“Everybody must get stoned,” Bob Dylan began. As these things go, it was a good prescription for an evening of rock, even if there were some in the audience who looked (and smelled) like they had taken the advice long before he offered it. But it was also a strangely appropriate sentiment.
No disrespect to a fine poet and lyricist, but the very idea of this counterculture icon, this prototype of the rockin’ rebel, this purveyor of protest poetry and subversion song winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is surreal enough to make you wonder if everybody has indeed got stoned.
The Desert Trip concert in Indio, California, had been announced six months ago: six classic rock acts over one weekend. Taking note of the huge buzz, the organisers added a second weekend. I was lucky enough to snag a ticket via a friend of my sister’s, for the second. When I got off the endless flight from Mumbai, a stray WhatsApp message beeped the news at me. It wasn’t just that I had six of the biggest names in rock to look forward to over the next three days. No, one of them had just won the Literature Nobel.
Never one to care for inhaling, I tried getting drunk instead and was foxed at the margarita stall. The lady there filled $12 drink orders by, first, filling a glass to the brim with small ice cubes and only then, dribbling some liquid over them. I called out: “I’d like just two cubes, please!” She shook her head. “Can’t do it. Thing is, we’re required to use a specific amount of ice.” Twelve dollars for mildly flavoured ice cubes? To get even slightly drunk, I’d have had to spend enormous quantities of dollars, 12 by 12.
So it was while nursing my mildly flavoured ice cubes that I listened to the most recent Nobel Laureate sing on Friday, October 14. Even with seats closer to the stage than perhaps 90% of the audience – estimates ranged from 70,000 to 100,000 – we were still a good 100 metres away. The man was just a tiny spotlit stick figure. Mostly, we watched his image on a massive screen. That’s how I knew he wore a black suit sans tie, silver curlicues up the pant legs, hair backlit like a halo, standing at a piano as he encouraged us all to get stoned.
Throughout his set, the screen also had a nonstop panorama of grainy black-and-white images from the past: miners, commuters, street scenes with geese flying overhead, a cheering crowd below a “Welcome back Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins!” sign. Dylan was taking us back, clearly, to that simpler but troubled era, the 1960s. Because that is when Dylan began making his musical mark, with a slew of songs that spoke to those times.
Like these lines from a famous song on a 1965 album: “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun/Crying like a fire in the sun./Look out the saints are coming through/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
With some friends, I once played this song on the radio. That was a disaster. But while practicing, “the saints” always came across like Dylan’s sardonic comment about his world. Maybe he meant a frightened young Vietnamese fighter, mowed down by American soldier “saints”. Maybe he meant civil rights activists in deep Mississippi, their moral compass their only weapon against murderous white supremacist “saints”. Maybe he meant Biafra, or Cuba, or any of so many little guys who struggle against powerful “saints” – and then, of course, it’s all over.
It is for a half-century of holding such images up to us through song after song, of making us think about them till it hurts, that the Nobel went to Dylan.
That evening in Indio, he sang with the gravelly, smoky passion I remember from his earliest songs, not the mumbling going-through-the-motions that he has done in recent years. There was Highway 61 Revisited, Simple Twist of Fate, Hurricane, Tangled Up in Blue, Desolation Row and more. He played the piano, made the harmonica wail and romanced the mike.
And he said not one word to his audience. Not even about his Nobel. Then, suddenly, it was all over.
But no, the Rolling Stones took the stage. They began with the song whose title fits their lead singer to a T: Jumping Jackflash. In a brilliant pink shirt, Mick Jagger strutted – the word is always used for him, but nothing captures the man better – like an angry peacock about the stage, belting out the words.
“I was born in a cross-fire hurricane/And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,” it started. As the Stones always intended, this was hardly the clean-cut “Love, love me do/You know I love you” stuff that their good-boy British competition offered in those distant days. The Stones were and remain the howlers, the growlers, the unapologetic strutters of rock-and-roll. And Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood – in electric colours themselves – showed us just what that meant.
Not forgetting Charlie Watts. At 75, Watts was fierce, almost feral on the drums. One close-up on the giant screen, during It’s Only Rock and Roll, featured just his bare left arm. As he turned his stick into a manic blur, the stringy muscles of bicep and forearm visibly rippled. There is something elemental, almost naked, about the best drummers’ work. You could imagine moments when nothing else mattered to Watts except the roiling yet majestic drama of his drumming. How does he find the strength and stamina, I wondered, the will to keep this up for over two hours?
Probably by looking out at his fellow Stones. “Welcome to the ‘Catch ‘em before they croak’ festival,” Jagger announced at one point, and that nicely summed up the spirit of the evening. There was urgency to their performance, a feeling that surely there are not a whole lot of years of raucous, rambunctious rocking left in those skinny, fit yet ageing bodies. So Jagger strutted, Richards and Wood kept up the tempo on screaming guitars – and in his tight yellow sleeveless tee thrashing at his drums, Watts was the fount of the band’s energy.
They expended it through Get Off My Cloud, Angie, Sweet Virginia, and several more songs, including one from their upcoming blues-based album Just Your Fool. About that last one, Jagger took a moment to tell us: “When we were growing up outside London, we thought we had discovered the blues. But it was the blues that brought us all together.” A confession, I suspect, that most musicians who take to the blues might make.
