Dylan lives in the present, though some fans don't

November 14, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE FOUR of us, original cast members of the '60s, went to the Baltimore Arena last week to see Bob Dylan in concert and search for vagrant traces of our yesterdays. So who shows up? The youth of America, not yet born when Dylan first arrived, who looked like the accidental children of his influence.

They wore costumes from nearly 30 years ago: the kind of long hair and torn jeans last seen around the time Nixon was sneaking into Cambodia. One guy wore an old Che Guevara sweat shirt. Some of the girls wore babushkas on their heads and looked unintentionally like Mrs. Khrushchev. Outside, young people sold pipe bowls, and the air was fragrant.

Walking into the packed arena off Baltimore Street, the lines were long and inexplicably backed up. It turned out, men in uniform were patting people down before allowing them to enter.

"They must be looking for drugs," said a friend who's around 60 and knows of such things mainly by rumor. "Maybe acid. You got acid?"

"Acid indigestion," I said. "Does that count?"

"If they find drugs on us," said my wife, "it'll be Maalox."

We sounded like what we were: tourists from a previous generation doing a little glimpse into life's rear-view mirror and finding it filled with kids, and wondering which of us had shown up at the wrong place.

Dylan helped give our generation its social conscience. His music was a kind of journalism, a political dare to take part in the long march for civil rights, or the anti-war movement during Vietnam. But he caught the more obscure dramas as well, reaching into such shadowy corners as a Baltimore hotel "society gathering" to find the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll.

In that time, a whole generation stayed up late debating the hidden meaning of his lyrics, and telling ourselves how much hipper, and more sensitive and insightful, we were than our parents, who were still buying Liberace records. Dylan was the Allen Ginsberg of pop music; you interpreted his lyrics at your own risk.

A great singer he never was. The voice was pinched and adenoidal. But the voice was beside the point. When each of us was trying on our political outfits of the moment, learning post-Dallas cynicism, Dylan provided the soundtrack.

At the arena last week, most of that political immediacy seemed gone. The times, they have changed. In an era when even the idealistic youth seem driven by the money god, and 14-year-olds have learned how to quote stock market tables, what's to protest? Once, Dylan sang:

Once upon a time

You looked so fine...

The words used to sound like a challenge to make something worthy of your life, to live it on your own terms or regret missing your shot.

Now you don't

Talk so loud.

Now you don't

Seem so proud.

Last week, the tone was different, tinged with a wistfulness we never associated with Dylan. Time takes its toll on everyone. Instead of the bard of confrontation, this seemed a concession to that reflection in the mirror: We've all been through a lot.

But it wasn't an evening for politics, or for reminiscing. Dylan only dipped into the deep past a few times. Mostly, he and his band rocked pretty hard, and the crowd seemed less an audience than a huge cast of supporting characters.

They danced in the walkways. Some seemed oblivious to all sense of rhythm, and all sense of style, and it didn't matter a bit. They were in their own zone. Many looked like gentle souls who knew they had missed the '60s and thought they might catch up in an evening.

A girl in a hoop skirt spun herself endlessly, like a figure on a music box. A fat guy danced like Ralph Kramden on a toot. One young lady came across the second-level walkway above Baltimore Street in a ballerina moment. It looked like "Afternoon of a Fawn."

And one couple, somewhere in their 40s, stood in the space between the darkened hall and the bright alcove outside. They danced all evening long. Their movements were a love call to each other, a silent serenade. The light from the bright alcove was their moonlight.

We mellow. We went looking for traces of vanished youth, our own and Dylan's, and instead found a performer who rightfully insists on living in the present tense. And we found an audience that, for all its costumery resembling the '60s, seemed delighted merely to embrace the music, and consign yesterday's politics to the history books.

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