Bob Dylan in Japan: portrait of a strangely happy bard | Culture


Dylanism is an almost incomprehensible religion that is extraordinarily expensive, but at least it provides numerous arguments to believe in salvation. The new artifact that Bob Dylan’s parishioners will elevate to the status of object of desire is an apotheosis of four CDs with the two complete concerts that originally nourished the double live LP At Budokan, published at the end of 1978 only in Japan and a few months later, due to curiosity and good reception, already throughout the world. Compared to the brief 22 cuts that we knew from the original double vinyl, we now have the 58 pieces that were played in the Tokyo pavilion those nights of February 28 and March 1, 1978. And all of this comes packaged with an irresistible display for the devotee: an exciting 56-page booklet with abundant photographic material and several essays with the ins and outs of those events, and a box of fetishes, memories or memorabilia including tour posters, ticket reproductions and other stationery.

The treat is extremely tempting, although not suitable for everyone’s budget: those who think of invoking the Kings of the East should know that the monarchical bill will exceed 150 euros. And then it is important to decide to what extent the material that is now offered to us in such a diabolically appealing packaging is valuable. Its historical interest does not allow discussion. The artistic one is much more opinionable, taking into account that the criticisms of 45 years ago ranged between nuanced interest and merciless swipe. But the influence is that the faithful were not yet accustomed to those reinventions that Zimmerman has turned into a watchword that is always curious, sometimes disconcerting and on more than one occasion exasperating. The feeling that predominates after a long immersion in those nights at the Budokan is that time has suited these recordings much better than we suspected.

At Budokan It was once a Gold Record in the United States and a very popular album in Spain (it reached number 17 on the charts), taking into account that the second half of the seventies coincided with the country’s awakening to democracy and a series of extraordinarily popular records among the general public (yes, Dylan was a mainstream artist). Nobody doubted anymore Desire like a masterpiece, Street Legal gained abundant followers and Slow Train Coming would arrive in mid-1978 with the debate on conversion to Christianity and the claim of that playful Man Gave Name To All The Animalswhich almost seemed like the Dylanite equivalent of Yellow Submarine in the Beatles’ repertoire.

Bob Dylan, in Venice, Italy (2004).
Bob Dylan, in Venice, Italy (2004).Dominique Issermann

In short, there will be many fans who have a deep and endearing sentimental memory of this recording on Japanese soil, testimony to Dylan’s first tour away from the United States since 1966. But let’s not fool ourselves: At Budokan It was the subject of controversy and even ridicule, even caricatured as the equivalent in the bard’s history to Elvis’ stays in Las Vegas. “It is a flawed but fascinating document of Dylan at the crossroads,” the magazine ruled ambivalently. Rolling Stone. Even today, the digital portal All Music warns, in a review of two stars out of five: “Who is this for? Its interest is historical, if anything, and only marginally.”

It was greatly influenced by the fact that the recording in the Tokyo pavilion, built for the judo competitions in the 1964 Olympic Games, was Zimmerman’s third almost consecutive live performance, after the extraordinary Before The Flood (1974), along with The Band, and the most irrelevant Hard Rain (1976). But just as that album of barely 50 minutes was not capable of testifying to the mammoth Rolling Thunder Revue tour—immortalized in the superb fifth volume of the Bootleg Seriesand even in a back box of 15 CDs with all the concerts, only for the very fans—, the At Budokan of 1978-79 is far below what we now discover with The Complete Budokan.

The instrumental alignment and spirit of that staging 45 years ago is somehow the opposite of what old Bob has been applying in the last moments of his present (and virtually eternal) Never Ending Tour. If the current formulation is that of the absolute absence of concessions, with harsh and torn readings of the originals, viciously demolished until they are unrecognizable, that Dylan who was revered in the heart of the Japanese archipelago behaved with sweetness and even unequivocal good humor in the band’s presentations, affable and almost humorous. Especially when it comes to his three female backup singers: on the night of Tuesday, February 28, he announces Helena Springs as his “fiancée,” while Debi Dye is given the title of “ex-wife.” 24 hours later he does not attribute affiliations to them, but assures that he met them “singing in a department store.”

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan, recording ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, in 1965.Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Was that joking Dylan happy who embarked on his mammoth 1978 world tour in the Far East, a total of 114 concerts (none in Spain) that attracted nearly two million spectators? Be careful: he was embarking in the direction of Renaldo and Clara, a colossal surreal film that almost no one liked, and had to deal with the musical boom of punk and disco, two genres that saw him, at 36 years old, as an old glory already amortized. But, judging by how well-oiled their machinery sounded and the testimony of those who ensured the success of the Japanese tour, we are tempted to think that they were busy months.

The person in charge of Dylan’s catalog at Japan’s CBS at that time, Heckel Sugano, relates that the company’s general director, Norio Ohga, organized a farewell party on March 4, 1978 at Maxim’s restaurant for which no one was counting. with the presence of today’s Nobel Prize winner in Literature. “To everyone’s surprise,” Sugano reveals, “Dylan appeared, showing signs of feeling comfortable; “He took the time to sign posters for everyone and he stayed enjoying the celebration until the end.”

That the complete tapes of the two Tokyo nights have survived these four and a half decades without blemish is enough to believe in providence, so the Dylanite sleuths will do well to delight in all the material so far on the shelves. The introduction of the concerts, a A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall instrumental and routine, it seems to promote a docile and sweetened tone that later does not correspond to reality. In fact, the second cuts are occupied by fiery loans in the key of blues, Repossession Blues (Tuesday and Love Her With A Feeling (Wednesday), absolute rarities in the Dylanite catalogue. The most characteristic element happens to be the almost omniscient presence of the tenor sax and the flute of Steve Douglas, a signing from Phil Spector’s team in the years of the Wall of Sound who does not hide his desire for prominence. There is ample room for dissent, but Dylan has never been so loving, lyrical and precious as in those Japanese latitudes when it comes to approaching monuments the size of Just Like A Woman, Is Your Love In Vain? either Blowin’ In The Windhere almost transfigured into the category of gospel.

If we leave aside the cut of the band’s presentations, Dylan performed 28 songs in each of the evenings at the Budokan, with 23 coincidences and five variations depending on whether we look at the repertoire of February 28 or March 1. The most unique thing may be the superb interpretation of Going, Going, Gone (with variations in the lyrics, another sacrilege for purists) or the inclusion, the second evening, of an absolutely heavenly and very rare The Man In Melong before the Coens revived it in The Big Lebowski. If anyone still doubts Bob’s excellence as a vocalist, they should listen to this and apologize forever.

More curiosities for the insatiable fan? That among the titles not repeated on the 28th and the 1st were masterpieces of the caliber of Tomorrow Is A Long Time, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right either Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Even in its most ductile and domesticated version, you see, genius was always unpredictable. And, as has already happened to us with other materials dusted from the archives (all the material around his highly criticized self portrait 1970, for example), even the most debatable, or discussed, Dylan turns out to be capital. The unexpected Tokyo box is, never better said, an Asian luxury, but it allows a period that we had forgotten in our memory to shine in all its splendor.

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