When you ponder Bob Dylan's mass appeal in 2012, is his ability to sell out concert halls based more on his standing as an Artist or a Legend? Did people flock to buy copies of his recent album Tempest, which has been praised by most critics, because of its quality or the reputation of Dylan's great back pages?
I hope it is the artistry and not the legend. But I sometimes have my doubts. We are a society of consumers, you know. People want to have the kick of seeing Dylan in concert so they can go back and tell their friends. To them, it doesn't really matter whether Dylan was great or average on stage.
Dylan's myth-making abilities are as great as ever. He gets kudos for regularly playing 100 or so gigs a year around the world, a practice he has maintained since 1988 and the start of the so-called Never Ending Tour. But you wonder about the implications of that weighty record.
Is it ultimately good for him -- or his audience, for that matter -- to schedule so many concerts? It is quite a lofty history to live up to. It has to take a toll on him. Can Dylan bring it every night with such a burdensome regimen? I doubt it.
I have a personal perspective. I saw an enjoyable but underwhelming Dylan concert at the Hollywood Bowl s recently as Oct. 26. I expected something special because Dylan would be playing his hometown arena -- and the Hollywood Bowl was a special place. They say that "there is a story in every seat," right?
The more I thought about what I'd seen, it prompted me to think of Dylan in a different light. What I watched on that Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl saddened me a little.
I saw how some of the LA concertgoers -- especially the younger audience members that Dylan would like to reach -- talked among themselves during the concert, paid scant attention to the stage at times and even walked out early. It was as if they didn't care about The Legend and they weren't swayed by The Artist.
Apparently, Dylan's rasp was too much for the natives to accept. I wondered -- had they come to the Hollywood Bowl for the first or seventh or 100th rime to glimpse The Legend sing Those Songs. Or were they there to enjoy an artist show his wisdom, talent and innovativeness?
Of course, Dylan has been playing with this kind of talk for decades. Since at least his performance in the Concert for Bangladesh, if not even earlier than that, he has had to balance his past and his present. In his most recent Rolling Stone interview, Dylan talks at length about the trick of processing the past and the present.
For his part, Dylan probably doesn't spend two minutes of his day pondering these thorny issues. He prefers to keep on keepin' on. Dylan is a true artist. He trusts his instincts and his heart. He doesn't worry too much about whether the crowd will follow him. One thing is clear: He won't follow the crowd.
When I was researching my Dylan book, Forget About Today, I spoke at length with someone who knows Dylan very well. This person told me that Dylan never acknowledges that he might fail on a stage in a studio in a book or another project. It never even occurs to Dylan that he might get rejected. If it does happen, he chalks it up to the notion that he is (again) simply ahead of his time. He is probably more right than wrong about that most of the time.
Dylan has come to the finish line of his 2012 touring schedule. His last gig of this year is his appearance at the brand-spanking-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. N.Y., making it his fourth show in four days in four cities (Boston, Philadelphia and Washington preceding it). Dylan has disappointed many fans (including this reporter) by largely deciding not to play the songs from Tempest, although they sound perfectly suited to live performances -- especially the elegiac "Roll on John," a song about John Lennon.
Dylan shrugs off the clamor for the Tempest material the way he has cast aside the public's chatter about his decisions over the years to leave behind his artful finger-pointing songs, his move to play rock and roll music, his migration to Nashville and a country-tinged sound, his born-again controversy and every other change he has gone through in front of our prying eyes.
Chances are, Bob Dylan couldn't care less about whether people view him as a Legend or an Artist. That's why he is both a legend and an artist.