Bob Dylan is the quintessential enigmatic character – he's been able to maintain a certain mystery that he cultivated from the very beginning. I think there's both more and less to him than meets the eye. I have an enormous respect for what he's brought to popular music, particularly as I get older. His survival is very welcome in this shallow musical climate we have today.
We used to do a cover of "Like a Rolling Stone" with my band back in Texas. I first responded to Dylan's lyrics. He's one of the pioneers of thoughtful lyrics that are about something besides boys and girls. And even when they were about boys and girls, they weren't about boys and girls in a normal way. That most recent song he did – "Things Have Changed" – really knocked me out. I was driving around one day, and I'd never heard it before, and I thought to myself, "Wow, somebody is really doin' a good Bob Dylan." I was saying, "This is better than Bob," and it turned out to be him. He's a cyclical person, as all great artists are – he sort of comes and goes. And he's not afraid to go off on tangents – the Christianity thing, for instance. But at the same time, I think "Gotta Serve Somebody" is a great song.
Back in the Sixties, when a lot of people were flaming out at a very young age, rock & roll was supposed to be a young man's game only. You weren't supposed to live long enough to do it forever. And even if you lived, you weren't supposed to continue doing it. But now, it doesn't seem so strange to me that Dylan's still doing what he's doing at sixty. The question is – why not? I think he does what he does because it's what he has to do. I know that critics like their icons dead at an early age, but obviously it can be otherwise, and Dylan is a grand example of that. Birthday wishes for him? Keep on going.
The first birthday I remember spending with Bob was his twenty-fifth, when we were playing in Paris in 1966. This was that infamous tour of Europe when Bob, the Hawks and I were being booed and laced with tomatoes and coins. But when we played Paris, somebody had the bright idea of covering the whole back of the stage with a big American flag. It was like, "Hey, here's an idea – this should really piss the French off." For the show, he used to go out and do his acoustic bit, and then we would all come out and manage to assault and offend most of the people in the house. He did his acoustic thing that night, but he couldn't seem to get it in tune. Sometimes this happens – you keep tuning and it just keeps getting worse. So he stood up there tuning it for, like, fifteen minutes, and between the tuning and the flag, the audience didn't have to wait until the band came out – they were already pissed off.
Bob was in a frame of mind that it was all somehow quite enjoyable. I don't know if it was because it was his birthday or he just didn't give a shit anymore – that because we'd been booed so much, calluses had built up on his soul. I'm not sure why it happened, but it completely annoyed everyone in the audience – they thought it was a put-on. Then it became such an issue that it doubled back on him. He was like, "Well, shit, this is driving everyone crazy, maybe I'll just stand here and tune for a couple more minutes." And then you realize you can't get it in tune – something's gone wrong here. And I remember I was standing at the side there, because we were waiting to go out and do our bit, and he was looking at me and shrugging his shoulders like, "Can you tune this fucker?" I think he came over, and we turned a few things and got the guitar happening.
When we finally did come out, they were already used to the tuning and the flag and didn't even mind us all that much. That was one of the only shows we played that whole period in which we didn't get booed. And we were like, "Wow, this is a great birthday present."
We're all just lucky that we live in this particular time when we get to have Bob's great influence, and that he's still out there performing and coming out with great music. Bob is really sort of supernatural in the way he can keep writing these great songs.
I spent a couple of years with Bob, on the road with the Heartbreakers and in the studio with the Traveling Wilburys, and I got a sense of songs from him. He has a vast repertoire and an incredible knowledge of other people's music. He can draw a lot of material off the top of his head, and every song is a jewel.
What drives Bob? I think he really is a kind of roving-minstrel type, like from the medieval period, or, if you want to update it a bit, like a Dust Bowl Woody Guthrie type. Despite the trappings of success, he seems to be a dedicated guy who goes around and plays his music everywhere and, through that, shares what's on his mind. I most value Bob's honesty – he's a very upfront person and a true gentleman. The truth is that I and everyone else are forever in his debt. He opened the door to a multitude of things, and you can only compare him to the Beatles, or maybe Elvis. Hey, I wish him sixty more years and all the best.
Bob Dylan was a hard sell in 1985, when I first began teaching HU 417, "The Art of Song Lyrics," at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin – all these groups were respectfully listened to in class by the student musicians for whom I created the course.
But Dylan was another matter. To my shock, young people who had never heard Dylan before found his voice irritating, his lyrics confusing and his worldview incomprehensible. It was horrifying to realize that so titanic an artist of my own college years in the 1960s could have fallen so completely off the cultural map.
