Even the honor of the Nobel Prize for Literature bestowed Thursday on Bob Dylan wasn't enough to prompt rock's most revered songwriter to upend his modus operandi. Or was it?
At his Friday performance kicking off the second and final weekend of the Desert Trip summit meeting of rock music titans also featuring the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who, Neil Young and Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, Dylan and his band played virtually the same set they'd delivered the week before, when he was just plain Bob Dylan, merely the Shakespeare of our time.
Except for the encore segment. When he finished "Ballad of a Thin Man," framed around the perpetually enigmatic question "Something is happening, but you don't know what it is — do you, Mr. Jones?" and exited, Dylan soon returned and offered up the anthem "Like a Rolling Stone," which had not been part of the set a week ago. For that show, he turned to "Masters of War."
But then, after allowing tens of thousands of fans to share in the celebratory chorus of "How does it feel?" he concluded with one of the numbers from his recent albums delving into the Great American Songbook: Cy Coleman and Joseph McCarthy's poignantly world-weary "Why Try to Change Me Now."
It was an unexpected choice, as a week ago he had completely bypassed the pop standards, which have been a central part of his shows leading up to Desert Trip.
But it proved to be an eminently sweet choice, with the grounds of the Empire Polo Club located just a few miles down the road from Palm Springs, where Frank Sinatra spent so many years in the second half of his life.
Sinatra is the touchstone for Dylan's two most recent albums, "Shadows in the Night" and "Fallen Angels," and it was tempting to filter his decision to bid the Desert Trip audience adieu with "Why Try to Change Me Now." He had performed the song the previous night in his first post-Nobel Prize show in Las Vegas as his response to the cultural honor awarded him.
He has pointedly directed admirers away from focusing time and attention on his music, insisting it would be far more valuable to study the works of those who came before and influenced him. It's his tacit reminder of his oft-cited realization that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
"If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there's Frank Gehry," Dylan told The Times in a 2004 interview."But you can't just copy somebody. If you like someone's work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to," he said in an uncharacteristically straightforward admonition.
"Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster," he said.
That's the path Dylan took in the early 1990s with "Good As I Been to You" and "World Gone Wrong," two albums of roots music that had inspired him and which seemed to recalibrate his artistic compass, launching the career rejuvenation that began with 1997's "Time Out of Mind" and has remained strong for nearly two decades.
It also helps explain, for any who might have scratched their heads over his decision to apply his craggy rasp of a voice to a body of songs by and large associated with Sinatra, regarded as the 20th century's great pop crooner.
It was not, as he so sharply pointed out, his attempt to "cover" these pre-rock classics.
"They've been covered enough — buried as a matter of fact," he said upon the release of "Shadows in the Night." "What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day."
In the absence of any public statement about what the Nobel Prize may mean to him, it struck at least one member of the Desert Trip audience as he caressed the melody and lyrics of "Why Try to Change Me Now" that it might be his way of saying, "Thanks, but if you want to hear the kind of songwriting that moves me, check this out."
"Why can't I be conventional?" Dylan sang. "People talk, people stare, so I try/But that's not for me, 'cause I can't see/My kind of crazy world passing me by."
What reaction statement issued in a news release could have crystallized a lifetime's artistry more eloquently than that?
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