Thursday, August 18, 2005

On 24th May 2001, there was a concert organised in Mumbai to commemorate Bob Dylan's 60th birthday. This is a report on the event for Tehelka.

Things haven’t changed
The “Thank You Bob” Concert in Mumbai might just have begun something significant in the Indian pop/rock scene

May 24th was Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday. Very uncharacteristically, it became a big deal in Mumbai. A tribute concert was organized, for which, besides the genuine Dylanophiles, prominent local pop stars were roped in. The media went on overdrive (vacuously, most of the time), the Tata group came aboard as sponsors and hype generated almost to the point where it seemed Dylan himself was visiting.

It was uncharacteristic because Bob Dylan’s spirit has never loomed large over the popular music scene in this country. Here, we’ve always had a preference for prettiness over character, borrowed themes over real ones, euphony over pure expression. The idea of pain and protest being expressed through song without sentimentality or romanticism has been alien to our popular culture. Indeed, the prevailing Indian pop/rock scenario exemplifies this even more vividly. For this plasticity to make a connection with Bob Dylan’s formidable body of work seemed laughable and typically phony. Any true Dylan fan in Mumbai shuddered to think what blasphemy would ensue on the big day.

Well, as it turned out, despite the expected plasticity, despite the false notes that were struck (and there were many), something significant happened. As some of the greatest songs ever written emanated from our own musicians, it became clear that it’s not talent that our musicians lack. Give them a great song to perform; if they understand and appreciate the material and approach it with sincerity, you can get magic out of them too. As Vivienne Pocha’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” proved. Her performance was passionate and powerful; most importantly, the affection she felt for the song was palpable. She wasn’t the only one with a powerful voice on show that night, but she was the only one who made that voice a means and not the end. Interestingly, most of the others who gave great performances are all part-time singers. It was their love for Dylan’s music that drove them, not the desire to showcase their voice. Clarry Derisser stole the show. He was part of the band that stayed throughout on stage – the common element throughout the concert. Clarry started the concert with the simple guitar-vocal “The Times They Are-A-Changin’” and later launched into a scintillating “Like A Rolling Stone” where the band was as magnificent.

Gary Lawyer did full justice to “Lay Lady Lay” and “To Be Alone With You”, two of Dylan’s gentlest tunes. He and the band ‘rockified’ them tastefully. Compere Brian Tellis himself did a superb “Man Of Peace” with vocals that were closest to Dylan’s own (meant as a compliment). Suresh Bhojwani started off with some tasteless snobbery (“Here are songs from Highway 61 Revisited”, he said, “don’t know if you guys know about that record, do you?”) but did nice faithful versions of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and “Love Minus Zero”. The irony? Neither of them is from Highway 61 Revisited!

Brian Pais did a decent, but somewhat mechanical “Shelter From The Storm”. He seemed to miss the point of the song, neutralizing its edge and almost making it a joyful song. Sophiya Haque’s “Rainy Day Women” was good, buoyed as it was by Jules Fuller’s superb peddle-steel guitar-work. Ernie Flannegan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was given a reggae treatment that worked to some extent. Mehnaaz did a decent “Gotta Serve Somebody”, though the accented delivery was a bit of a dampener. Parvez Kadir’s “Tangled Up In Blue” was marred by affectation too; he sounded like the poor man’s Elton John, with an American accent. Since he was reasonably faithful to the original, the inherent power of the song carried him through.

The man who had the most people on their feet was Sushmit Bose, who did the only original track of the evening – “Hey Bob Dylan”. It was a heartfelt tribute from a fan (touching words, affectionately sung) who is perhaps Dylan’s contemporary. He was the only one who blew a harmonica slung around his neck, like Dylan always has, and the recognition of that was spontaneously cheered. It was good to see the crowd give him his due. The crowd, in fact, was a wonderful mix of old and young, which provided a nice balance.

Unfortunately, the bullshit on stage exceeded the high points. As one feared, there was a basic ignorance of Dylan’s sensibility and his life. It is difficult otherwise to explain the utterly mindless rap treatment of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that reeked of pretentiousness. Or the horrid, horrid versions, sung by this 4-member group called Vocalese, of otherwise luminous classics like “If Not For You” and “Forever Young”. Louis Banks, who arranged the tracks, displayed his innate gift of reducing something vital to tasteless insipid banality. He injected the songs with a trademark slick shallowness that might have been passable for a moisturizer commercial. The songs eventually sounded like something from the Boys2Men universe, which is an insult to Dylan’s music. While it is fine to do known songs in different musical styles (Dylan himself never does a song the same way twice), murdering the song’s inherent power displays a basic mismatch of sensibility. There are so many examples of Dylan’s songs being sparklingly done by people from other musical genres; there is evidence in the well-known “30th Anniversary Concert” of 1993. In fact, that is one of the most special things about Bob Dylan’s music – it is astonishing how superbly the same tunes work over different genres. Louis Banks should never have got onto the Bob Dylan bandwagon; he doesn’t have a clue about what makes Dylan’s music special. He should stick to jazz.

The most repulsive thing about the evening was the personal agenda of some of the artists that was uncomfortably palpable. An array of wannabe pop divas strutted onto the stage and gave vacuous performances, making sure they highlighted the great range of their voices. Samantha Edwards’ utterly clichéd “Emotionally Yours” being an excellent example. She, and each one of the female vocalists on view (except Vivienne Pocha and Sophiya) gave the impression that they’d rather belt out a Mariah Carey number than a Dylan tune, but what to do, the lights on them and the audience in tow are for a “Thank You Bob” concert, so they did the next best thing – they Mariah Careyised the Dylan songs. For any Dylan fan, that would have an excruciating experience.

