In 1976, my mother, recently divorced, broke up painfully and protractedly with her first real boyfriend since the collapse of her marriage to my father. I turned thirteen that May, and her birthday present to me was Desire. It was my first Dylan album. I had been talking for a while about this song I'd heard, only once, playing over the speakers in a Washington, D.C., bookstore sometime during the preceding winter. I stood there in the aisle, with a copy of Dune in my hand, trying to catch the lyrics, to guess the singer, to figure out what the hell was happening in the story. I remembered the song like a promising face, vividly and erroneously, for months afterward, without hearing it again, until I unwrapped the disc my mother handed me and put it on the turntable.
I lay down on the rug, between the speakers, with the mysterious record jacket in my hands. On the front there was a fey Jewish cowboy in furs and windblown scarves; on the back, Tarot cards and a hermetic set of liner notes shorn of punctuation, in an all but illegible type. As the record began, I was aglow with the dewy pessimism of adolescence, ready to extend the limits of my ignorance as far as I possibly could in the hope that I might receive, as if from the perceived contour of those limits – what? Some kind of negative confirmation of the path or pattern of my destiny? A valuable secret about the universe or girls? At thirteen, you put on a record for the first time with not merely a dire hope but a good possibility that it is somehow going to alter the course of your life.
It turned out that I had heard the first cut, "Hurricane," on the radio, several times, without ever associating it with that other elusive tune, the one about a "mystical child" smiling in the rain and driving a man insane. Then came the song itself: "Isis." Isis was an Egyptian goddess, the mother of Horus and wife of Osiris – I knew that story. Isis was also the lead character in a CBS Saturday-morning television show, about a librarian or scientist or other type of bespectacled woman who spun around while saying "O Mighty Isis" and then was able to stop a Chevy van with her bare hands. I knew that story, too. But as the story of Isis – Bob Dylan's Isis – began, I felt, I sensed, or maybe I finally just recognized, that another story was beginning, one that would take place in a "wild unknown country," in "a high place of darkness and light." So much has been written about Dylan's voice – a voice I knew well enough, or thought I did, from the Sixties standards, the classic rants and rambles. But this sounded, to me, like a different man entirely. In the situation he described – a man and a woman united by failure and the memory of happiness, by passion and the memory of bitterness; the pursuit of some unknown treasure through wonder and hardship, to end in futility and a laugh at one's own expense – I thought I recognized, in the ache and the ardor of that windblown, Jewish-cowboy voice, the contours of a world I was just beginning to know.
Michael Chabon's latest novel, 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,' won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
I can't remember a time when Bob Dylan's voice wasn't in my head, but I first met him when U2 were recording The Unforgettable Fire at Slane Castle in Ireland, and he played there. His family was around, and I remember being struck then – as I'm continually struck – by how he seems to have a certain old-fashioned attitude toward his family. For example, he asked me if I'd take a photograph with him, and I was just about to fall backward, when I realized it was so his kids could be in it.
Then one time I interviewed him and Van Morrison for the [Irish magazine] Hot Press, and in the interview I told him, "U2 have no roots." He just said, "Well, you've got to look back, that's the riches in Ireland." He's like this ancient voice that tells you that you need to know where you come from. There was a moment in the Sixties when he came off all mod, but he's been combating the filthy modern tide, as Yeats called it, for a long time.
His words have always had an almost Biblical uprightness. No matter where you are in your life, there's a Dylan record that helps you map out the locale. When you're filled with teenage idealism. When you're falling in love. When you've just been divorced. When your kids are growing up. Even when you're facing the shock of illness or a brush with mortality. Bob is like religion: He'll get you one way or the other!
I'm sure he has his demons – the records pay tribute to that. But he's still alive and doing his best work. He started out as sort of a Rimbaud figure, but he just refused to die stupid. There's a lot of mystery about him, but he doesn't turn mystery into melodrama. He's dealt with celebrity with a smirk and a mask of indifference. The same stare he gives the outside world, he gives himself.
When Dylan played Dublin recently, he walked to the gig! He had his hood up, and he just walked past the punters on the way to see him. I think that's how he wants it. He's lost interest in playing the game, and he's just gotten on with his life as a writer and performer. He's more of the Middle Ages than the New Millennium, the troubadour who will play wherever there's a meal on the table – whether it's Las Vegas or in front of the pope. God bless him.
There was nothing in your demeanor that would have suggested that you'd be among the last ones standing. You seemed unaware that at least one green vegetable and one yellow one should accompany every meal. You abused your nervous system; you drove a motorcycle. You burned your bridges, leaving managers, girlfriends, journalists and hardcore fans shaking their fists at you from the other side. You seemed fragile, vulnerable – you seemed like that terrible, exhausting cliché: the vagabond poet fated to an early demise. I doubt that anyone who loved you imagined you'd still be making music in the twenty-first century.
Forty years ago, in 1961, you were twenty and making your first record. This is what the world was like: The East Germans were constructing the Berlin Wall, and Cuban exiles and U.S. operatives were launching the Bay of Pigs invasion. Now bricks from the wall are sold as post-Communist memorabilia, and Bay of Pigs veterans are invited to symposia and reunions back in Havana. The world you came from has all but disappeared, and most of the people who were in the business when you were starting out have come and gone. The year of your first record, people were listening to Bobby Vee singing "Rubber Ball" and Neil Sedaka trying his luck on "Calendar Girl." In the music business, careers and reputations rise and fall, fortunes are won and lost, fates rule with a heavy hand – why intrude upon the birthday cheer with a long list of fallen rock & rollers? Yet you, who once seemed so marked, so mercurial, continue to command our attention. And right now what we need to celebrate, even more than your survival as a creator of songs, an illuminator of the reality behind reality, is your simple human here-ness. Not only have you somehow continued to exist, prancing like Pan through a forest of drugs and Jesus, highway wrecks and heart infections, but you're still hip, you're still mysterious and enigmatic, you're still writing lines like "I've been to Sugar Town/I shook the sugar down/Now I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door." The Bob Dylan Story, when they make the movie of your life, won't follow the genre conventions of watching the suffering artist on his forced march from early genius to madness and on to suicide or overdose. We'll leave that to Vincent van Gogh – and Basquiat, Elvis, Lenny Bruce, Charlie Parker and all the other careening supernovae of the tragic-artist biopic. Your birthday marks another milestone in your longest, most surprising and ironic song, the song that is your life: Talking Survival of the Fittest Blues.
Scott Spencer is the author of 'The Rich Man's Table' and 'Endless Love.'
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