Friday, October 24, 2008

Bob Dylan

Young people often ask who inspired you to become a writer, or influenced you early in your so-called career. You are always reluctant to tell them that Bob Dylan was a tremendous influence (not just on you, but on much of your generation, as well as on several generations to follow). Your reluctance stems from the feeling that the Bob Dylan young people think of today is not the same person you’re referring to.

Your memory of the 1960s is a bit hazy (as per the old nugget, “If you remember it, you weren’t there.”) But somewhere around 1967 you discovered Bob Dylan’s album, Blonde on Blonde, which had been released the previous year. Several of the tracks (“I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman”) had become radio hits, but you were mesmerized by “Visions of Johanna” and endlessly amused by “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” You’d never heard lyrics like these before, so absurdly visual and at the same time ringing with what you imagined to be authenticity, uncanny wisdom, and truth.

Each day after school you would sit on the Naugahyde couch in your white-washed wood-paneled den and listen to the record on your parent’s mono record player. You bought a harmonica and tried to play along (later you would pick the great blues harpist Paul Butterfield as a better model). You sensed, on some instinctive level, that you were listening to something remarkable, even if you couldn’t always figure out what Dylan meant. Soon you were the proud owner of his other two “electric” albums, “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Bringing It All Back Home,” as well as albums by Judy Collins and The Byrds, who, along with Jimi Hendrix’s fabulous “All Along The Watchtower,” performed the best Dylan covers (in your humble opinion).

For you, Dylan’s alleged motorcycle “accident” was a personal tragedy. The artist who released John Wesley Harding a year and a half later seemed to be someone else, and you mourned the loss. For many years you would say that the Bob Dylan you knew had died in that crash (which Dylanologists doubt actually happened). But recently you’ve begun to imagine that you understand why he did what he did. Dylan started as a writer and singer of folk and protest songs. In fairly short order he wrote some of the greatest protest songs ever. Perhaps he sensed that he couldn’t top himself. Perhaps he was bored with that form. Perhaps he was fearful of becoming stale and repetitious. So he moved on to the more personal and idiosyncratic songs of his “electric period.” It’s only lately that you’ve begun to appreciate how amazingly brave (brazen?) this move was – utterly alienating his enormous “folksy” fan base (they booed him off the stage at the all-important Newport Folk Festival) to move into an area of music where, for all he knew, he might fail miserably (at least I assume he did not have a crystal ball predicting the future).

How many successful stars today would be willing to take such a risk and put their entire career in jeopardy for the sake of their “art?”? So perhaps that also explains the transition that followed the “electric” period. Is it possible that in the space of those three albums, he explored as much as he could, or cared to, explore? And felt he had no choice but to move on again?

All you know is that even today his songs and music remain an inexorable part of your life. And you are thankful for what he gave the world (and delighted that “the world” deemed it important to award him a special Pulitzer citation.)

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