Despite our reputation for being skittish about high art Americans do appreciate the value of the classics.
Put up a show of Van Gogh or Vermeer, and we'll pack a museum; screen a new print of "Gone With the Wind" or "The Wizard of Oz," and we'll forsake our VCRs for the movie theater. After all, it's not often we get to experience a masterwork in the flesh.
So when it was announced that Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchelwould be touring together (they play Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, College Park, Thursday), most rock fans thought, "Wow! What a classic bill!"
What they didn't think was: "I better go buy tickets."
Even though these two are among the most recognizable anrevered names in rock, the Bob and Joni Show is not shaping up as Tour of the Year. Although the two are playing a few big arenas, like Madison Square Garden in New York and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, most of the tour stops are at smaller coliseums and college athletic centers. In most cities, good seats are still very much available.
Why isn't this tour a bigger deal? It would be easy enough to puthe blame on demographics. The typical arena-rock-concert audience wasn't even born when Dylan was jamming with the Band at Big Pink, or Mitchell was coming down with "A Case of You."
But neither were they born when Mick Jagger first brayed, "It'Only Rock and Roll," and that hasn't stopped the Stones from packing stadiums on their last few tours.
No, a more likely reason people aren't rushing to see Dylan anMitchell is that they know what they're likely to get and would rather stay home with their CDs.
Dylan, in particular, has developed a reputation for uneven (andat times, nearly unlistenable) performances. Even though he is still capable of greatness on stage, such moments have become rare. Far more typical are shows in which he seems indifferent or even hostile to the audience, delivering his best-known songs in a voice that boasts all the warmth and charm of a rusty gate-hinge.
Mitchell's standing has not been colored by Dylan's crustinessBut she's not the box-office phenomenon she was in '74, when the live album "Miles of Aisles" testified to the vitality of her live show.
It isn't that Mitchell's voice has lost its power. The problem fomany listeners is that Mitchell's music has lost its appeal. Her most recent album, "Taming the Tiger," is unrepentantly uncommercial, following its jazz-inflected muse without regard for current trends.
A quarter-century ago, a bill like Dylan and Mitchell would havbeen a no-brainer. Today, it's easy to see why even those who own CDs of "Blonde on Blonde" and "Blue" and "Ladies of the Canyon" and "Highway 61 Revisited" would think twice before buying tickets.
But the problem really isn't with Dylan and Mitchell. The mossignificant change between then and now has less to do with what they deliver than with what fans expect.
In the early '70s, the notion of "rock classics" barely existedPeople back then liked hearing older songs by Dylan and Mitchell, since those were generally the songs that made them fans in the first place.
But they were just as interested in hearing new music by thtwo. Part of what made Dylan and Mitchell so appealing was the spark of creative genius that burned brightly within them - even if the resulting fire occasionally burned out of control.
Nowadays, listeners' emotional attachment is to specifirecordings, not necessarily to the musicians who made them. When they do go to see a classic performer like Dylan or Mitchell, they're more interested in hearing the old favorites than whatever new songs the artists may have written.
But musicians aren't frozen in time the way recordings arePopular music doesn't work the way the classical repertoire does; talented young bands don't make their living performing classic singles the way orchestras perform symphonies.
Because the rock era has always celebrated the singer as mucas the song, such faithful re-creations have seemed second-rate, the province of novelty acts like Beatlemania and the all-ABBA show Bjorn Again. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But just as no one in the art world expected to see Picasso paint "Guernica" for the 600th time, it's unreasonable for rock fans to expect Bob Dylan to do "Like a Rolling Stone" every night, just as passionately as he did in 1965.
"I have to compete with myself and often get panned for noplaying my old stuff," Mitchell complained to Billboard recently. And she's right to be angry about it. Anyone who wants to hear her do songs from "Court and Spark" should buy the CD. The only people holding concert tickets should be those who want to hear what she's doing today.
College Park concert
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Cole Field House,
University of Maryland,
Tickets: $40 and $25
Pub date 11/1/98