Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dylan at 65

My first clue that Bob Dylan was something more than an average pop star occurred in my American History class. It was May 24th, 1971, and I was an acne-ravaged sophomore in high school. Mr. Goodman, our young, hip, twenty-something teacher strolled into the classroom and asked, “Does anybody know what day this is?” Thursday? Almost Memorial Day? Nobody did.

“Bob Dylan’s birthday,” he triumphantly announced. “Bob Dylan is thirty years old today. He’s now officially part of the world that cannot be trusted.”

I thought this was weird on many levels. Here was a grown man, college educated, presumably mature, who knew the birthday of a pop star. Thirteen-year-old girls who read Tiger Beat might know Donny Osmond’s birthday, but I didn’t expect American History teachers to spout off like giggling adolescents. Who was this Bob Dylan, and why did he inspire otherwise sober, respectable individuals to carry on about his birthday?

I decided to find out for myself. I knew Bob Dylan, of course. You couldn’t listen to the radio and not know Bob Dylan. One of my earliest musical memories, after acquiring the aqua transistor radio and wresting control of the radio dial away from my parents, was of Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone.” In the summer of 1965 the song was ubiquitous. The condensed, edited version of the song came blasting out of that tinny transistor radio every hour or so. They played it over the loudspeakers at the local swimming pool, where I was developing my first pre-adolescent crush on Cindy Bechtel, and my memories of the song are inextricably linked with those hot summer days. How does it feeeeeeeeel? It feels all tingly. My cousin Mike had the unedited 45 RPM single, which was six minutes long, something strange and incomprehensible. And that was even before you listened to the lyrics.

So in the late spring of 1971, hard upon Bob Dylan’s passage into the world of untrustworthiness, I decided to check out what all the fuss was about. I took the money I had saved from babysitting and mowing lawns (how Bob Dylan would sneer at that), and during the next year or so I bought the entire back catalogue, starting with 1962’s Bob Dylan, and continuing right on up through New Morning, the most current album at the time.

Over the course of the next five or six years, through high school and well into college, those dozen albums were my constant companions. By that time Bob Dylan had already gone through four or five transformations, from Woody Guthrie acolyte and singer of traditional folk songs to writer of transcendent protest music to creator of surrealistic, hallucinogenic rock ‘n roll to Americana roots music hero to country crooner. No wonder Mr. Goodman was so excited. Bob Dylan packed more music into nine years than most musicians or bands pack into a lifetime. And the songs, of course, were mind-bogglingly great. They were so quotable, so full of memorable aphorisms, and even when they made no sense on a cognitive level, they still spoke to something in the deep, unfathomable psyche:

Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial/
Voices echo this is what salvation will be like after a while.

God only knew what that meant. Actually, God was probably confused, too. But it still rattled around in the brain and burrowed down into the nooks and crannies where the best poetry resides, finding connections to our unspoken longings and inarticulate groanings. Mr. Goodman was right to celebrate this man’s birthday.

But he was wrong about one thing. It turned out that you never could trust Bob Dylan, and turning thirty had nothing to do with it. From the very beginning Dylan created his own myth, defined himself on his own terms, invented a back story out of whole cloth that included riding the rails and working as a cowboy in Gallup, New Mexico. None of it was true, even if it revealed some truths. Hibbing, Minnesota’s Robert Zimmerman would have never become a rock star poet. Bob Dylan fit the part just fine.

He has kept at it, of course, for forty-five years now. During that time he’s released his share of insipid music. The Poet of the Sixties has managed to rhyme “moon” and “June” and “spoon” not once, but several times. He’s had albums – hell, he’s had multi-year stretches – where he’s just phoned it in, not even really tried. The voice, always an acquired taste, has now taken on the gruff timbre of a Delta bluesman, and he doesn’t so much sing now as chant querulously. And yet there is this astounding fact: he’s still capable of dropping a stone cold masterpiece at any time. Every time I’ve been ready to write him off, he’s come back with music so powerful, so majestic, that I shake my head in wonder.

They called him the Voice of a Generation, but they were wrong. He’s the voice of multiple generations, and he keeps on talking, and if we’re smart, we’ll keep on listening. His last studio album, Love and Theft, was released on September 11th, 2001, a day when terrorists were crashing airplanes into tall buildings.

