Grand Pops

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon tour together

On one hand, you've got the wheezing, craggy troubadour mired in his own legend. On the other, a genre-raiding predator fresh off creating one of Broadway's worst flops.

But with enough hits between them to fill plenty of CDs and, more important, lots of historical gravitas, this show should be a dream. In fact, this Houston date is part of an extended schedule. Taking turns opening at each stop, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon each deliver a 75-minute show, with a duet segment sandwiched in between. Dylan has been receiving most of the positive press for a raucous, revival-style set, which combines both drastically recast familiar numbers and obscure bits. It seems he has been able to draw strength from the success of his material both new (1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind) and ancient (the recently released Live: 1966).

Simon plays it safe, though the world beats behind his familiar numbers add some adventure. Whatever the case for each man, their being together is probably good performance motivation -- friendly competition and all that.

Dylan and Simon are both old men, yet they still perform music for rebellious, introspective teens.
Dylan and Simon are both old men, yet they still perform music for rebellious, introspective teens.

The duet sections are a bit wobblier. They include one song from each man's catalog (usually "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "The Sounds of Silence") and revolving oldies ("Blue Moon of Kentucky," "I Walk the Line," "The Wanderer"). But to not pair both for at least a few tunes would be an even bigger tragedy than hearing Dylan's croak substituting for Art Garfunkel's choirboy vocalizations.

Ultimately this show is far more than a nostalgia fest from '60s relics, men who began their careers in folk rock but nonetheless have seen great commercial and critical successes.

No other artist in the history of pop music -- or pop culture for that matter -- has been both more lionized and more hindered by his legacy than the boy born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, 1941. Hard-core Dylanologists endlessly analyze every nasally word that drops from his mouth and every song he has ever recorded both officially and otherwise. (Dylan is the most bootlegged artist in music history.) From quickie school textbook blurbs to highfalutin musical treatises that run hundreds of pages, many would have you think that if there were no Bob, there would be no pop music as we know it today.

Credit (or damn) Dylan for being one of the first to pen self-confessional and introspective lyrics, record long stream-of-consciousness tracks, blend country and folk with rock and even create the singer/ songwriter concept that was a radical idea in the early '60s, when performers performed songs, writers wrote them, and the two rarely intermingled. And then there's that voice: More than any other artist, Dylan proved that you don't have to be able to sing to be a rock star. (But really, who else could have sung that material, anyway?)

Dylan's songwriting also helped boost careers, including those of Peter, Paul and Mary ("Blowin' in the Wind"), the Byrds ("Mr. Tambourine Man"), the Turtles ("It Ain't Me, Babe"), Cher ("All I Really Wanna Do"), Jimi Hendrix ("All Along the Watchtower," Dylan's own favorite version) and even Manfred Mann ("Quinn the Eskimo").

It was also during this period that Dylan recorded the song that would cement his prophet status, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

And that's where the danger comes. Perhaps that's why Dylan consciously chose to embody more musical personas than Madonna through the years: not only to diffuse the prophet myth, but to keep himself interested. Though he has dabbled in everything from Christian to country to blues to hard rock music, none caused more controversy than when he simply plugged in an electric guitar.

Bob Dylan would spend the next two decades parlaying his increasingly literate lyrics into a series of records that varied wildly in quality and focus. Singles including "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35" (with its chorus of "everybody must get stoned") are classic rock chestnuts. Some releases received critical hosannas, other a collective groan of "ugh!" or "huh?" John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline basically invented country rock, Desire marked the mid-'70s rock era, and both the double-sided Blonde on Blonde and The Basement Tapes are must-listens. The latter was just a fraction of the tunes recorded in Dylan's country home in New York while he was recovering from injuries suffered from a motorcycle accident. His backing band was the Hawks -- now called The Band -- which ultimately made its own records. Amazingly, none of the Dylan material was ever intended for release, but the clamor for new stuff and shoddy bootlegs indirectly changed that plan.

In the '80s and much of the '90s, Dylan became too much like those classic authors from English Lit. 101. Everybody knew about him, but only a couple had actually heard his music. Dylan returned to form with Infidels in 1983 and Oh Mercy! in 1989, while gigging constantly with his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead.

The past couple of years have been fruitful. Dylan's 1997 record, Time Out of Mind, surprised many by taking three Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal (though voters were probably choosing the legend over the record).

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