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In Praise of Bob Dylan

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What will you be doing at 67?

Touring the country in the world’s best cowboy band, putting out chart topping albums, playing in the vicinity of one hundred gigs a year?

Bob Dylan is a man of singular accomplishments. His career is littered with a string of ‘firsts,’ and true to form, and until recently (bumped by Neil Diamond in May) he held he honor of being the oldest living person to ever have a number one album on the Billboard charts. This was merely one more notch in the belt of this curious man, who, birthed in the nowhere of Hibbing, Minnesota, left and found himself somewhere, at the forefront of American song, a vagabond commenting on the mysteries of love and life, a constantly roaming soul ruled by restlessness and endless search for new experience. For beauty. And truth, let’s not forget truth. Dylan never does.

I first heard of Bob Dylan when I was eleven years old, in 1963. His second record had come out, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was making its way into everyone’s consciousness via the bland but reassuring version Peter, Paul and Mary had riding the radio waves. Even then, before he’d barely begun his career, Dylan was mythic. He was like a holy man, a great wise prophet of twenty-one years who you had to make a pilgrimage to, even if the pilgrimage was only down to the local Woolworth’s when you’d scrounged up enough change to buy the album.

A friend of mine, Billy Pendergast, was the first on our street, in the white bread little suburban town of Reading, Massachusetts, to own it. Billy and I were opposites – he didn’t have much to say about anything, was pragmatic, the most athletic of a neighborhood full of baby boomer boys. He was a clear-eyed boy, no nonsense, a natural leader. Think Clint Eastwood at a year older than me at the time – twelve. We all looked up to him, he commanded respect, but I secretly considered him to be somewhat dull and unimaginative. He wasn’t interested in reading much, as far as I knew, not even comic books.

So when I heard he had Dylan’s album, I was taken aback, but excited that he owned it. I asked him if I could come over and listen, and he said sure. That was where I first heard the voice of Bob Dylan in earnest, other than a snatch of him singing Blowin’ in the Wind on the radio. Down in Billy’s basement, around a little mono turntable usually used to play pop 45’s, a tinny, single speaker a voice across that room, a voice that would come to shape my life, guide me, test me, haunt me through all my days.

We listened respectfully to the whole thing, commenting over it sparsely, just sitting, listening. I felt like I was grounded to the floor, melded to it as if by a bolt of electricity. This was some alien, a human unlike the ones I knew of, singing a litany of clues to our very existence. It wasn’t smooth or polished, it wasn’t happy pop music
played for the purpose of forgetting the problems of the world – this was ragged, pained, dark, joyful, strong, exultant music that sounded as old as a prairie wagon, as old as a rusted wheel beside a falling down barn. This was as real as it got, as far as I could tell at the time.

I would later discover that Dylan in fact had studied his sources with the painstaking attention of a archivist, an archeologist, and was for that reason able to recreate the authentic sound of the blues singers of the cotton fields, the wandering folk troubadours, including grand statements made in the shadow of his musical and intellectual mentor, Woody Guthrie. All at twenty-one years old. He had somehow assimilated countless acres of a vast, centuries old American musical landscape, as well as incorporating the European ballad tradition.

And by then, by his second record, Dylan had come to surpass even his own mentor, by writing the song,"A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall,” drawing from sources as diverse as the Scottish ballad “Lord Randall” and surrealist imagery. It was a weird, a timeless prophecy painted in stark chiaroscoro and fragmented word puzzles. Allen Ginsberg said that when he heard “Hard Rain,” he wept, understanding that this young man had appeared from nowhere and succeeded in bridging poetry and the popular song in a way no one had before, or has since.

I understood none of this at the time, of course. It was the voice that riveted me.

A voice old, wise, weathered, tired – young, vibrant, bursting, booming, all at the same time. I knew this was something completely new, as if the world had split for one second and released a cleansing blaze of timeless reality, then closed back up, because that was all we could accept for now. I did understand this, or something like it, even at eleven. I understood that this was the real thing. Little did I know that the reality of it, as Bob recently wrote, had too many heads. Too many for me to be aware of.

Dylan became the darling of the folk crowd. Everyone sang his songs, youth across America embraced him as a spokesman for their beliefs, they could point to Bob and prove to their elders that the current youth had depth and compassion and hope, yet a  deadly serious outlook toward their own future. Bob was a folk messiah, he carried the banner of Purpose and Change and Freedom and the only problem was, Bob wasn’t a political person, and while he cared deeply about human rights and the betterment of people’s lives, he didn’t care about politics and the processes that create political change, except as an outsider, an observer who could smell the wind and tell us all what was blowing in it. Bob confounded his legions by abdicating the throne and concentrating on being what he was, an artist, a craftsman, a songwriter.