This story has a happy ending. Step by step through the 1990s, students taking that course began to be intrigued, then mesmerized, by Dylan's classic songs. Why the change? First, the grunge movement, whose tragic falling star was Kurt Cobain, revived the image of the suffering, alienated artist and refamiliarized audiences with an abrasive, nasal (and probably white proletarian) vocal style that is half a strangled howl.
Second, the commercial triumph of hip-hop among white teens sparked new interest in socially conscious lyrics after a period in which lyric substance had diminished, thanks to production-heavy recreational disco and operatic heavy metal. Dylan's compassion for the poor and dispossessed (as in the epic "Desolation Row") was back in fashion, and alongside rap, his packed, speed-freak lyrics suddenly made sense. Listening for the first time to "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan's first hit single, students would laugh in amazement as they recognized rap's rhythmic ranting.
But if Dylan's homage to the agrarian "talking blues" helps reveal the artistic ancestry of hip-hop, exposure to his work can partly undermine rap lyrics, which are sometimes formulaic and limited in scope. After twenty flourishing years of that urban genre, surprisingly few rap tag lines have passed into general consciousness or can stand as exempla of their era in the way that dozens of Dylan's axiomatic one-liners have (e.g., "But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked").
Despite his pose as a Woody Guthrie-type country drifter, Dylan was a total product of Jewish culture, where the word is sacred. In his three surrealistic electric albums of 1965-66 (which remain massive influences on my thinking and writing), Dylan betrayed his wide reading, sensitivity to language, mastery of irony and satire, and acute observation of society. Next to his dazzling achievement, with its witty riffs on mythology and its vast perspective on history (as in "All Along the Watchtower"), the lyrics of too much current popular music look adolescent and parochial.
Dylan is a perfect role model to present to aspiring artists. As a young man, he had blazing vision and tenacity. He rejected creature comforts and lived on pure will and instinct. He catered to no one but preserved his testy eccentricity and defiance. And his best work shows how the creative imagination operates – in a hallucinatory stream of sensations and emotions that perhaps even the embattled artist does not fully understand.
Camille Paglia is the author of 'Sexual Personae' and 'Vamps and Tramps.'
Abraham Lincoln grew his beard – the first worn by an American president – between his election and his swearing-in. Things Have Changed, I believe the message was. Similarly, Bob Dylan grew that funny little Clark Gable mustache before being awarded his Oscar but some time since the last time you'd had a good look at his face up close. Only, when was it that you'd had a good look at his face up close? And were you really having one during the Oscars, at that triple remove, peering through your television to watch a crowd of movie stars watching Dylan beamed in like an astronaut from the outback? And yet, for the yearning seemingly beamed back at him by those movie stars – certainly for the yearning and love beamed back at him through screens and across time zones from the room where I sat watching – he was in that moment more present in absence than anyone else in the world.
That face, it was so damn real, I wondered if I'd ever seen Bob Dylan before in my life. Who's ever been so universal and spectral, and at once, so sweetly homely and strange as Bob Dylan in 2001? And when was it he drifted into that unassailable, holy-humble twilight stratosphere he now occupies? Somewhere in 1997, probably, when the eerie grace of Time Out of Mind persuaded listeners to relinquish can-it-be-as-good-as-I-hope defenses and realize it was better than they'd dared hope. The record achieved its own "I'm here/I'm not" sleight-of-hand, being great in cumulative impact rather than for any particular song. Dylan hid in plain sight in lyrics cobbled from blues sources and his own catalog but capped the album with "Highlands," a laid-back dirge that felt like the unedited Bob's diary he'd never actually delivered before, despite all rumors.
Add his metaphoric brush with death – "Bob Dylan Heart Mystery" was the unforgettable New York Post headline – plus the realization that the Never-Ending Tour really never did end, that he had vowed to live his remaining days or decades in a nightly communion of gracious, elegant live performances for those who cared and in complete indifference to those who didn't, and it dawned: He'd survived the Eighties like a slowmotion motorcycle wreck, and nothing could touch him now. The sublime had secretly appeared in quiet exploration of his folk roots in two acoustic albums, like the face of God discovered in a blown-up photograph of Dock Boggs' banjo. Then he'd built his way back to songwriting for the third? fourth? time, while singing in the elder's voice he'd waited his whole life, and ours, to fully inhabit.
So now the Great Emancipator, the old dinosaur-astronaut, had brought down a single song, ancient lyrics turned glinting into new light: "Things Have Changed." It seemed enough now, one song every couple years, a song so good you were certain he'd written it a dozen times before. Who wouldn't want to give him an Oscar, really? Or a Nobel, or one more cup of coffee for the road, or a big, sloppy hug, if he wanted one, which it's hard not to doubt. The mustache might have been there to help you recall: He's not there, he's gone. And: It ain't him you're looking for. It's you.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of 'Motherless Brooklyn.'
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