But there were even lower depths to be plunged into. Inexplicably, almost a third of the songs performed were non-Dylan songs. An unbelievably stupid thing to do, considering Dylan’s incredible range. Still, one almost forgave Jules Fuller for covering The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight”. He gave a clever justification (“the concert’s about Bob Dylan’s legacy and one of them is his son”) which didn’t quite wash (to not draw a distinction between his creative and reproductive legacies is rather silly, one thinks). But you granted him the loose connection he made because he performed it beautifully – with absolutely fabulous slide-guitaring. But what of the others? Geetu Raheja singing Joan Baez’s “Diamonds And Rust” was an exercise in insensitivity. Dylan has gone on record to say that he has always loathed that song, as he knew it was about him. Though Raheja sung it well enough, one wondered about its appropriateness in a Dylan tribute concert. But with Suneeta Rao singing Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee”, you couldn’t even make a loose connection. Somebody called Marianne D’Cruz sung an execrable Mariah Carey-like number called “Speaking Of Dreams” (apparently a Joan Baez song; why that should merit inclusion in a Dylan concert is beyond one) without even a justification. Again, some personal agenda at work. Joe Alvares took the cake with “Johnny B Goode” – a song they shamelessly claimed “Dylan performs in concerts”.

Kim Cardoz’s and Sharon Prabhakar’s “House Of Rising Sun” was another mindless inclusion. They too didn’t try to explain what the connection was (it’s a traditional American folk song, that Dylan performed in his first album, but this was not a concert to celebrate trad American folk music!), just launched into the clichéd rendition. Sharon Prabhakar displayed her utterly tasteless attitude by sashaying onto the stage in the middle of the song, singing her bit, raising her arms several times in pop diva style, showing off her shaved armpits, and prancing off after ending her verse, leaving Cardoz to complete the song. Hubris, anyone? Or maybe she simply forgot this wasn’t a play she was starring in?

All those who performed non-Dylan songs were lucky this is India. In the West, they would have been heckled mercilessly and booed off-stage. This one aspect of the concert told you how little appreciation there is of Dylan and how much phoniness was at play while “Thank you Bob” was being ostensibly said. Another blatant defilement of Bob Dylan’s spirit was the presence of the utterly obnoxious, fake as a faulty Xerox machine, Anish Trivedi as compere. It was bad enough that he was let in amidst a genuinely Dylan-appreciative audience; to be given a mike to mutter his sickeningly accented inanities into, was horrifying. One just hopes he will be among the first things edited out of the tape that is being sent to Dylan. Many things need to be – or we’ll have to pray Dylan doesn’t have a weak heart.

Finally, all the performers came out on the stage, We Are The World style, and performed Louis Banks’ tribute composition – “Thank You Bob”. Embarrassingly synthetic, it sounded more like an ad jingle for the event. The evening closed with everybody singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” while Louis Banks preened like Quincy Jones.

The lowest point of the concert, however, occurred earlier - Sabira Merchant and Kabir Bedi reading out (reciting) lyrics of two songs from Dylan’s Street Legal album. With their South Bombay elocution class vibes, they constituted the nadir of the evening. The phoniness apart, this is one of the biggest misconceptions about Dylan that needs correcting. Dylan’s greatest contribution to popular music is NOT his lyrics. It is the breathtaking tunes he has written. The lyrics have no value whatsoever taken outside the context of the song, on paper. Dylan’s words are important for the feelings they evoke, not the meaning they impart. Many of his great songs are impossible to decipher intellectual meaning out of (like “Visions Of Johanna”) but their emotional power is undeniable. They may give you a sense of place or time and even paint images, but it is the sound of the words where the emotional power is invested. In that sense, the words are part of the effect, part of the tune, his voice like a musical instrument, the most important instrument. THIS is his great contribution to music, not the mere words, but its marriage with musical notes. People who keep repeating his lines like slogans of our times don’t get it at all – much to Dylan’s own embarrassment. Of course, many songs have direct meaning, some even great stand-alone lines, but that is not the hallmark of his art.

Another myth among the casual Dylan listeners (if there is such an animal) is that his best songs are from the early-mid sixties (something repeated again and again in the pre-event hype). They revere “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Times They-Are-A-Changin’” or “Mr Tambourine Man” and think the guitar-troubadour, the folk protest singer is quintessential Dylan. This is as absurd a notion as believing Satyajit Ray flaunted poverty in his films. Or to come back to music, as idiotic as believing The Beatles did their best work before Rubber Soul. Dylan himself calls his pre-electric work ‘2-dimensional’; his greatest work happened after he plugged in. It is also colossally stupid to say he stopped producing great music after the mid-seventies. Dylan is producing great music even now. That old consistency is not there, so the albums aren’t masterpieces through and through like they used to be (though, arguably his last one was), but sheer brilliance on some individual tracks can always be found, easily. And he has produced magic in all his various ‘phases’, including the Born Again phase. Bob Dylan’s greatest gift is that he sings his age. Sixty-plus is unchartered territory in rock ‘n’ roll – who better than Dylan to show us what’s there, through rock and roll eyes?

We have a lot to look forward to. Dylan is the first rock ‘n’ roll legend (in terms of body of work) to touch sixty. There will be somebody or the other every year from now on. This October, Paul Simon touches sixty. Next June, Paul McCartney does. Tribute concerts for them in India can at least lead to a greater awareness of their work (hopefully all facets of it, and with more sensitivity than this one). It can only do good – maybe upgrade tastes and who knows, maybe our indigenous output too.

Jaideep Varma
May 2001


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