At 3.30am on Saturday morning, South African time, Bob Dylan played his first concert since winning the Nobel prize for literature.
It was 6.30 pm in California, and the sun setting behind the Santa Rosa mountains and the air in the Coachella Valley would have been granulated and cooling and faded purple, like a black eye that’s starting to feel better, and the air must have danced with bright specks of dust like pollen or illuminated honey.
Dylan looked out over a sea of faces – probably 75 000 of them, stretching back across the grounds of the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, most of them having paid at least R15000 each to be there, some of them closer to R50 000. They watched him closely, bright-eyed, beaming, offering him their love, holding their breath and hoping for a sign that he’s noticed them and that he loves them back.
Dylan is the only person in the world to have won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, a Pulitzer, an Oscar and now a Nobel. When he won the Oscar in 2000 for “Things Have Changed”, from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, my friend Saeed was at his very next concert, in Sydney. Everyone in the audience was wondering how he would acknowledge it. They weren’t expecting wisecracks or banter or celebrity gossip; Dylan notoriously gives his audience nothing other than his music and grudgingly his presence, but you can’t just come out to an intimate gig the day after winning the Oscar and not say anything, right?
“So what did he say?” I asked.
He was telling me this story last Friday, as we stood in the crowd in Coachella, waiting for Dylan to start Desert Trip 2016, the last great gathering of 60s rock ‘n roll survivors. Everyone was surprised Dylan was going to perform at all. He has been on a never-ending tour since June 1988, a non-stop restless rolling out of gigs all around the world, but he avoids huge festival concerts and has a prickly tendency to only play the songs he wants to play. If you’re lucky, if he’s feeling generous, he’ll play something you recognize. If he’s not in the mood, then the hell with you. That’s not an attitude that goes down well in a large stadium.
“Well,” said Saeed, “he walked out with his guitar round his neck, carrying the Oscar.”
“Then he put the Oscar down on the piano and played his gig. He played the whole set with the Oscar just sitting there. Then he picked up the Oscar and walked out.”
I thought about that.
“That’s pretty cool,” I said.
“That’s Dylan,” said Saeed.
In Coachella last Friday the crowd went wild when Dylan came out, but he didn’t make eye contact. He looked like a man alone in a backstage room, rehearsing for the show. He refused to allow the cameras to show him on the giant wraparound screen, so if you weren’t in the first couple of rows, all you could see was his big white hat, like a scaled-down sombrero, standing motionless a little ways back from the edge of the stage. He started off with “Masters of War”.
His voice seemed a touch scratchy, a little jagged, like your wheels on the gravel shoulder when you veer slightly off the edge of Highway 61, but then it’s Dylan, so does it matter and who can really tell? For his full set, somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours, he just stood there and sang his songs, some familiar, some not, and he did it with such stillness and self-control that first you became frustrated, then you became embarrassed at your frustration. That’s the man, playing his music. Why am I asking for anything else?
The Rolling Stones, who followed him, were all spectacle and fireworks and bright flashing screens and Mick Jagger in perpetual motion, never stopping, like a man who has a bomb strapped to him that will explode if he slows down below a jog. The Stones give you a show but Dylan was offering his art. He reminded me of someone, and I couldn’t stop trying to think who. That stillness, that disdain for ornamentation, the utter indifference to your expectations or disappointment; the uncompromising sense of himself as an artist and his demand that match his seriousness.
“He’s like JM Coetzee with a guitar,” I said to Saeed.
Perhaps he’s also like Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym for the Italian novelist whose real identity was exposed by a journalist last week. Like Ferrante, Dylan says, “Never mind me. Don’t try to be my friend. My real life doesn’t matter. All that matters is my work.”
At the end of his set last week, Dylan turned on his heel and walked off stage. There was an awkward silence in the crowd. Has he gone? Is that it? Is he coming back? Should we clap?
Yup, that was it. He was gone. He wasn’t coming back. A chuckle spread through the crowd, a slow laughter of rueful appreciation.
“That’s Dylan,” said Saeed.
Not everyone in the crowd appreciated Dylan being Dylan; not everyone warmed to the announcement today that he had won the Nobel prize. That’s all part of being Dylan.
I think there must be some beef between the Stones and Dylan, because three times during their set, Mick and Keith Richards made pointed remarks about Dylan opening for them. “Let’s hear it for Bob Dylan, our opening act,” said Mick, curling his lips in a sneer. I doubt Dylan was backstage listening, and I doubt he would have cared, but it’s fun to think that if they try that again tonight, he’ll be able to take out his Nobel prize and just place it on a piano and not say a word.
*Darrel Bristow-Bovey flew to Los Angeles courtesy of British Airways Club World. British Airways flies daily from Johannesburg to London and offers direct flights between Cape Town and Heathrow. They will soon be offering direct flights between Cape Town and Gatwick airport.