Bob Dylan & Paul Simon: Slip Slidin’ Away

© 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz

“You know the nearer your destination,
the more you’re slip slidin’ away.”
— Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” 1977

Near the end of the prior millennium, the two greatest folk-rock composers of the 1960s, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, teamed up for a concert tour. Attention must be paid. Both men’s early music was so intertwined with the social issues of the day — civil rights, Vietnam, recreational drug use, sexual revolution and existential angst — that they hold special meaning for those who came of age during those times.

Thus I plunked down $70 for their June 22, 1999, concert at the Hollywood Bowl, knowing neither would give me what they knew I wanted, which was, of course, for them to sing all their golden oldies just like they used to, forever young. Fat chance, when Dylan has spent most of his career trying to dodge the revolution, while Simon has spent his trying to prove his last name isn’t Garfunkel.

Hey, I’m sorry, OK. I know they are sick of doing their old stuff. And I know they have “evolved” and created more stuff since 1969, even if I’m not nearly as familiar with Simon’s 1998 Broadway musical “The Capeman,” or Dylan’s 1997 triple Grammy album, “Time Out of Mind.” But the immutable truth is that for people of a certain age, call us baby boomers or aging hippies, “the music we grew up with” — “Sounds of Silence,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” — remain powerful touchstones, whether we, or the people who created those immortal tunes, like it or not.

In such situations, an uneasy truce tends to exist between audience and performer that goes something like this: The performer will sprinkle the concert with enough moldy stuff to bring a nostalgic tear to the eye, if the audience will be open to the newfangled stuff, or at least refrain from constantly yelling out requests for the old stuff. And somewhere in between, hopefully the performer takes an old song seriously enough to do it justice, and the audience gets turned on to something new.

The ultimate goal is one goose-pimply moment of transcendent clarity, call it sentiment, that makes the rest of the evening worthwhile. For me, the generally lackluster Dylan-Simon concert at the Hollywood Bowl did yield one such moment. It came near the end of Simon’s set, shortly before Dylan came out to collaborate in a niggardly four duets, and Simon split, no doubt to tune up for his next night’s more intimate gig at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip. Stepping away from the multiethnic armada of three towering drum sets that made one wonder which inadequacy Simon might be compensating for, he sang an acoustic, soulful, haunting and, dare I say, straight version of “Slip Slidin’ Away” that seemed to sum up not just the concert, but a generation.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were both born in 1941, although Dylan is the acknowledged father of folk-rock music, while Simon is its prodigal son. By 1965, when Simon & Garfunkel had their first hit with “The Sounds of Silence,” Dylan had already popularized “protest songs” with such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,”  and then caused a schism in the folksinging world by strapping on an electric guitar and fusing urban folk lyrics with pulsating rock ‘n’ roll music, creating such mind-expanding melodies as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Just Like a Woman” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

Then came Dylan’s fabled motorcycle crash, his discovery of religion, and Johnny Cash, and some 20 less memorable albums followed including “Nashville Skyline,” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” “Planet Waves,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “Dylan & the Dead” (from when he toured with The Grateful Dead), and “Self Portrait,” in which he covered Simon’s “The Boxer.” Like several of those albums, his latest effort, 1997’s Grammy album of the year “Time Out of Mind,” is viewed as a major comeback.

With childhood friend Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon began his career in the same urban folksinging tradition as Dylan. Simon & Garfunkel’s first album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 AM,” covered Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changin’,” along with such other protest songs of the antiwar and civil rights movements as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Peggy-O.” While Simon & Garfunkel had a softer, sometimes saccharine sound, Simon’s lyrics were just as poignant as Dylan’s in such songs as “Scarborough Fair,” “Homeward Bound,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And it was their music that accompanied the classic ’60s coming-of-age flick, “The Graduate.”

After splitting with Garfunkel in 1970, Simon went on to record “Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover,” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Like Dylan, who made “Don’t Look Back,” Simon made a movie about the music industry, “One Trick Pony.” He also appeared on numerous “Saturday Night Live” TV shows and gritted out a 1981 nostalgia reunion tour with Garfunkel.

