“Ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes”: Bob Dylan in Saigon

Bob Dylan and his band performed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Sunday April 10th, 2011.

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On a bus somewhere between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City I watched Southeast Asia roll by with Bob Dylan in my ears. Growling motorbikes, bright green rice fields, billboards advertising SIM cards and Coca-Cola. What kind of poetry, I wondered, would Bob Dylan write about dusty border town casinos, stark visa checkpoints, and pink pigs sleeping in the backs of trucks? What about the road from Cambodia to Vietnam would capture his imagination? Or would he simply lean back in the lumpy Mekong Express seat and fall asleep?

My boyfriend is a huge Bob Dylan fan, and when we found out that the legendary singer-songwriter was playing in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) it seemed an opportunity too good to pass up. We booked tickets, organised visas, and a week later we were on a bus to Vietnam. Crossing the border from Cambodia is a strange experience. The differences between the two countries are subtle, but deep-rooted. There are red and yellow flags everywhere in Vietnam, and signs in parks that warn people away from “fortune-telling and other evils”. Ho Chi Minh City is full of skinny, dark, rambling alleyways; there are Subway restaurants and Pizza Huts, and elderly cyclo drivers tell stories about the Vietnam War (rather than the Khmer Rouge). Ho Chi Minh City is much more developed than Phnom Penh, sporting skyscrapers and shady parks, as well as cinemas and shopping malls. It is busier, too, and lacks the laidback atmosphere I’ve become used to in Cambodia. As nice as it was to walk down sidewalks that weren’t cracked and littered with motorbikes and street vendors, I found myself missing the relaxed mood of Phnom Penh after only a few days.

The concert was held on Sunday evening at the RMIT university campus, about a fifteen minute taxi ride from the centre of Saigon. The atmosphere as the sun went down was relaxed and friendly. The outdoor venue was relatively small, and there were about four thousand people in the audience, a mix of Vietnamese and foreigners. We sat on the ground in the warm evening air, watching bats flap around the stage. The show opened with a Vietnamese band performing songs composed by the late Trinh Cong Son – a musician and poet known as the “Vietnamese Bob Dylan” for his antiwar songs. The music was dramatic and passionate and, although I couldn’t understand the Vietnamese lyrics, it was a spectacular performance complete with elaborate costumes, and smoke. A buzz ran through the audience as the stage was set up for Bob Dylan and his band. Looking around the crowd I noticed a lot of older Westerners, and wondered what seeing Bob Dylan live meant to them, and what memories songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone” brought back. Dylan’s band appeared on stage first – dressed in tan suits and black hats they resembled suave 1920s gangsters. Dylan himself, now almost seventy years old, wore a black suit and a classy white hat. He did not speak to the audience, but began playing straight away. In a voice that is these days spine-tinglingly guttural and bluesy Dylan played fifteen songs in a row, moving from the keyboard to the guitar to the harmonica. He opened with “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”, from the 1979 album “Slow Train Coming”. Many of the songs that followed were from his most recent albums, “Love and Theft” (2001), “Modern Times” (2006), and “Together Through Life” (2009). These albums are – both musically and lyrically – a far cry from his famous ‘protest’ songs of the 1960s. However, the set was also sprinkled with classics from the 60s and 70s, including “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965) and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963).

Some of the audience seemed disappointed that Dylan didn’t play “Blowin’ In the Wind” (1962) and “The Times They Are A’Changin’” (1964). Human rights groups, also, have accused Dylan of capitulating to censors in China and Vietnam by not singing these more politically sensitive songs. However, Dylan’s decision not to play them seems driven less by politics and more by the fact that they do not reflect where he is at this point in his life – musically or personally. Dylan steered away from politics very early on in his career (the song “My Back Pages” from the 1964 album “Another Side of Bob Dylan” perhaps most clearly marks this shift in his thinking), and yet he is still expected to be an icon of protest fifty years later. Nobody told the Backstreet Boys they should have spoken out against censorship or human rights abuses when they played in Vietnam a few weeks before Dylan did. Dylan’s musical career eludes categorization. Throughout his life he has shifted from acoustic folk music to rock and roll, from rock and roll to country music, pop and blues. Dylan remains true to the music he wants to create, to the lyrics he wants to write – he does not capitulate to anyone, whether censors or human rights groups. Nor, it seems, is he worried about what people think of him. As he sings in “Not Dark Yet” (from the 1997 album “Time Out of Mind”), he “ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes”. And neither should we look for anything in his. Dylan finished the concert with an encore of “Like A Rolling Stone” (1965), “All Along The Watchtower” (1967), and “Forever Young” (1974). I left feeling like I’d seen a wonderful show by a brave and honest musician and poet, whose career has changed in a way that reflects the shifting nature of life itself.

On the bus back to Phnom Penh the next day, watching the motos and taxis and cows go by, I tried to understand what Bob Dylan means to me. A few weeks ago my idea of Bob Dylan was of a popular protest singer from the 1960s, an icon of a particular political movement, the ‘voice of a generation’. But after listening to the way his albums – and ideas – have changed over the years, I have come to respect him as a poet and as a man who has been true to himself; an artist who recognises the ambiguities of life and is not afraid to admit being confused by them. Dylan continues to write about love and life and death, but he doesn’t pretend to be an authority on any of these things. As he sings in “My Back Pages” – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.

Set List, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Sunday April 10th, 2011.

  1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking (Slow Train Coming, 1979)
  2. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
  3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ (Together Through Life, 2009)
  4. Tangled Up In Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
  5. Honest With Me (Love and Theft, 2001)
  6. Simple Twist of Fate (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
  7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Love and Theft, 2001)
  8. Love Sick (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
  9. The Levee’s Gonna Break (Modern Times, 2006)
  10. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
  11. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
  12. Spirit On The Water (Modern Times, 2006)
  13. My Wife’s Hometown (Together Through Life, 2009)
  14. Jolene (Together Through Life, 2009)
  15. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

Encore

  1. Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
  2. All Along The Watchtower (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
  3. Forever Young (Planet Waves, 1974)
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