Dylan Turns 80
“Now I'm just average, common too
There will be a lot of digital ink spilled as Bob Dylan turns 80 today. There will be a lot of musings about his cultural significance, essential or best songs from his catalogue and just cynical attempts to capitalize on whatever SEO advantages and clicks that the upcoming rollover on The Bard From Hibbing’s odometer affords (what? I would never...). I figured I would take the opportunity to reflect more on what Dylan has meant to me personally over the years, and as it turns out, the nature of fame.
Even before I knew his music, Dylan was someone who I was peripherally aware — sketches from Saturday Night Live lampooning his unintelligibility and that time at a writer’s camp I attended one summer one of my fellow camp mates remarked that our counselor Chris looked like Dylan so we nicknamed him “Bob.” It wasn’t until college I was introduced to his music by one of those musical evangelists whose enthusiasm is a force of nature and Dylan’s been with me ever since. Because of Dylan I took up the guitar and began songwriting (he counts as one of those dreaded "influences"). He’s been a source of bonding with others over music. He’s been there in the lonely moments. He's influenced or perhaps merely exacerbated my worldview.
The first album I was recommended was Highway 61 Revisited, of course. Do I remember what I thought at first listen? How it struck me at that moment? It was certainly enough to lead me down the path to all those classics... "Blood on the Tracks" and “Bringing it All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde.” The ear straining yodel that opens up “Another Side of Bob Dylan” did not deter me in my exploration of his catalogue. I became an evangelist myself, spreading the word to my brother as the first volumes of the Bootleg Series came out — we got a kick out of “Suze (The Cough Song)”… “I’ll note here… fade at cough.” And I recall going to Cheapo Records in Minneapolis to check out his latest release with a friend — World Gone Wrong — a strange contrast to Dylan the songwriter I'd grown to know — instead a quieter collection of covers of traditional tunes by the likes of the Mississippi Sheiks. It did lead to me collecting old blues recordings by Blind Willie McTell and then to other blues greats like Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins. And I remember how much of a kick one of my neighbors in the Uptown in Minneapolis, who also played guitar, got out of “Blood In My Eyes” when I introduced it to him. In my sophomore year on Cinco de Mayo I called the local college radio station one morning after hearing for the first time the Johnny Cash and Dylan duet of “Girl from North Country” and recommend the DJ play "Isis", given the lyric reference to the fifth day of May. The DJ mentioned my call on air but didn’t play the song for whatever reason.
Not long after, when I was out of college, “Time Out of Mind” came out and it was this new album that was hard to take in, having by this point become familiar with the major works that had been become like gospels and the oeuvre had become a bit immutable in my mind. So I wasn’t so sure of it at first (another older Dylan head at one of my first jobs out of college thought I was a bit harsh). But eventually it too became folded into liturgy as I would listen to the album on repeat as I soaked in the bathtub, seeking solace from broken hearts. And I remember the joy of walking the Virgin Mega Store in downtown San Francisco on my a lunch break to pick up the new Dylan album I’d just learned had been release — Love and Theft (presumably I learned of this after the actual release date, because I remember the events of that particular day for other reasons). And whatever the cultural zeitgeist is feeling about our erstwhile host of a Prairie Home Companion, I personally really enjoyed listening Garrison Keillor doing cover of “Duquesne Whistle” on my radio in the kitchen as I made dinner not long after Tempest was released — there was a lot of obvious great affection for its author. I also recall seeing someone at the Utah do a cover of that song during open mic night... don't seem to recall him mentioning it was a cover though.
When I’d open my sets in lobbies of Carlton and the Marker hotels, I’d often start with a cover “You Ain’t Going No Where” as a way to warm up and invite folks to “fly down into that easy chair” (or couch, or whatever was convenient) — though it was really the wine service that got them there and kept them there. And a few years back I put together a Dylan tribute show for his birthday (DylanPhest at my insistence for continuity of branding) with another performer, Robb Hagle, whom I’d met at the Hotel Utah open mic, having bonded over our mutual fondness for Bob’s music. And although the turnout was disappointing (despite a steady stream of Facebook RSVPs) it was a great night of music— and we had fun putting together the ensemble (Robb handled the band set, I handled the in-the-round performances), which included a practice night at Robb’s place out in Berkeley that was more social than anything else. To my dismay, Robb moved to Colorado not long after so the following year there wasn’t follow up show (though I may revive it in the future after things are more back to “normal”).