And Jagger, finally, spoke of the elephant in the room. “We’ve never shared a stage with a Nobel Prize winner before,” said Jagger. “What a fantastic thing he has done.” For his part, before a rousing She’s My Little Rock and Roll, Richards remarked: “I can’t think of anyone who deserves the Nobel more.”
It was nearing midnight when the Stones broke out Start Me Up. Most in the crowd had been there nearly seven hours. Most in the crowd, if not in our 70s like the rockers, were not exactly young whipper-snappers either. Yet the song worked like its lyrics suggest: “If you start me up I’ll never stop/I’ve been running hot/You got me ticking, gonna blow my top.”
Right about then the big screen showed an overhead drone shot of the crowd: a vast, ticking, squirming mass of ecstatic faces and reaching arms. Blowing their top and reaching out for the Stones.
Reaching out, to that simpler time when rock was young. And so were we.
Well before dusk on Saturday, almost without warning, Neil Young was there on stage, plonking out on a piano the familiar chords that begin After the Gold Rush. That once-young face with its sly smile was now lined, almost haggard – but his voice was far less affected by the years. On “There was a fanfare blowing/To the sun”, he hit the same highs that he managed back “in the nineteen seventies”, even if the song’s lyrics remained as opaque as they were then.
Dylan may have won the Nobel, but Young – this song apart – does not cede much ground to him poetry-wise. His Southern Man, for example, pulled no punches in mentioning crosses that “are burning fast” amid “screamin’ and bullwhips crackin’”. The song annoyed the band Lynyrd Skynyrd enough that they tore into Young in their hit Sweet Home Alabama: “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her [the South]/Well, I heard ole Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
I always used to wonder, after that Skynyrd salvo, if Young would give up on Southern Man in his concerts. He did not, though on this particular Saturday evening, ole Neil did not sing it. But he did turn that Jack Daniels voice to Comes A Time, Helpless, Heart of Gold, Cowgirl in the Sand, and through it all, the stage featured several Native American tepees, and the screen had “Seeds of life” printed across it. So even without Southern Man, we knew there was some kind of statement on its way.
There were two. One was when he flung sacks of seeds into the crowd, making a point about resisting the hold of seed companies on agriculture. The other was a new song, Neighborhood (Hang Gliders), which spoke of terrorists “hidden there in the darkness”, because of whom “my life would end tomorrow”. Then these lines: “I think I know who to blame/It’s all those people with funny names/Moving into our neighborhood/How can I tell if they’re bad or good?”
Keep on rocking in the free world, Neil Young: there could hardly be a clearer slap at the shallow hatreds and prejudices of our times. “Come back tomorrow night,” he said just before he left the stage. “They’re going to build a wall and we can make Mexico great again.”
But before that, we had Paul McCartney, Saturday’s second act. If every singer on the bill brought memories of a receding past, McCartney’s performance was arguably the most soaked in nostalgia, purely because of the phenomenon the Beatles became. At nearly 75, his is still recognisably that famous baby-face with its slightly astonished air, as if asking: “How did I ever get here?” Practiced to perfection, no doubt, but still. All 75,000 of us bopped along to every word, every chord, of Hard Day’s Night, Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Back in the USSR, O-Bla-Di and, yes, Love Me Do, with several more recent compositions sprinkled in.
A suit-clad Rihanna joined him for FourFiveSeconds, and when they jointly wailed “I’m tryin’ to make it back home by Monday morning”, at least some of us, far from home for just the weekend, felt the pangs. Minutes later, Neil Young returned to the stage. The two veterans combined for rousing versions of A Day in the Life, Give Peace a Chance and Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?, on which Young took off on a biting, blistering guitar solo.
And if we needed a not-so-subtle reminder of just how long and strange a journey it has been, we got it in the famous opening line from McCartney’s song with Wings, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five: “No one ever left alive/In nineteen hundred eighty-five/Will ever do.” Well, Paul, here we are: some of us are still alive in 2016.
On Sunday evening, The Who were infernally noisy. Enough said.
They gave way to Roger Waters, the creative genius behind much of Pink Floyd’s music. His was more show than concert: the music combining with massive, elaborate sets and props. Now we knew what Mister Young meant with his remark about a wall: the backdrop was an enormous factory wall, complete with smokestacks even emitting smoke, high above. Pink Floyd’s Wall, of course, but maybe someone else’s too?
Through Breathe and Time we cruised with Waters, and through Money and Shine On You Crazy Diamond too. Welcome to the Machine and Wish You Were Here only heightened the anticipation, and then came his Pigs, and the point of it all.
“Big man, pig man, ha ha charade you are” – and there he was suddenly, a dozen times larger than life, with “CHARADE” printed right across his face: that man Donald Trump. More caricatures of the man appeared, more words about him, and a selection of his most absurd aphorisms displayed for all to mock. And way behind us, way in the back of the audience, a giant inflated pig floated across the ground. “Divided we fall,” it said, and “Fuck Trump and his Wall”.
From then on, every song, every line, every word, Waters sang carried the same weight of protest and scorn: Run Like Hell and Lunatic in particular. And when he came to “Mother, should I run for President/Mother, should I trust the Government?” it was hardly a surprise to see these words in font size 2000: “NO FUCKING WAY”.
We began with “Everybody must get stoned”. Three rocking evenings later, then, what we ended with seemed only fitting: “TRUMP IS A PIG”.