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Tangled Up in Dylan

Page 5 of 6

The incident is well documented. In No Direction Home The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, former New York Times folk-music critic Robert Shelton says, "Dylan was most hurt by the reaction from his old neighborhood paper, the Village Voice." Bob himself is quoted as saying, "Did you see the firing squad of critics they sent?" Worse yet is the notation in Clinton Heylin's biography, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. In a chapter titled, "Someone's Got It In for Me," Faridi McFree, one of Dylan's post-Sara girlfriends, reads the Renaldo and Clara reviews to Bob over the phone.

"It was horrible, absolutely horrible what they said about him, especially in the Village Voice."

"Bob," McFree tells Dylan, "they actually really wish you were dead."

But it took the New Yorker piece to identify me by name. To point the finger, as Dylan used to say about his early protest songs, at the man in the lonely crowd who was to blame.

I had become Dylanology: I was the man who wished Bob Dylan was dead. What a nightmare. I mean: Bob Dylan was, and remains, my hero. For decades I held on to a letter, signed by Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, thanking me for my interest, but no, Bob would not be available to be interviewed for the Francis Lewis High School Patriot. Once, sometime in the late Sixties, I saw Bob coming out of Manny's Music on 48th Street carrying a white paper bag. Half an hour later, I saw Muhammad Ali, my other lodestone, standing at the same exact spot where I'd seen Dylan. Ali shook my hand. Bob only nodded, but it was enough.

I was there, too, at Forest Hills in 1965, booing Dylan for going electric. Nowadays, there are 20 million ponytailed exhipsters claiming to have been at the old 15,000-seat tennis stadium heralding the Zeitgeist as "Tombstone Blues" serrated the late-summer air. But really, it was better to have booed. All the real Dylan fans booed. Booing was part of the Dylanological continuum — having expectations shattered, feeling rejected, and then realizing how better, way better, it was to live in this new, bigger world he'd thrust you into.

In retrospect, it seems the ultimate noncompliance that Dylan didn't die taking his Triumph too quick around that curve on Zena Road in Woodstock back in '66. If anyone ever fit the live fast/die young/beautiful corpse trope, it was Bob Dylan. Then, like Rimbaud and James Dean, Dylan could have been one more overromanticized Jim Morrison to sit around watching be a smart mouth in Don't Look Back, ranking on poor Donovan and claiming he could hold his breath three times as long as Caruso. Indeed, it makes a good scene, like a Behind the Music tale from the crypt: the Bobster, in a steam room, playing rummy with the twin poles of his cross-race pollination-inspiration: Hank Williams (dead at twenty-nine) and Robert Johnson (dead at twenty-seven). Charlie Parker (dead at thirty-four) could sit in, too, if he was in town.

Except Bob Dylan wasn't going for it; this was not his Fate. By whatever confluence of DNA and destiny, he has persisted far beyond the days of his own infallibility. Fifty-nine now, he's had plenty of time to make a nutty movie like Renaldo and Clara, be charged with hitting his wife, get born again, make a bunch of intermittently inspired records, etc., etc., and have dick-heads like me wish he were dead.

He has lasted long enough for that old-time religion to return. Only yesterday, I was able to sit on the subway, listening to the 1994 version of Dylan creaking through the old folk song "Delia," tears in my eyes at the harsh, ravaged beauty of it all. When he was twenty, he wanted to sound like an old whore singing "House of the Rising Sun," one foot on the platform, the other on the train. Now he'd gotten there. In the end, this was Dylan's true greatness, his spectacular humanity, the keep-on-keeping-on of it all, the adherence to the life cycle. At least this was the rap — my rap until that New Yorker came through the door.

I mention all this because everyone — everyone I know, anyway — has their own Dylanology. Their own little chazerei about how it is between Bob and them. And, like me, they want to tell you all about it.

Could be now or never. Since the 1997 histoplasmosis scare (noted by New York Post headline writers as "Bob Dylan Heart Mystery"), mortality issues have dominated Dylanological dialogue. How does Bob look, people ask; what's his physical state, his mental state, think he's been drinking? Now, for sure, was the time to be with the Bobster, to follow him around from show to show, to get unashamedly paternal about the guy, not to let the little fucker out of your sight.

It was also very convenient, now that Bob has become an opening act. In the beginning, this was a shock, watching Dylan blast out "Down in the Flood" before 60,000 empty seats at Giants Stadium in 1995, ignored by stray early-bird Grateful Dead fans. But now this seven o'clock starting time is one more Dylanological boon. This way the D fan can easily commandeer a spot in the still-empty first few rows, see Bob's seventeen-song set, be back on the highway (or tucked in bed at the Marriott) by nine, and never hear note one of headliner Phil Lesh.

Bob is like Ali now, lighting the Olympic torch, a (usually) silent Buddha, acknowledging the sweet autumnalness of it all. In current Dylanology the set list is everything, and these days the poet offers mostly a greatest-hits, pre-motorcycle-accident package. You can sit behind where Pablo the sound man lights the candles and burns the sticks of Nag Chompa incense, "a Bob Dylan tradition for the past twenty years," Pablo says, and wonder about it. Wonder if Dylan, the rebel morphed to Sunshine Boy/National Treasure/Beloved Entertainer, has decided to close his show with "Blowin' in the Wind," his corniest signature song, because he thinks we want this showbiz victory lap, this "Forever Young" schmaltz. Or whether he's come to the (painful? joyous?) conclusion that these older tunes, the famous ones of his youth, like "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Don't Think Twice" and "Stuck Inside of Memphis" — not the gospel, not Time out of Mind — are really his best, the things he really wants to play so we'll remember him right.

Like Revelations, in seven shows, Bob played seven "Tangled Up in Blue"s, seven "Highway 61"s, seven "Like a Rolling Stone"s, seven "Blowin' in the Wind"s. The Dylanologist, understanding that some around him have been waiting twenty years to hear "It Ain't Me Babe" live, sits patiently, anticipating the "variable" slots, the ones reserved for the special items, the one-offs, the deep rarities. As always, they come: a speed-metal revise of "Drifter's Escape"; a "Long Black Veil," the ultimate murder ballad, never more high and lonesome; a two-night revival of "Tears of Rage"; "Maggie's Farm" (played at Scranton, exactly thirty-five years to the day from the first electric version at Newport, a fact duly noted by attendant tapeheads); an old Stanley Brothers tune; and finally, "Every Grain of Sand."

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