In his late ’80s and early ’90s releases, “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints,” he experimented with Latin rhythms, African beats and other indigenous music. However, in 1986 he was temporarily blacklisted by the African National Congress and United Nations for breaking the apartheid boycott of South Africa with “Graceland,” which was inspired by South Africa dance music and featured the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But the album was both a critical and popular success, and received the Grammy for 1988 record of the year. More controversy hovered over his short-lived 1998 Broadway musical “Capeman,” based on a ’50s New York Puerto Rican gang member.

The careers of Dylan and Simon have crisscrossed but never intersected until the current tour, which, along with the fact that neither man is getting any younger, has some calling the concerts historic. Especially with the duets, the shows would seem to have a huge quotient for goose pimples. Sadly, with the exception of “Slip Slidin’ Away,” the Hollywood Bowl concert provided few such eruptions.

During the tour they were doing 75-minute sets with 15 minutes of duets in the middle, alternating who performed first, and it was Simon’s turn at the Bowl. Flanked by guitars, keyboards and the aforementioned arsenal of percussionists, he launched into an over-orchestrated and under-emotive “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” which counts as a medium moldy, as it is the title track of the last album he did with Garfunkel. Later he did another S&G standard, “Mrs. Robinson,” which got a rise out of the audience at the mention of Joe DiMaggio, who had recently died, but most of his set was devoted to his more recent music, including “Graceland” and a nice rendition of “Trailways Bus” from “Capeman.”

Dylan makes a different deal with his audiences — he’ll sing oldies, just not the same way. Indeed, his playlist included many of his classics, and not only the super hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” but also “Masters Of War,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” But as usual, he sang them in a herky-jerky way that, among other things, makes it impossible to sing along. His harp playing also seemed off. But he played a surprising amount of lead guitar, which was the strongest part of his performance.

While many performers are energized by an audience, Dylan has been feuding with his since they booed him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. As close as he came to acknowledging his fans in Los Angeles was to say “thank you ladies and gentlemen,” but I lost count after he said it five times. He seemed to have only two expressions, one being his patented scowl, and the other a scowling smile. He also displayed some doddering footwork that seemed inspired by Keith Richards, cough syrup or both. 

And then there were the duets, which bridged their individual sets. Following an earnest rendition of “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Simon rather reverently told the audience he felt “honored” to be sharing a stage with Dylan, who came strolling out picking the opening notes to “Sounds of Silence.” Next came the highlight of the show, as Simon chimed in with his guitar and they both stepped up to mikes and basically did Simon and Dylanfunkel. Dylan had a twinkle in his eye like he was enjoying the song, but also like he was enjoying watching Simon squirm through his half of it.

For me, the other duets were a letdown. First they did a medley of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” and Elvis Presley’s rockabilly version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and then Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” hardly a fair trade for “Sounds of Silence.” If Dylan could join Simon in his signature song, then Simon should have joined Dylan in his own anthem of the ’60s, “The Times They are a Changin’.” Now that would have been sentiment.

Dylan did such a good job of imitating Garfunkel in “Sounds of Silence” that it made you wish he’d imitate himself once in awhile. After all, he’s got one of the easiest voices to imitate in music. Even Simon does a great Dylan parody on “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” called “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission),” which would have made a fun addition to the show, as would some of those precious S&G inside tracks like “America,” “Kathy’s Song” and “April She Will Come.”

But enough “thinking of things that might have been.” Bob Dylan and Paul Simon have already provided my generation with enough sentiment to last a lifetime, and if Simon thinks a wall of sound from five continents is better than a curly-haired kid from Queens, that’s his business, and if Dylan thinks that when he sings “Highway 61 Revisited” he should pause between the words “sixty” and “one,” or end his set with a Bo Diddley number, that’s his business as well. Besides, any time I want to hear their old stuff I can go play their records. It was just really nice to see a couple of old friends again. Before we all slip slide away.

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