XI. Dylan.

I never got him. I never liked his voice. I never understood his lyrics. I didn’t hear much in his melody. Being a record collector, I had many of his albums because everyone went on and on about how great he was. My dad said I should listen to Blonde On Blonde. I still didn’t get it. “Everybody must get stoned…” Whiny, nasally, pseudo-poetry, sloppy, shitty-sounding… I didn’t get it. For thirty years, I didn’t get it. I liked everybody else but.

I knew I was wrong about him once I got married. This suspicion was confirmed when our first child was born. Like flipping a switch and flooding a room with light. Without even hearing it, I knew in my soul Bob Dylan’s music was what would carry me forward into adulthood. HowiVinni pointed me toward New Morning. A gentle testament to marriage and parenthood, made in 1970, the year I was born, it had the sound of earth always, not of any particular time, maybe it had been recorded on the prairie in 1870. Listening to this declaration of love and family in the face of chaos and idle chatter, I knew I was not alone on the road. He gives comfort like few else.

The key revealed: He is old as ages, ageless as mountains, as the scriptures, transmitting from the ancient, beaming in from biblical time. His voice is of sand and grit, wind and earth, running river full of sediment and rock, forests full of leaves and wood, dusty towns come and gone and come again. As is his guitar. As is his song. His harmonica, especially on the Biograph version of “Every Grain Of Sand,” is pure poetic extension of the human breath and thus the human soul. Everything he does is poetry.

Oh yes, and he’s funny. Behind all that heady language, brandished by a naturally amphetamine-fueled mind, there’s a joker smirking. Shakespeare’s Fool Incarnate, wielding a God-given way with words. But one of us, always. Never apart. Never above. Everything on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde is the work of a brilliant standup working his audience, surveying the wreckage of the world and the human heart and joyously riffing on about it. The place should be in stitches. Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen have nothing on this guy. And funny not in the ha ha sense, but in the sense of a life lived, fought for and appreciated every day. It’s sad and hard, and funny. Dylan sees the sadness and humor intertwined and sings.

And a great singer he is. Far more in tune than I ever gave him credit for, far more invested than I could ever comprehend. And how many fully realized personas can one singer have? I count six in his Sixties output alone. There’s at least thrice that, as he reaches (false) retirement age. And yet always him, and only him, so one-of-a-kind he is. The bluesy Son-of-Guthrie grunt of the unfairly dismissed debut, the prototypical protest folkie of Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A-Changin’, the awakened hipster of Bringing It All Back Home, the stoned electric seer of Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde, the stripped-down pilgrim prophet of John Wesley Harding and the Johnny Cash-meets-Frank Sinatra country crooner of Nashville Skyline. Each time out, not only is the phrasing different, but the actual sound of his voice as well. My favorite is the raspy Mercury Lightning Rod of ‘66, singing “I Want You,” “Just Like A Woman,” and the amazing “Visions Of Johanna” to crowds who called him Judas because he plugged in his guitar and played fucking loud. Ever the chameleon, the provocateur, at least a step and a half ahead of even John Lennon, he was so out in front of the pack by 1970, he turned inward and dismantled the paralyzing machinations his greatness and fame had thrust upon him. He was the first to do such a thing. All about the new morning.

He has only ever done what he felt he should do. Only true artists can make this claim. Anyone who comes after must go through him to achieve their own.

But great genius knows no ego or conceit either. Only humility. Only God.

And while he is not God, finding Dylan is much like finding God, in that you realize life is worth living, there is no aloneness, and there is a boundless river of history of the immortal soul of earth and its many peoples, as deep as the ocean, old as Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament, running at your feet. Jews call it Torah.

He is also the poet of the New Testament, inheritor of The Psalms of David, curator of the rise and spread of Western Civilization, but more than anything, and this is most crucial: he is the ongoing photo-journalist of America. The sound and vision of Bob Dylan is the most purely, deeply American in history. The innermost feeling upon listening to any song from any phase of Dylan’s immense career is an American one. Every song is a snapshot of America. Even the exotic stuff on Desire is the sound of an American traveling abroad and bringing it all back home. His music is a way to imagine America’s rich past, light and inform its present, and it shines like The Constitution itself toward America’s future. And what is America? If ever you’re not sure but would like to know, listen to “Restless Farewell” from The Times They Are A-Changin’ or “Dear Landlord” from John Wesley Harding. “Odds And Ends” and “Million Dollar Bash” from the monumental Basement Tapes capture America at its core, while the entire Love And Theft album is as close to a capsulated history of this great country as ever has been written. He is a bridge in every sense of the word. Bruce Springsteen could never have existed without “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie” or “Like A Rolling Stone.” The genius of Joni Mitchell and revolution of Ani DiFranco would have been forever locked away behind the gray door of conformity had Dylan not come to turn the key. This goes for everyone else, too. As much as could be said of James Brown, there is no hip-hop without Bob Dylan. If there is a precedent for the likes of Public Enemy or Eminem, it is the folkie magician from Minnesota who bent words to his will and made them work for him. We humans are ultimately great and noble creatues. Bob Dylan tells us so.

This is not to say Dylan should be worshipped or deified, no. He is to be used - not only as entertainment, but as medicine and meditation, roadmap and rest stop, diary and diet, soothe and soothsayer.

I listen to his humility, artistry and all-affirming power now and I am glad again to be alive. It makes you feel right. Centered. Connected to heritage and language. Dignified. At home even when you’re not. Proof of God. With every word or note he has ever offered, Dylan says while life can be challenging, frightening and sometimes disappointing, it is ultimately worth living.

I'm not surprised it took me nearly thirty-five years to get him. He’s a lot to get.

Nov. '05

Comin' down the road for a country mile or two
So happy just to be alive underneath the sky of blue.