For me it´s always been like this: Bob Dylan is a singer first, then a poet. He must sing, he needs to sing, he sings. Yes, he has written the greatest songs of our times, but most of all I think he wrote them to have the right song to sing when he need them, when the spirit moves him, when the song moves him. Remember: ”If a song moves you, that´s what´s important.” It was his voice and his vocal, his ability to move me, to get the feelings and sentiments through to me, that made me a fan, to travel the world to see him perform, to listen again and again to his albums and recordings, always waiting for those golden moments and strikes of genius in his singing and vocal delivery. The poetry is fabulous, but me, I´m under the magic spell of the singer. He is a singer first. He is a performing artist.
Just like the night he came to Holmdel, New Jersey, the 9th of August in 2003. A great show, but I just want to tell you about one unique performance this evening, the seventh song out of the fourteen played this night, the centerpiece of the show. A spectacular and unforgettable performance, through and through.
The song I´m talking about is one of the greatest in Dylan´s songbook, ”A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall”. In the liner notes of ”Freewheelin´ Bob Dylan”, Dylan is quoted like this: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.” It´s a fantastic song, rich and full of visual imagery, loaded with pictures, passion and feelings in describing the wild world he´s passing through, and like Dylan is the Picasso of song, this is his ”Guernica”. We know this. Then he comes to Holmdel to sing it, to sing his heart out, a crazy kid at 62, standing at the electric piano, and you know it already from the first lines, this will be something very special. It´s like he´s a drawn arrow released into the music, opening with the famous questions of the song, maybe the words of an old man or woman, father or mother, adressing the ”blue-eyed” son:
Where have you BEEN, my blue-eyed son?
Where have you BEEN, my darling young one?
And then it´s just like the singer is both exhausted and desperate at the same time, falling to the floor after the challenging journey he´s been through, catching his breath to tell the story of where he has been as a scout in dangerous fields, and then he is in the same way eager to explain. It´s like he has little time, and that it´s important to bring all the details, before it´s too late. It´s like he just gives you the highlights of where he´ve been. It´s like each line is just an overview, the start of a story that he hasn´t time to embroider.
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked HIGHWAYS
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
But the father want to know more.
What did you see, my blue-eyed son?
What did you see, my darling young one?
Then the blue-eyed son starts, from the second line, rapping his list of all the confusing and frightening things he´ve seen on his trip across the borderline. The rapping heightens the effect of the the drama of the countless pictures he´ve seen on his trip through the inferno. (The spontaneous vocal and rhytmic pattern, the groove he gets into, is actually typical for some of his greatest performances, he´s like a freight train through the night. He even repeats ”room full of men” three times to dramatic effect)
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it (almost crying)
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it (rapping)
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’ (rapping)
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’ (rapping)
I saw a room full of men all covered with water (rapping)
I saw a room full of men whose tongues were all broken (rapping)
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children (rapping)
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a haaaard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
The father asks again:
What did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
What did you hear, my darling young one?
The singer now is on fire, missing and fumbling with some of the words in this verse, but if he loses a few words, he doesn´t miss a beat, just driving the song like a vehicle with no breaks, telling us more about the cabinet of horror he has been listening to, like he still can hear it all in his head, like he knows the poet who died in the gutter, like maybe he himself is the clown that cried in the alley.
(mumbling)…… and it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
…….. one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
…………………………………. who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown and he cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard RAIN´S a-gonna fall
What a verse. What a despair. What a story. What a singer.
Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
(Dylan is hammering at the piano to heighten the drama even more)
In this verse you can almost hear the actual sound of compassion for mankind, the singer bares his soul and his sorrow for all the hurt people he´ve met along the way, for all the love he´s had and lost. He´s been wounded, too. It´s not all about the words, it´s about how he colors them. Try a little tenderness, in deed.
I met a young CHILD beside a dead pony (tender)
I met a white man who walked a black dog (tender)
I met a young WOMAN whose body was burning (very tender)
I met a young GIRL, she gave me a rainbow (very tender and sad)
I met one MAN who was wounded in love (very tender and sad)
I met another man who was wounded with HATRED (tender, but the word hatred is strongly underlined)
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
For the last time, the father asks his son:
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son? (underlining the drama once more with piano)
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
The blue-eyed son has caught his breath, and delivers the last verse in evolving desperation, from whispering to screaming, telling himself and the one who listens about what he must do, like he understands it, more and more, for each line he sings, what his purpose is, what his job is, what he has to do before it´s too late. You can see him, staring into thin air, telling himself and his father what he has to do. And it´s like he understands more and more for each line he sings. It´s getting clearer to him what he has to do. He makes us believe that the song is here and now, that the creation of the song is happening in front of us this night. And the drama is escalating through the grande finale, a message of both apocalypse and hope at the same time, it´s like the blue-eyed boy are sinking and winning at the same time, in the last long fall of the song.
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’ (whispering)
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest (whispering)
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty (whispering)
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters (whispering)
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison (whispering)
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden (increasing strength, rapping)
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten (increasing strength, rapping)
Where black is the color, where none is the number (increasing strength and volume, rapping)
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it (strong desperation, the word ”breathe” as a heavy sigh of breath)
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it (desperation and strong conviction)
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’ (desperation and strong conviction)
But I’ll know my song WELL before I start singin’(triumphant, strong conviction)
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, yes, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna FAAAAAALL.
I don´t know how many times I´ve heard this song, and in how many versions. There are fine versions from the early sixties, there are great versions from Rolling Thunder Revue, from the early eighties, there are lots of beautiful versions from the Never Ending Tour, and there is the fabulous & majestic version from ”The Great Music Experience” in Nara 1994, a version that´s hard to beat. Still it´s the version from Holmdel in 2003 I´m coming back to, again and again. Why is that? I guess it´s hard to describe it in words, but over all it´s in the dramaturgy of the performance, improvised and invented just this night, it´s in the fabulous psychodrama we are attending, where the singer, the song, the music, the rhythm, the timing, the phrasing and the words becomes one beautiful whole – it´s not perfection, but it´s life and life only. Dylan is painting a picture on a big black canvas in front of us, word by word, line by line, verse by verse, and he uses all the colors in his voice in just one song, like it was the last song he would and could sing, and that it really matters that we listen to him. Every verse has it´s own unique color and personality. I´m holding my breath and listens to each sound and vowel from his masters voice, each time overwhelmed by the everlasting truth and beauty of the performance, reminding me what I knew from the first time I heard him: Bob Dylan is a singer first, then a poet. Just listen to ”A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall” from Holmdel in 2003.
P.S.: And here it is: