Warnings, war, and apocalypse. Two riders approached. The wind began to howl. Electric guitars — and voices — sliced the night, like double-edged swords.
Yep. Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard pulled into town Saturday night. The guy playing sax in the street out in front of the civic center put it this way: These guys are giants and they’re tag-teaming y’all. Enjoy the show. Then he blew a nice version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” I found a couple to buy the extra tickets I ended up with and went inside. There was a good mix of people. Young, old, a couple fellows with confederate flags on their t-shirts (it is the South, not that that makes much difference), a few guys in overalls, lots of young men and women with the requisite cellphone hung on their belt or in their hand, a few African-Americans, and mostly women and men in the middle of their lifespans.
At exactly 8:00, the Strangers took the stage, sans Merle Haggard. One of the musicians said hello and the band kicked into some warm-up music. After the second song — Waylon Jennings‘ “I’ve Always Been Crazy (But It’s Kept Me from Going Insane)” — he left the lead mike and took his place among the rest of the band. From the side of the stage, a grizzled man strode out, all in black with a cowboy hat. Merle Haggard, my friends. His set included some gems like “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings.” For those unfamiliar with Haggard’s repertoire, the first is a classic country blues sung by a fellow who “turned 21 in prison/doin’ life without parole.” He’s not seeking to blame anyone for his misfortune, because, after all, “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied.” That’s a strain one hears in Haggard’s tunes. Essentially libertarian, he sings, “That leaves only me to blame ‘cos Mama tried.” Yet we are led to wonder what it is in this society that made Mama’s life — “Dear old Daddy, rest his soul/Left my Mom a heavy load/She tried so very hard to fill his shoes/Working hours without rest” — so hard and her one and only son a “rebel child.”
When he longs for a past America, he is longing for the freedoms that men had back then, not for its wars or social, sexual, and racial prejudices. That’s why he has spoken out against the Bush government and its wars and repression. As for that song “Okie from Muskogee,” it’s just a joke to Merle these days, despite the fact that some folks on both sides of that Sixties divide still fail to see the irony of singing it in 2006.
Musically, the Strangers were tighter than a piece of sundried rawhide. Although my violin-playing friend sitting next to me kept saying that Haggard could have done with five or six players instead of the nine he had onstage, the fact that he had horns and a saxophone player when his arrangement called for one did complete the sound. The fiddle player played with classical control and a fiddler’s abandon. The pedal steel player used sparing licks and subtle dynamics, while the keyboard player plinked out honkytonk runs straight out of that bar band I used to see in suburban Washington, DC back in the 1970s. Indeed, I felt as if I were transported to that dive whose primary habitués were washed-out beehive blondes and retired truck drivers. As if to make my vision complete, Merle and the Strangers ended the show with a hoedown on “If You Got the Money, Honey, I Got the Time,” turning the arena floor into a giant dance floor.
Darkness at the break of noon. Menacing anger. Snarls of refusal. Electric guitar riffs tearing through my skull and into my chest. Dylan began his set with “Maggie’s Farm.” Maggie’s Farm where the National Guard stands around your door. And everybody wants you to be just like them. Standing at his keyboard, Dylan sneered his way through the song, holding on to the hard rock style that seems to fit this song the best. Raw and emotional rejection of the way things have become. That’s the essence of this song. Ripping off the veneer of complacency and challenging himself and the audience to go beyond just being bored. It’s not a question of whether one can afford not to work on Maggie’s Farm no more. It’s a question of whether one can afford to.
The set wasn’t all anger. Love songs were sung and summer days were celebrated. Yet the most powerful tunes this evening were the ones that called this world of war , torture, lies, and greed into question. The songs came one after another, giving the audience little time to breathe. When the first notes of “Blind Willie McTell” came through the air, Dylan the bluesman took the stage. It’s not that he was channeling Charley Patton or the aforementioned McTell as much as he was channeling the lives of those for whom the blues were made. The downtrodden. The huddled masses. Poor immigrants. Those who toil in a land where “power and greed and corruptible seed/seem to be all that there is.” Maybe there really is some truth to that arrow on the doorpost telling us this land is condemned.
That’s what that darkness at the break of noon is all about. I’ve heard Dylan perform this song several times, but I’ve never heard it like I did this time. Maybe it was the wail of the organ. Maybe it was the weekend news. From the moment those first words left his mouth, there was a sense that someone was calling in from the Mojave desert. Dylan the prophet was here for a song’s worth of time. The band played this tune as if they were stuck on a railroad crossing on Highway 61 with trains hurtling toward their vehicle from both sides. Angry at their situation and resigned to its denouement. And theirs. The menace is in the daily hypocrisies of life and the lies of the President of the United States as he tries to start the next world war.
War that benefits the target of his song “Masters of War.” One gets the idea that Dylan would like to retire this song but those masters just won’t let him. There is no way to sing this song without anger. Indeed, it’s probably Dylan’s angriest song. It’s certainly the only one that offers its targets no possibility of redemption. The only answer to what the masters of war have done to this planet and the people who pay the price of their deeds is death. Dylan’s performance of this song in Asheville made it clear that his opinion on this matter has not changed. I know that I would stand on the graves of Cheney and Rumsfeld to make sure that they are dead. Too many think that life is but a joke. Dylan makes it clear that it’s not to be trifled with. The last time I saw Dylan was in New York a few weeks after the tragedies of 9-11. His band was slightly different and his tone was, too. Resignation and even some uncertainty. This time there was little of that.
Neither Haggard nor Dylan is without contradictions. That’s the nature of their shared humanity. It’s how they laugh at their own contradictions — oscillations between dependence and independence in Merle’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” — that explains some of their appeal to their audience. Indeed, the songs of both men can help us laugh at not only the charade that love can be but the charade that life itself sometimes is.
The purity of their vision forces us to see the life’s burden, and the impurity of their human weakness helps us to bear it.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.