Your days are numbered/
And so are mine

He told us that in one of the songs released that day, and if we had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled in the plumes of smoke rising from Ground Zero. He’s always spoken the hard truths, the eternal verities that we don’t want to hear but need to hear. And the astonishing truth, almost a half century down the line, is that he may very well be the Poet of the Oughties too.

How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?

He asked us that forty years ago. You would know, Bob. You tell us. There is a part of me that pities him as much as loves him and is astonished by him and is confounded by him. The Never Ending Tour has now been alighting at a city near you since the late ‘80s. This is the price of being Bob Dylan. You wander the earth, and you never stop long enough to leave the fingerprints of human connection. You connect through your music. And whoever he is – this mystery man, this mythical hobo now transformed into the real deal – he will not go easily or quietly. Don’t think twice about it, Bob. It’s all right. We wouldn’t want you any other way.

So does anybody know what day this is? It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday. Bob Dylan is 65 years old today. He’s now officially a part of the world that can collect a Social Security check. But don’t look for it to happen anytime soon.


mg said...

speaking of dylan, i got the latest paste a couple days ago with him on the cover and the recipient as the #1 greatest living songwriter. he definitely is deserving of the honor, although his voice is indeed an acquired taste. i wonder if i enjoy other people singing his songs more than the man himself?

i had missed the 'living' tag as part of the 100 greatest. i was about ready to call up paste and cancel my subscription for omitting john lennon from the list when i realized that it was the living songwriters issue. i wonder what a 'greatest songwriters of all time' issue would looke like.

other complaints? sufjan stevens ranking higher than cat stevens. for crying out loud?!?

Andy Whitman said...

Heh. Those are the kinds of arguments (and the kinds of outraged letters that will no doubt be heading Paste's way) that a list like that is supposed to generate.

I had my own pet peeves with the list, and believe me, there was a lot of (good natured, I hope) argument and discussion about it before it reached its final stage. The "living songwriter" criterion was, in itself, a source of contention. My take: it's completely arbitrary. How can you leave Johnny Cash or Duke Ellington or John Lennon off a list of "greatest songwriters"? Answer: because they're dead, and we're only concerned with living songwriters. My take #2: Then you better hope that Bob Dylan doesn't keel over a heart attack between now and when you publish this issue. It's totally arbitrary. If you had published this issue in the summer of 2003 instead of the summer of 2006, then Johnny Cash would have to be near the top of your list. But because he's dead, you can ignore him. Bah! Humbug! Etc.

But ... the Paste editors are correct in that lots of magazines have published lists of great songwriters in the past. The "twist," if you will, is that Paste focused only on living songwriters. To my knowledge, nobody else has tried that approach (and with good reason, because it's arbirary :-)). See. There was plenty of dissension about that list well before it was published. It will be interesting to see the response now that it's out officially.

One area where there was no dissension: Bob Dylan as #1. It's the obvious choice, and for a while there various Paste folks tried to come up with arguments as to why someone else might deserve the top slot. But really, it was no contest. No one else even really comes close in terms of quality, longevity, and cultural impact. Before Bob Dylan there was "How much is that doggy in the window/The one with the waggly tail." After Bob Dylan there was "Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial/Voices echo this is what salvation will be like after a while." His music is the great BC/AD dividing line in contemporary songwriting.

Anonymous said...

Andy -

Michael from Indiana here. I too noticed the greatest living songwriter and had a forth- coming of it from your December/January article in Paste Magazine. Why "living" greatest songwriter? Sure, everyone will have opinions butleaving off the "dead" is absurd. Some of world's greatest are not considered great because they're dead? Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, do I dare say Kurt Cobain? Wait...maybe I'm all washed up. Maybe that's the next issue of Paste Magazine.
Honestly, I think that it's living dangerously close to disaster when a publication offers to slip to these low news for such a tasteful magazine. And I'm one of Paste Magazine's biggest "fans" too. Next will be best guitarist, sexiest singer, nicest hair, acrobatic drumstick throws...
Michael, Noblesville, IN