DYLAN AND HIS FANS LOOK BACK
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse. . . .
--from “Like a Rolling Stone”
When “Like a Rolling Stone” was a top 10 hit in 1965, Dylan’s lyrics blared throughout the country over car radios and transistor portables, challenging teen-agers to unravel the song’s complex imagery and symbolism.
On Monday, nearly 19,000 Dylan fans new and old filled the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa for the first of two nights to see the man who more than any other artist shaped the attitudes and philosophies of the rock era.
But are people still listening to what Dylan--or rock ‘n’ roll for that matter--has to say?
A lot of fans admitted that the show, for which Dylan shared the stage and the billing with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, provided a chance to reflect on a bygone era when it seemed that rock’s message had a more profound impact on the lives of young people than it does in 1986.
“I can still recite his lyrics,” said Rod Smallwood, 37, of Downey. “They were important. Those times had a lot of things going on, like Greenwich Village (music-culture) scene, the Vietnam War. . . . Those tunes go back a long way.”
Karen Berryman, 20, a Humboldt State University student who also saw Dylan’s concert last week in Berkeley, said: “I think 10 or 20 years ago, people listened to lyrics more. Now I think (rock music) is more of a trendy thing.”
Berryman’s observation is backed up by a study published recently by two Cal State Fullerton researchers who found that today’s teens apparently pay more attention to a song’s overall sound or beat than its lyrics.
“That’s natural--you go to the beat first,” said an Anaheim woman who declined to give her name.
But for some longtime Dylan fans whose appreciation for his music goes back to the early 1960s, the 45-year-old singer-songwriter’s songs have forged a musical bridge across the generation gap with their teen-age children.
Brendon Woirhaye, 17, of Whittier said that because of his father, he has been listening to Dylan’s music “mostly all my life. For a long time I didn’t like it, but I got to like it more in the last few years.”
Mahlon Woirhaye, 48, came to his first rock concert in many years to be with his son at the Dylan concert. The elder Woirhaye said he hasn’t kept up with Dylan’s recent music because “you don’t hear it on the radio, unless you wade through KMET and all that hard rock, and I don’t have a taste for that.”
Like a number of other fans, Mahlon Woirhaye said he stopped listening to Dylan’s music during his so-called “Christian phase” of 1979-81, when Dylan put out three albums celebrating born-again Christianity. “That didn’t interest me much,” Woirhaye said.
It was during that period that Dylan alienated so many followers by playing mostly the Christian songs and few of his hits that he was unable to fill the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1979. One fan speculated that the reason he was able to sell out two shows at the Pacific on this tour is that “he’s playing a lot of the old songs. I think he realizes that that’s what people want to hear.”
Indeed, only half a dozen of the songs Dylan played in a set that ran nearly three hours were written in the last 15 years. Three of those were from the Christian albums. But Chip Oakes, 22, who was at the concert with Karen Berryman, disagreed with the notion that Dylan’s talent ever waned.
“Even his Christian stuff was good. ‘In the Garden’ (from Dylan’s 1980 ‘Saved’ album) was one of the highlights of the Berkeley show. His present songs are just as good as the old ones.” Oakes also agreed with Dylan’s decision to use Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers for instrumental backing. “He writes good songs and knows how to pick a good band,” Oakes said.
But if the show was a trip down memory lane for many, it was nonetheless a happy trip to fans for whom Dylan’s lyrics have provided insight into their own lives.
As a Father’s Day present, sisters Kimberly and Tammie Fisher took their father to hear Dylan, whom Bill Fisher described as “my main man.”
“He sings from the heart,” Fisher, 42, said. “He says what he means and he sings what he means.”
Kimberly Fisher, 22, also appears to have inherited that interest in song lyrics. “Every song I like is because of what the words tell me, but I think most people do just listen to the sound,” she said.
Added Tammie, 24: “There’s one of (Dylan’s) songs that goes, ‘She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back’ (‘She Belongs to Me’). My mom and dad are divorced and that song reminds my dad of her. Why are we so in tune (to) lyrics?” Tammie said, turning to her sister.
“I guess it’s our background,” Kimberly said.
How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see? Dylan made a droll joke after singing those lines from “Blowin’ in the Wind” toward the end of the show when he said, “That’s a new song I just wrote.”
But it’s as astonishing as it is sobering to realize that just about every time Dylan tours there is some news in the headlines for which his 25-year-old anthem for social justice seems to be tailor-made.
Younger fans who did not know that “Blowing in the Wind” was a rallying cry for the civil rights movement in the ‘60s might have thought it was written about the recent government crackdowns and mass arrests in South Africa over the struggle against apartheid.
“He’s always ahead of where we are,” said a 38-year-old Hollywood man who identified himself as Mr. Bonzai. He was at the concert with his wife, Keiko Kasai, 34, who started listening to Dylan when she was 12 and still living in Japan.
“I think that’s why I’ve always been attracted to Dylan,” Bonzai said. “I could listen to his lyrics as true poetry. You can read them many times and get a different meaning each time. They’re multilayered.”
“The other thing I like about Dylan is that he doesn’t patronize or fondle an audience,” Bonzai said. “That makes me more comfortable because then I don’t feel obligated. I can appreciate him more objectively. I don’t go to concerts as much as I used to. They aren’t as attractive to me as they once were. But Dylan is history every time he comes through.”