Regulars and Shorts

Bob Dylan Unstrung

By Alexandra Karl

From one poet to another: Alex Caldiero performs works of the new Nobel laureate.

The day the world gasped at the sight of the 2017 American inauguration, poly-artist Alex Caldiero paid tribute to one of the greatest American troubadours in recent memory: Bob Dylan. Commemorating Dylan’s most recent honorific, Caldiero read 18 of Dylan’s poems, recently published as Bob Dylan. The Lyrics 1961-2012. Stripped of the original music (hence the title “Unstrung”), Dylan’s lyrics soared to new heights under the tutelage of our local sonosopher.

Anyone familiar with Caldiero’s quinquennial readings of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl will know how Wagnerian his performances are. His lungs are deep, and his voice can fill a room as good as any Brünnhilde. To that, he spits, he yells, and he thunders. And after that, he pants and sweats. Folks today might say he “overextends” himself, which speaks to the exhaustively physical nature of his delivery. To that, the timber in his voice has tremendous range. With a twinkle in his eye, Caldiero can whisper as if sharing a dirty joke with a priest. Or, he can sermonize like the great Dr. King himself. Finally, Caldiero stares his audience down, as if casting an ancient Sicilian spell. Just as easily, his gaze can turn skyward, asking the eternal question “Why have you forsaken me??” Coupled with the lamentations of Dylan, well, heaven help us all.

Case in point was Caldiero’s take on ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.’ Sketching a nation bursting with riches yet morally bankrupt, Dylan’s narrator led us along a sequence of paths lined with diamond highways and poet-corpses. Recounting this, the shaman Caldiero practically coaxed the skies to open; as an anecdote of civil unrest, pathetic fallacy was forced to a whole new level. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was also reborn and improved, from a pithy pop song to a cautionary tale rich with pathos and despair. Dylan’s exploration of the drifter’s exile was originally lightened by his folksy harmonica which cast the tune as a hobo’s anthem. Caldiero striped it bare, and circled like a vulture around that central question: How does it feeeeel? Confronting the audience, Caldiero placed the question squarely in our laps. One hell of a question for a community grappling with a growing homeless population.

When the Nobel was announced, many literati raged against the Committee for awarding the prize to a lowly pop singer. And yet, to hear Caldiero channel Dylan is to fully comprehend the wisdom of their decision and to embrace Dylan’s true métier. Not only did Caldiero save Dylan’s works from the pitfalls of commercialization, but he revealed new depths, including a cynicism of biblical proportions. No, not the pie-in-the-sky hope of Jesus-Christ-our-Savior, but the despairing hopelessness of Jews wandering in the desert and the condemnation of a truly wrathful God. We were reminded of the ongoing corruption of elected officials, the steady churning of a bloated war machine and the blind futility of the human race. Case in point is ‘Blowing in the Wind’, which might well have been written by Ecclesiastes.

‘Unstrung’ also guided the audience into that alternate universe in which two great artists temporarily graze each other’s orbits. The fact that Caldiero’s performance took place on Inauguration Day proved serendipitous. With many still reeling from the day’s events, Unstrung served as an elixir (alexir?) to the feeble pageantry of the day. ‘Unstrung’ suggested that a great moment had indeed transpired; that for a split second, the eyes of the world had turned to America. Not because a buffoon despot had taken the reins, but because there had indeed been a king among us.

Alexandra Karl is an educator, art historian and essayist. She lives in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2017.