Monday, May 30, 2011

Regarding Bob Dylan, `Round His 70th Birthday

They say that if you can remember the 60s you weren’t really there, but I was there, and while my memories are sketchy, they’re there, and I’m glad I have them. And some of my fondest memories are of Bob Dylan and what he meant to me as I was growing up. I had this poster of Dylan (left) on one of my bedroom walls for ages. I think it came with one of the rock albums, but I’m not sure. I just know that it, like he, was a constant presence, an inspiration, a yardstick, a spokesman for my times for a long, long time. The fact that he’s still with us and still writing and singing is comforting to me. It makes me feel that I haven’t been set loose into the future like a forlorn balloon, even though I have been – we all have been. May 24th was Dylan’s 70th birthday. I was never aware of his birthday, but his being 70 now – just 11 years older than I – feels important.

I remember reading an extensive interview with Dylan in Rolling Stone (one of the first of many in that magazine over the years), and the interviewer asked him how it felt to be the Voice of His Generation and he said “I don’t see myself that way.” I guess; it’s hard for any of us to see ourselves as others see us. But Dylan has always had public and critical response to him as an artist and a person to reflect back at him. Yet for as long as I can remember, Bob Dylan has always looked like he didn’t quite understand how he got to wherever he was and that he didn’t want the responsibility of being the Voice of His Generation. I imagine it’s hard to have greatness thrust upon you, even if greatness is what you aspire to. It just wasn’t the kind of greatness he had in mind. So it goes.

From the start, all Bob Dylan wanted was to make music, and rock `n’ roll was his first love. He wanted to be Elvis Presley before Woody Guthrie captured his heart, which took him unexpectedly into the folk revival of the 60s. He wanted to be relevant more than he wanted to be political, but he allowed himself to be embraced by the civil rights/anti-war politics of the time and to reflect that in his music as a “protest” singer/songwriter. He allowed Pete Seeger to take him under his wing. He allowed Joan Baez to share her fame and her social voice with him. He may have been sidetracked, but he wasn’t stupid.

Dylan gave the movement some of its most important anthems, but he was never on the front lines. Oddly enough, he wasn’t really a political animal, he was an artist and a poet. And when he went electric (to the dismay of the folk/political purists), he really didn’t understand why people responded with such rage. The man with so much insight and talent to express, the artist cunning and ruthless enough to be an opportunist, never understood what he meant to people, and never saw any obligation to his audience because of that meaning. That he was so clueless in his prime is what made him human. I think he gets it now and has for some time. What makes him human now is his age.

I sort of tell time by his albums, at least up to a point. I remember being about 12 or 13 and buying his first three albums, Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Another Side of Bob Dylan and devouring them. I was among the folk purist audience who booed him at the infamous Forest Hills concert when he went electric in the mid-60s, but I came to relish the Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home albums. He turned me; I got it. I remember sitting in the back of the B-41 Flatbush Avenue bus clutching the Blonde On Blonde album I'd just bought (I still think it was his greatest) and actually tingling with anticipation until I could get home and play it. I remember the seductiveness of Desire and the boldness of Blood On The Tracks (his important, eloquent middle period), and the lively, interesting Shot of Love and Empire Burlesque. Then for a long time he lost me. I didn’t catch up again until 1989's Oh Mercy (which was the soundtrack for a torrid love affair I had in the early 90s) then he lost me again. The man has released more than 50 albums, not counting numerous bootlegs. In 2009 he put out a Christmas album; you can’t buy everything.

It doesn’t matter that as I got older I didn’t keep up with Dylan’s Born Again period, or his cowboy/Pat Garrett period, or his extended Greatest Hits period. I’d shake my head about his odd ventures into different things, but I respected that he dared to try, and to do it in public, too. Bob Dylan taught me to express myself and take risks at every turn – lessons I haven't always lived up to. But he inspired the poet in me and the socially caring person in me and the dreamer in me. I’m grateful for that.

Now, as an old man, the father of six (including the talented, adorable Jakob) and the grandfather of nine, Dylan represents endurance to me, and a willingness to try new things at any age. In the 90s, he created some very lovely Matisse-esque paintings, and he performed in China for the first time just a few months ago. I pray he outlives me. I would feel untethered without the voice, and conscience, and very human confusion of my generation that is Bob Dylan.

1 comment:

Ira Siegel said...

Lovely, Jeanne, and I have you to thank for sitting me down to listen to Dylan for the first time (those first 3 albums that you mention). You were my "Bob Dylan Music Appreciation 101" teacher, and a great one, too.