Thank you for finding this article under the avalanche of stories written by people contemplating what Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday means.
Words have been printed and posted, books have been written and expanded, radio documentaries have been broadcast, all in celebration of the Bard of Hibbing. Can TV news reports be far behind?
What could I possibly add? Even though I’ve seen many links to these articles, I haven’t had time to read most of them. I’m sure the obvious things have been covered – His impact on individuals, music, art, society. How grateful we are that he’s still here and still relevant, still generating headlines, still controversial, still an enigma, still on the road.
When I skimmed the recent Dylan birthday issue of Rolling Stone, it brought to mind an Eric Clapton interview I read probably about a decade ago. I don’t remember the exact question, but when he was asked what his favorite blues songs or records or guitarists were, Clapton answered that he couldn’t think of music in that way.
A simple answer, but, in a way, quite liberating.
Before I even opened Rolling Stone‘s Dylan birthday issue, I was already dismissive of the claim that they really had the definitive list of “The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs.” Do we finally have confirmation, once and for all, that “Tough Mama” (#65) is a slightly better song than “Shelter From The Storm” (#66)? Is “Jokerman” slightly inferior to “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, but just a hair better than “Spanish Harlem Incident”?
I used to have a friend that was also a Dylan fan. When discussing his works, we had a special saying. It didn’t matter if we were discussing Blonde On Blonde, New Morning, or Knocked Out Loaded, one of us would always wistfully comment, “That’s from one of my favorite periods”.
Just as Dylan fans are often puzzled how some people cannot appreciate what we consider to be the “genius” of Dylan’s work, there are those on the other side that don’t understand how we can stand his voice. They also believe that we blindly follow Dylan, as if his words were the sermon on the mount and that we are uncritical devotees, praising everything from his lamest out-takes to his deteriorating voice.
Much like Dylan, we are misunderstood.
One thing that would irritate me, if I let it, is people taking pot-shots at Bob. He’s such an easy target, and easy to mock, with insults accompanied by a pathetic excuse for a “Zimmitation”, usually by someone that could not possibly imagine what it would be like to accomplish the things Dylan has. These people think they know Dylan, but they haven’t got a clue. They think they are clever, but they are the opposite.
When I was younger, it was difficult to understand what Dylan was doing, where it came from, what it meant. For me, it took a concert by Dylan and the Band in 1974 to kick out the limitations in my mind of what music and art could do. It altered the trajectory of my life.
I wanted to understand Dylan, but I had not yet lived enough, experienced enough. Yet I could not get enough.
Since I filed my George, John, Paul, and Ringo solo albums just to the right of my Beatles albums, the Dylan “section” was smack dab in the middle of my relatively small record collection of the mid-1970s. I’d walk up to my LPs, I’d see Dylan album spines staring me in the face, and I’d have to decide – Do I want to listen to Dylan, or something else? I usually chose Dylan.
I grew up on the Beatles and the Monkees, then the Top 40 of WABC and WGLI (AM). I was then interested in underground rock (now known as “classic”), but had to find out about it the hard way, from FM radio and magazines like Creem, Circus, and Crawdaddy. I had no idea what was “cool” or “good”. In high school, one day Grand Funk and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were cool, the next day they weren’t. I didn’t know the difference between Black Sabbath and the Grateful Dead. You’d often blindly buy albums for the exorbitant price of $3.89, basically because the cover was cool.
Most of my friends did not understand Dylan, nor my passion for his music. Even though he was pumping out number one albums like Planet Waves, Blood On The Tracks, and Desire, and touring with The Band and Rolling Thunder, it did not penetrate their worlds. They continued to listen to newer hard rock bands like Aerosmith and Kiss, without even knowing, or caring, how much they stole from the Stones and the Who.
Finally, in 1976, Dylan was going to have his own television special, Hard Rain, in prime time on a major network, just like Sonny & Cher, or Tony Orlando & Dawn. I saw the last Rolling Thunder show of 1975, and loved Desire, but I had not heard anything about the second leg of the tour.
It was very different than the show I saw, and unnerving to watch. My entire family was in the TV room while my friends were in their homes, also watching. It was judgment day.
The program began with Dylan singing “Hard Rain”. It was not a pretty sight. It was an outdoor show in a stadium, and it had been raining. Dylan sang in his yelping voice, a hard voice, a voice crying out in the Colorado wilderness. The song stopped then started again, and again, and again. He even slowed down and dragged out the chorus. It appeared to go on forever.
It was a challenge, but I was not going to be a “Mr. Jones.” I was intrigued, but I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it wasn’t meant to be enjoyed. It was rough, like punk rock without the fashion. It took me years to understand it.
A friend of mine said he turned it off halfway through the first song.
By the end of the 1970s, after the Street Legal tour, Renaldo and Clara, and Slow Train Coming, I had lost the plot. I couldn’t possibly understand what Dylan was doing or what he was going through. I would still follow him, even calling the local NBC affiliate to complain when Dylan’s appearance on SNL was joined in progress due to a Celtics game.
In 1981, I was in England, and saw the second edition of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man, The Art Of Bob Dylan. I didn’t know anything about it, but bought it anyway. It opened up Dylan’s world to me. Gray was able to articulate what Dylan’s music meant, where it came from, and finding nice things to say about such puzzlers as Self Portrait and Saved.
When I got back to the States, I went on a Dylan buying rampage, filling in holes in my collection, and buying books like Paul Cable’s Unreleased Recordings. I would scrounge around used record stores to buy LPs by the Searchers, Clapton, and others that contained unreleased Dylan compositions.
By now I was getting it, or at least beginning. I figured I’d unlocked the secret and wanted to share it, although it would be foolish to claim I understood everything. I spent the 1980s as the lone Dylan supporter at work, picking fights with anyone that put down any Dylan album. When Down In The Groove was released, a friend sarcastically said, “Two great ones in a row, huh?” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Three, actually.” I should have said, “25”.
Analyzing Dylan taught me something. First of all, you’ve got to have faith. Dylan is one of the handful of artists that I trust, and one of the few that is still capable of making great music into his 70s.
There is only one Bob Dylan. There is no one else like him (although many have tried). He is a human conundrum, someone that has created such a mystique that when you discover that he stole from some other artist or media, it not only does not take away from his art, it enhances it.
Next, I’ve learned that it’s important to question everything, and that’s what I’m doing. It is not blind devotion, it’s going beyond the obvious. Anyone can say Dylan can’t sing anymore, or Dylan sold out, or laugh at Christmas in The Heart. That’s easy.
Dylan is never easy.
If you’re making fun of Dylan, you probably don’t get him (or you write op-ed pieces for the New York Times). And you probably never will.
I’m sure I don’t get everything about Dylan, but I’m learning, still, and I’m just sharing another point of view. The hidden view, the one in the shadows, where many are afraid to look. If I’m defending Dylan’s voice at the Grammys, it’s sincere. I’m not saying it’s pretty, I’m just saying it’s real.
For me, that’s something to be applauded.
Happy miscellaneous birthday, Bob. You don’t need any advice. I just hope you enjoy this one, and many more to come.
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