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.