Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy 70th Birthday, Bob Dylan

I’m quite sure this is the 100,000th blog post to be loaded to the interwebs today concerning one Robert A. Zimmerman. You know him as Bob Dylan. And in case you hadn’t yet heard, he celebrated his 70th birthday today.

Most of these blog posts/news articles/what-have-you begin with a line something like “What can be said about Bob Dylan that hasn’t been said before?” Nothing. But, here we are anyway.

I’ll not go into the history of Mr. Dylan or his significance in the pantheon of American culture. I’ll especially not go into the intricacies and hidden philosophies and meanings attached to every step or breath the man has taken.

First off, I’m not any kind of a Bob-ologist, and second, I think such endeavors are an exercise in missing the point.

When I was a senior in high school I argued ad nauseum with my English teacher about the true intentions of great authors. I contended – and still do – that authors such as Fitzgerald, Salinger, et al. were indeed massively talented, but that they never intended every single word and punctuation mark they wrote to be analyzed in the manner that we study them today. Again, I stress that these folks were incredibly talented and were among the greatest minds of their times. And while I agree that they wanted to make quality art that would last, I think they’d laugh if they saw the extents that we take our study.

Same with ol’ Bob. The legendary producer Bob Johnston, who worked with Dylan, summed it up best: “I believe in giving credit where credit’s due. I don’t think Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think God, instead of touching him on the shoulder; He kicked him in the ass. Really. And that’s where all that came from. He can’t help what he’s doing. I mean he’s got the Holy Spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that.”

In saluting the great blues legend Robert Johnson on my Dirty Roots Radio Show a few weeks ago, I wondered several times if there was a figure that had had such an impact on music as a whole as Johnson had. I think Dylan qualifies. (The Beatles may, too, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to make myself be a fan, so we’ll stick with Dylan for now). Dylan has undoubtedly had a major impact on every aspect of modern music; one the likes of which we’ll probably never see again. But, as Bob Johnston said, let’s give credit where credit is due.

Yes, Bob Dylan is without doubt one of the greatest minds of his generation. Yes, he is unarguably one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

But, with all due respect to Bob Dylan, I don’t think he had much to do with it. In the excellent Dylan Documentary “No Direction Home” (directed by Martin Scorsese), Joan Baez talks about how Dylan used to tell her, “I don’t know where this stuff comes from…”

When you look at Bob Dylan, in a literal-not metaphorical-sense, you could see that “something special”. I’ve never noticed that quality about anyone else. But you watch video footage of Dylan around the time he was “going electric” and you can’t deny it. It’s almost like there’s something angelic about him. Not in a sweet sense…but in the sense of there almost being an aura about him. He seems to be buzzing; vibrating. It’s as if things are happening to him and happening inside of his brain almost faster than he can keep up with.

Sure, his amphetamine use had something to do with that appearance, but I get the feeling that the amphetamines just helped him keep up with whatever was going on inside him. He’d clearly tapped into something on another plane that most people never get close to.

And that’s where it all came from.

If Dylan hadn’t had his motorcycle accident when he did, I contend he would have died in some other fashion. Some artists are here with us for a very short time and they burn extra bright – for us – for that short time. Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Kurt Cobain. Robert Johnson. Those folks tapped into that intangible thing, too. And I believe it was more than they could stand. More than they could keep up with.

But Dylan had that motorcycle crash and that forced him to slow down. And he is one of the few who burned so bright so early in their lives who are still with us.

I think Dylan was just like I assume those classic authors to be: Someone who loved music and someone who worked really hard to make the best art he could, who wanted that art to last, but someone who didn’t expect the kind of reaction he got.

I have no problem with Dylan’s Machiavellian maneuvering of the media and his audience. I take no issue with his fabrications pertaining to his back story and career.

Watch a few of the press conferences from his early days and it’s quickly obvious how ridiculous the inquiries into his art were. People asking about the philosophy behind his wearing a Triumph motorcycle shirt on the Highway 61 album cover and whatnot (the reporter’s clear offense when Dylan said he hadn’t thought about it; “Well, I’ve given it a great deal of thought”).

Dylan knew how great he was. I don’t believe he know HOW he was so great. But he knew his songs were something special. Combine that quality with the buffoonery surrounding almost every other part of his career and I’d actually encourage him to have a little fun at the expense of the media and his fans.

The other facet of Bob Dylan that particularly interests me is his status and career as an elder statesman who is clearly re-writing the established American songbook.

I remember buying Dylan’s 1997 “Time Out of Mind” album (right around the time I was beginning to develop my taste in “Dirty Roots” music…unpolished-sounding music with plenty of rough edges). I was knocked out by his voice and the feel of the album. That’s what really piqued my interest in Dylan.

His next two albums, “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times” REALLY blew me away. I remember hearing “Love and Theft” and thinking that his voice had finally broken. It kept threatening to on “Time Out of Mind”, but never quite crossed that line. The voice crossed the line with “Love and Theft” and a new phase of Dylan’s career began. I believe this is also the time he began recording with his stellar touring band. I was fully into what you’d call roots music by this time and loved how Dylan, as I mentioned, seemed to be re-writing the American songbook (sometimes literally, as in the case of “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” from “Modern Times”).

We are indeed blessed to have someone like Bob Dylan in our midst. The world is forever changed – forever better – because of what he contributed. I say quit trying to figure him out. Enjoy the music. Be inspired. And enjoy the myth. It’s probably much better than reality anyway.

You don’t want Bob Dylan to be like you and me. He’s got the Holy Spirit about him. Enjoy the ride.


  1. I've often thought the same thing about Dylan. He knew what he was doing was brilliant and not of his making. He was the tip of the pen that God was using.

    His songs are hymns of real life. Some are about his life, certainly, but his greatest are parables with perfect descriptions of American life. I think his mystique adds to all of the God-like aura he has been given by his fans.

  2. It's been a while since I've really listened to Dylan's music but his brilliance just shines through every song he writes. They seem to be real-life tunes as William shared above. Hymns that represent real-life situations and they get very deep on his most famous songs.

    I really enjoyed your post, if you get chance, check my Blog out at http://MusicianByNight.blogspot.com. Hope to catch you later.

    Bob (Musician By Night)

  3. Thanks Bob - glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate your kind words! I'll give your blog a look!