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.