Bob Dylan: He Has Raised the Stakes of Life All Around Himself

His name means nothing, his age means less and his music means everything.

Bob Dylan holds the 1997 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize presented by Richard Avedon.
AP Photo/Jay Brady
Bob Dylan holds the 1997 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize presented by Richard Avedon.
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On Oct. 6 in New York, Bob Dylan – following architect Frank Gehry, film director Ingmar Bergman and opera director and designer Robert Wilson – received the $200,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for achievement in the arts, endowed by actress Lillian Gish (1893-1993) to honor "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world." Rolling Stone contributing editor Greil Marcus gave this talk at the award ceremony.

Bob Dylan works in many realms: as a songwriter, as a singer, as a bandleader, as a guitar player – a song-and-dance man, as he once put it. He works as a historian, as if from lost books; he works as a moralist; he works as a kind of private detective, a private eye who takes cases most of us don't even recognize as mysteries. Before and after any of that, though, Bob Dylan is a performer: someone who appears in public before other people, takes what he can take from them, gives back what he has to give says what he has to say, reaps the rewards, and takes the consequences.

Previously Unseen Bob Dylan Lyrics From 1965

Because I've thought about it so many times in the past 34 years, I remember very clearly the first time I saw Bob Dylan perform. It was in the summer of 1963, in a field somewhere in New Jersey. I'd gone to see Joan Baez, a familiar face in my hometown, in Menlo Park, California, and suddenly a familiar face everywhere else – she'd been on the cover of Time. This day she was appearing in one of those old theaters-in-the-round, set up under a tent. She sang, and after a bit she said, "I want to introduce a friend of mine," and out came a scruffy-looking guy with a guitar. He looked dusty. His shoulders were hunched and he acted slightly embarrassed.

He sang a couple of songs by himself, and then he sang one or two with Joan Baez. Then he left and she finished her show – though in those days, the high days of the folk movement, no one would have referred to anything a folk singer did by so vulgar a term as "show." It was a concert, a gathering, a celebration of values, a coming together of like-minded spirits, a ritual, and that was the meaning of the round stage, meant to recall plays and sings in medieval villages after the harvest was brought in. No one in front, no one in back, no privilege, no shame.

I barely noticed the end of the show; I was transfixed. I was – confused. Confused – it's a reaction people who've paid attention to Bob Dylan's work across the course of his career know all too well.

This person had stepped onto someone else's stage, and while in some ways he seemed as ordinary as the dirt around the tent or any of the people in it, something in his demeanor almost dared you to pin him down, to sum him up and write him off, and you couldn't do it. From the way he sounded and the way he moved you couldn't tell where he was from, where he'd been, or where he was going – though the way he moved and sang somehow made you want to know all of those things. "My name it means nothing, my age it means less," he sang that day, beginning his song "With God on Our Side" with the same inscrutable quiet that is on Lillian Gish's face as she rocks the cradle in Intolerance – and while the whole book of American history seemed to open up in that song, the country's story telling itself in a new way, the song also kept the singer's promise: As he sang, you couldn't tell his age. He might have been 17, he might have been 28 – to an 18-year-old like me, that was someone very old.

Bob Dylan Through The Years

As it is now – as it is on Time Out of Mind, the collection of new songs that in certain moods can sound older than Bob Dylan or anyone else in this room will ever be – as it was on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the two great throat-clearing albums of old blues and folk songs released a few years ago – Bob Dylan's voice that day in 1963 was gnarled and twisting, a voice of blocked roads and half-lit labyrinths, full of hints and beckonings, all cut with a sly, distant humor, a sense of secrets too good to tell out loud. The performance was unassuming, anonymous, unique, perverse, pleasurable and scary all at the same time – a thrill that stayed in the air that as he left the stage seemed dead.

When the show was over I saw this person, whose name I hadn't caught, crouching behind the tent – there was no backstage, no guards, no protocols; this was, for an afternoon, that medieval village – and so I went up to him. He was trying to light a cigarette, it was windy, and has hands were shaking; he wasn't paying attention to anything but the match. I was just dumbfounded enough to open my mouth. "You were terrific," I said brightly. He didn't look up. "I was shit," he said. I didn't know what to say to that, so I walked off.