It’s hard to believe that when Another Side of Bob Dylan first came out, with songs such as “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” included, it was berated by the folk press, for its lack of ‘protest’ songs, its veering away from the political purism of its predecessor, “The Times They Are a Changin’” Then it got worse. Bringing It All Back Home was partly electric (as if electric blues, which the folk community embraced, wasn’t being played at the same time) and filled with strange imagery, the surrealism of “Mr Tamborine Man” and “Gates of Eden.” By the time Highway 61 Revisited. appeared, it was an all out war, well documented in Martin Scorcesse’s, No Direction Home and many other sources, where Dylan and band were booed all across the country as soon as they tarted plugging in the guitars for the second set. There hasn’t been anything like it, again, before or since, in American musical history.

At the time, Dylan remarked that those so-called fans must have a lot of money to buy
tickets and come just to boo. The music itself was incandescent because of the atmosphere it was played in – white-hot, snarling, ferocious, magnificent. If after the trials of that electric tour Dylan had died in his legendary motorcycle accident, he would have gone down as music’s most heralded and beautiful martyr, an impossible combination of James Dean, Arthur Rimbaud and Martin Luther King. But, instead, he managed to live. Someone I know once said they’d wished Dylan had died in the motorcycle accident, because the symmetry of it would have been so perfect. This was the world Bob Dylan inhabited, one where people who loved him and his music could wish him dead because it’d be cooler.

As time went on, Dylan became seemingly less and less relevant – he put out a record of country songs sung in a smooth, Bing Crosby croon, astonishing everyone, sending critics into apoplexy and some seriously misguided people, lead by Dylanologist/Garbologist A. J. Weberman, into forming the Dylan Liberation Front, which intended to free Dylan from himself, force him out of his life as a father of a brood of kids in the countryside of Woodstock, N.Y. and get him back onto the front of the protest lines, where he never was in the first place.

All the while Dylan continued to do what he always did, the only thing he knew how, “to keep on keepin’ on” writing songs. He wrote several albums full of born-again gospel songs, once again righteously blowing everyone’s minds, though not in what was considered to be a good way. Later, in retrospect, those gospel songs have come to be regarded among of the best written in modern times. He released albums during the 80’s which not many people listened to, and in the nineties, he was at such a standstill that he released two CD’s of covers of traditional tunes or old blues songs that he loved. Both were excellent works, but something wasn’t flowing. The well had gone dry.

Dylan credits several factors with freeing his blocked creative spirit – one being his experience playing with Jerry Garcia and the Dead, another being seeing a jazz band play when he snuck away from rehearsals, and hearing the singer phrase songs in a certain way. Maybe it was just time to remerge, but whatever it was, it brought to light a succession of creative triumphs, beginning with Oh Mercy and culminating in the trilogy of  Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and the most recent, Modern Times.

It’s come to light that Dylan often liberally borrows from older sources in the writing, the constructing of his songs. Modern Times paraphrases a civil war poet, Love and Theft a Japanese novelist, Time Out of Mind the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Much has been written about this, but it’s nothing new. Back at Woody Guthrie’s hospital bedside, the young disciple asked Woody about songs and writing, and the masters advice was this – take a song that’s been done, a good song, and change it around some, turn the melody on its head, borrow the chords of the chorus, whatever it takes to disguise it and make it your own. Dylan took this advice to heart and has been practicing it since his very beginnings. It is indeed a case of lifelong love and theft, recycling from the storehouse of an inexhaustible American culture, which most modern musicians neglect. It’s the work of every artist, incorporation of what went before with what is now, the respectful nod, the reintegration by collage, the loving reference, the all-out steal of something long forgotten, discarded, lost. Until Bob comes along to resurrect it.

In the light of time and retrospection, every album of his, even the gospel ones, the country ones, the dismissed ones, is recognized to contain at least one or two timeless classics. The dogs bark but the caravan moves along to its own destination. Dylan has
always kept doing the only thing he knows how to do, writing songs that were meant for forever.

If there’s a musician who loved authentic American music more or gave back as much, I don’t know who it is. For that, I offer this small, incomplete parcel of praise, for what his work has meant to me. 

About Will Brennan

  • http://liuzhou.blog-city.com Liuzhou Laowai

    “he currently holds the honor of being the oldest living person to ever have a number one album on the Billboard charts.”

    No. That record fell when Neil Diamond’s album “Home Before Dark” entered the Billboard chart on May 15, 2008. Diamond is older then Dylan.

  • Phil

    Well written Will…I was there too in 1963 [aged 18]and I’m still listening. I share almost all your sentiments.

  • Will Brennan

    Sorry, I didn’t hear of that Neil Diamond recording. You’re right, Neil takes over that honor.

  • http://tantmieux.squarespace.com/bob-dylan-on-tant-mieux-/ sadi ranson-polizzotti

    I am clearly a big Dylan fan: and just love your recap. I run a Dylan site and just reviewed (an advance review copy) of Tell Tale Signs that I thought you might be interested in… Here’s the link to it if ur interested and I welcome your comments…. But thanks for this : )

    tell tale signs on tant mieux

    Be well, and thanks again….
    sadi ranson-polizzotti
    tant mieux

  • Wren

    Will, Nice job. Thanks.
    Proud to be a fellow Northshore-er!

  • Russell Kaplan

    Will,

    Do you still live in Reading. I’ve been there 20 years and thought I was its biggest Dylan fan!!