Then there was the surprise of those releases of “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes" — bright spots during the election year and our year of pandemic. The former may be a bit of laden with boomer ‘member berries (I know the likes of Charlie Pierce are obsessed with it) but the latter seems like a most appropriate title, even if there is that somewhat incongruous paring of Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones with Anne Frank (maybe that was the point, but it sounds a bit off to say one is "just like Anne Frank"). One thing one comes to appreciate about Dylan as you explore what he’s done is how much he’s done that’s different — that he avoided becoming too comfortable in a particular groove or catering to a particular audience (if nothing, he reveled in being contrarian “Play fucking loud” he told his bandmates in an aside after calls of “Judas!” not long after he’d gone electric). From the acoustic troubadour to the electric rocker to the gospel inflected near sermons, it’s quite a ride. Even his recent turn as a big band jazz crooner was… unexpected (and I say this as a lover of Tony Bennett). Multitudes, indeed.
One thing I’ve been reflecting on lately is why we elevate certain people to a status above the rest in our society and why some people derive so much of their personal self esteem from those who are of a greater notoriety with whom they have come into contact. What is it about human nature that gives us the desperate hangers on, the name droppers, and the sitting around in a coffee shop reminiscing about brushes with fame? People can become positively obsessive in a way that looks a bit unhealthy to the uninitiated… all that screaming and fainting for the Beatles… or certain Twitter feeds (you know who you are). The guys from South Park had a rather brutal take on the more disturbing aspects of this cultural phenomenon that involved Britney Spears and her being some sort of regular ritual cornfield sacrifice of a young female pop star. Having put my own material that has been well received within my limited sphere out into the wide world to not much if any reaction, I can say it changes your perspective on all the folks getting all agog about just the announcement that so-and-so is going to releasing new recordings — even if they are just retreads of previous work that mostly exist to capture licensing revenue otherwise not contractually available to them, fairly or not. Is it all that different from high school when there were “the popular” kids? That may just be society in miniature, a training grounds for what’s to come.
We seem, as a society, to have this need to elevate others above the rest and put them on a pedestal for reasons that have more to do with being social creatures than they have to do with the merits of the individual in question. Certainly there are experts and those who excel in their fields — that’s not really what I’m thinking of here. The whole client-patronage system of the Romans comes to mind, where higher status individuals would cultivate a following among the masses using their wealth to fuel their political careers (perhaps not much has changed). From the standpoint of distribution of resources, it makes sense as a survival strategy for certain individuals to find ways to ingratiate themselves to those that had managed to accumulate more. And as the variations in said resource distribution become more pronounced, so to does the need to be obsequious — and maybe actually enjoying being so confers certain advantages on individuals (if you really want to be good at something, being obsessive about it helps). And the same perhaps goes for those who seek to cultivate such status.
While I can imagine some “use cases” with some actual utility for this behavior of following particularly charismatic individuals as far as rallying people to collective action (defending a city from invaders, building a public works project like an irrigation ditch), it doesn’t feel like pop stars have quite the same ability to confer tangible benefits to their followers, so maybe this is a case of co-option of an otherwise useful behavior. Then there’s the aspect that we do form a relationship with these people, lopsided and one way that it is. The whole business of mass media itself is a co-option of the tools we use for expression between individuals (speech, story telling, the conveying of emotions) to create interpersonal bonds that could only be done face to face in the wide swath of pre-history during which humanity evolved. But that doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing. As I’ve reflected, Bob’s been there throughout my life, and he’s been a source of comfort and joy
One only has to spend a little time with songwriters to realize that some folks become very self-important about it, very precious about their status as songwriters to the point of hubris. You may think I’m one to talk, what with my concerted efforts to get folks to cover my works… but trust me, I got noth’n on these folks (if anything I’m still sort of amazed that I was ever able to pull the whole via EGPhest thing and get people to go along). Near as I can tell, Bob isn’t similarly self-obsessed. Sure, he’s been a shameless self-promoter, if not out right charlatan in his early days — but if anything he’s always been a bit taken aback by the whole fame thing (read the liner notes to John Wesley Harding) and self conscious about his place in our cultural pantheon. I recall a story someone was telling a story about him (I think it was Eddie Vedder maybe?) in a context where different performers were improvising lines during a recording session and afterwards Dylan told the teller of this story to cut his contribution because it was the sort of thing people expected from him. And he certainly seemed rather befuddled by that whole becoming a Nobel Laureate thing.
As I conclude, I’m listening to Chrisse Hynde’s new cover album of Dylan tunes “Standing In the Doorway” (I have a great affinity for covers of Dylan songs done by women) and right now it’s a version of “Don’t Fall Apart Me Tonight” that I didn’t realize I needed. The myriad of Dylan covers that continue to be produced suggests that whatever the ineffable basis of his elevation, it continues to endure — and has endured throughout his career (even if his early 80s output is still considered subpar). Whatever the root of the whole phenomena is, in this case, we don't appear to have made such a bad choice.
Here's a playlist of personal some Dylan faves on Spotify… slightly revised as well as my “Lady Dylan” playlist (Chrissie made the cut).
Happy birthday, Bob.
The extended musings of a songwriter.