What interests me about this ordinary story is that this first time I saw Bob Dylan perform was only the first time. Again and again, from then to now and, I'm certain, for years into the future, Bob Dylan has performed and will perform as if his name means nothing and his age means less. Again and again, the labyrinths in his voice have opened up into a world in which people actually live a world of public terrors and private satisfactions, or vice versa – a world that is both bigger and smaller than the invitations and demands in his voice, and again and again the world has changed his voice. Again and again, Bob Dylan has come onto a stage and thrown off all baggage of fame or respect, of familiarity and expectation, all the burdens and prizes that come when a performer aims to please and does.

These moments of rejection, of Bob Dylan clearing his decks or clearing his throat, occur all across the last 40 years, on high-school stages in Hibbing, Minnesota; in coffeehouses in Minneapolis and Greenwich Village in the early 1960s; at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965; up in the Catskills with members of the Band in the summer of 1967; at a two-week stand in San Francisco in 1979; in the dead streets, blasted hopes and fading, retreating visions of homecoming conjured up so fiercely in Time Out of Mind. Coursing through and around those incidents and many more like them – incidents in which folk music was found and supposedly betrayed; when a huge pop audience was confronted, challenged, and escaped; when the oldest strains of American language and ritual were reclaimed and reinvented; moments when religion replaced both romance and everyday life and then when a certain stoic, deeply Puritan piety became not an altar call but a way of judging the worth of any new day -coursing through all of this was an enormous, motley, inescapable cast of characters, a whole world: Ma Rainey and Little Richard, John F. Kennedy and Brigitte Bardot, Charlie Chaplin and Blind Willie McTell, Medgar Evers and the Fifth Daughter on the Twelfth Night, Hattie Carroll and William Zantzinger, Tom Paine and John Wesley Harding, Robert Burns and Stagger Lee, Martin Luther King and Bill Clinton, Poor Howard and Georgia Sam, Lyndon Johnson and the frog that one day up and proposed to a mouse.

And not only their like, of course. In that cast of characters, running alongside the train of Bob Dylan's music as it ran through the decades, people jumping on, people jumping off, perhaps meeting it again the next time the train made a stop at whatever place one called home, in that cast of characters were 4o years of listeners, fans, musicians, the devoted and the curious, the outraged and the confirmed – with, as surely as night follows day, the confirmed finding themselves outraged around the next turn.

In that sense, in a country that is settled, that still pretends to innocence but is now old, Bob Dylan has moved from state to state and decade to decade as if nothing was certain, as if everything remains up for grabs. By doing so he has, at least since his public life began in the early '60s, raised the stakes of life all around himself. And as often as not he has done this with the sense of an absolute lurking somewhere up ahead or far behind an absolute that, depending on the song in which it appeared or the way in which, on a given night, a song was performed, might make it plain that the story one takes the stage to tell is an unwritten book, a story that remains to be made up out of whole cloth by whoever has the nerve to do it, or that the story is a closed book, locked and sealed, that the story was finished and fixed long before it occurred to you to tell it, that as you stand on the stage nothing remains to you but to take the stage down.

Classic Black and White Shots of Bob Dylan

It is when a performer works on this level that any time can be the first time – and out of all the first times Bob Dylan has left behind, one stands out for me, one in which he seemed both to take the stage down and read from an unwritten book, all at once. It was at the Grammy Awards show, on February 20, 1991 on television, a break from the round-the-clock coverage of the seemingly magical bombing of Baghdad, a night set square in the middle of the Gulf War, an evening of music and self-congratulation that for all of its noise was drowned out by the sound of an entire nation cheering for certain victory. On this night, Bob Dylan was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and so, before the ceremony, he came onstage with a new band to play a song.

They came onto the stage as if they were sneaking onto it, as if, somehow, they might get there without being noticed. The band members were dressed in dark suits, with fedoras pulled down – they looked like supremely confident small-time Chicago hipster gangsters who'd spent the last 10 years in the same bar waiting for the right deal to break and finally said the hell with it. Who were these people? Bob Dylan was there to pick up his award, yes, but now the whole frame of reference was gone – what exactly he was doing there, on that stage, in this stopped moment, was a complete mystery.

The mystery was there to be deepened; with the first beat the band turned off the lights. They roared into a song, with Bob Dylan slurring the words, breaking them down and smashing them up until they were pure rhythm, pure force. Stray lines of excitement and pleasure and dread streamed out of the sound like loose wires. It's fun to imagine that half of the millions who were watching were wondering what the song was and that the rest were so lost in the music they didn't care – more likely, anyone watching was split in half. The song was hidden in its own music – but the surge of the music overrodethe setting and joined itself to the events taking place offstage. And then, perhaps halfway through, the song began to reveal itself. It was "Masters of War," from 1963, Bob Dylan's most unforgiving,damning anti-war song, but in 1963 it was slow, stolid, almost a speech, a funeral oration: "I'll stand over your grave," the singer said to generals and arms merchants, "till I'm sure that you're dead."

But now the song didn't merely say that, the song did it. And it didn't matter if you didn't catch a word, if you didn't know the song, if you didn't have a personal Western Union in your head to deliver its message. In the hall where the Grammys were being handed out that night, the performance said that real life was elsewhere, that it was dangerous, that it was a runaway train and you were on that train whether or not you'd bought a ticket. You were fated to reach its final destination, regardless of where, as you rose that morning, you might have flattered yourself to imagine you were going. That night, a song Bob Dylan had recorded almost 30 years before was performed for the first time, and in the same way, that night – given the intensity that the song had so long before taken out of the world and that the world was now pumping into the song – it was performed for the last time.

In Lillian Gish's last great movie, The Night of the Hunter -released in 1955, directed by Charles Laughton, written by James Agee – she plays a woman in her 6os who presides over a small brood of orphans, two of whom have fled their stepfather, a preacher played by Robert Mitchurn, a fiend who has married and murdered as many as 25 women, including the mother of the two siblings. "Lord, sometimes I wonder if you really understand," Mitchum says as the movie opens, gazing at the sky. "Not that you mind the killings -your Book is full of killing."

Iconic Rock Shots of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash and More

The preacher finds the children he is seeking. He pulls his knife; Lillian Gish raises a shotgun. She chases him off, but he promises to return, and that night he does. She sits just inside her front door, with her shotgun on her lap, slowly rocking in her rocking chair; he sits in her front yard, singing in a loud, deep, clear, pure voice, singing a hymn: "Leaning, leaning, safe from all alarms." Just by the way he commands the night with his voice, Mitchurn seems to suck all the air out of it, as if the night cannot survive the evil that has now claimed the song.

As Mitchurn sings, though, full of the pleasure of the music, reaching deeper and deeper into his chest for stronger and stronger tones, Lillian Gish begins to sing along. With her hands firm on her shotgun, her high, thin, quivering voice takes the song back, erasing Mitchum's florid hues, his confidence, his certainty. The song becomes ordinary again; the stage Mitchum has raised for himself in Lillian Gish's front yard falls away. You are terrified at the thought of what will happen when the song ends, and you can imagine that Mitchum's preacher is, too – but you cannot imagine the same of Lillian Gish. It's the quiet that is so scary – that suspended sense of first time, last time, no time. In that stillness, for the moment, is a hint of what Gish called "the beauty of the world" – a moment when the world seems to stop turning, when everything in it stands out clearly, plain for what it is. Those moments never last. To create even one of them is a great thing. Throughout Lillian Gish's career, from The Birth of a Nation to Way Down East to The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, and in Bob Dylan's, from "With God on Our Side" to "Mr. Tambourine Man" to "Highlands," a song that closes a record released only weeks ago, those moments are scattered like grain.

This story is from the December 25th, 1997/January 8th, 1998 double issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 776: December 25, 1997