Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is everywhere. You’ve got yours; I’ve got mine. So much has been said — my work is done. I don’t want to talk up his influence. It’s living history. Fact is…I take him for granted because he’s always been there. I’ve never known life without him.

Beyond what is self-evident, I have no angle on Bob. (Sure.) I just like some of his songs.

I have a personal relationship with his work — of course. Slow Train Moving (1979) was a fresh start. My mom turned Christian when he did; Dad quit smoking and drinking. They liked the record. They could relate to it. The music was plain, its message clear. Bob was born again. And humor saved it: God had a funny bone. The vibe was kind of sexy. Then in 1989 my sister got Oh Mercy on tape. (She was going to San Jose State at the time.) It reminded her of Tom Waits — but this was Dylan, and that was “better.” She liked the weird, modern blues: Wisdom washed up on the guy who was the apple-cheeked poet of the 60s.

Now he looks like a prune — the ugliest man in rock & roll.

* * *

Dad showed me how to play the twelve-bar blues. He began collecting country and blues records in 1950s Georgia. By listening to them, over and over, he taught himself to play guitar. He sang like Jimmie Rodgers. Now he’s taking guitar lessons fifty years on. Drink, marriage, the Korean War — life happened. He could barely remember the old stuff. At the age of seventy, he’s starting over.

Dad swears that Bob schooled himself on these records, that he sings just like them. Which is true: Dylan is the everyman of a thousand faces — straight out of thin air, quite prescient, premeditated like Jesus, random in appearance.

“We grew up with him.” Okay. Elusiveness (that need for private life) speaks to our dream — our wont — to identify with him. His music sweeps you up. Too many people want things spelt out, or they give the guy some sort of mystical aura. That’s why his backlog, though full of crap, is bigger than life. He always made vague things rhyme. Profound he sounds1, but most of the time he’s bunk, and he knows it.

When he is in on the joke — when he keeps it simple — he can do no wrong. Flighty lyrics mar him. They show the limits of his craft, and of folk music in general. I’d take Nashville Skyline (1969) over Blonde On Blonde (1966) any day.

Now. Brian Wilson (the Beach Boy) said Bob was killing music. He sang too many words through his nose. He couldn’t play to save his life.

Dylan was death: misuse done right, our phoenix from the ash — “Like A Rolling Stone” (a song about me, you, Bob, some people I know, Mike Bloomfield, Brian Jones, my ex-boyfriend, Al Pacino, Serpico…). He can also play. Don’t forget that “simple” music suits his voice, the instrument for which he’s known. And stick melodies stick. Each time I go to the Guitar Center, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (1973) is the demo I use.

* * *

Dylan performs. You can’t take the voice from the lyrics. Everything’s a false start; nothing is sacred. First cuts are perfect, a life each one. Live versions of old songs are rough drafts in finished form. They show how safe the official Bob is. He doesn’t really take to the album format.

Listen to the bootlegs — the deep end. Tracks from Live 1966 rip into songs that, on Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and Highway 61 Revisited (1965), sound neutered and tame. The Basement Tapes (1975) are unrefined. Recorded live to tape, Blood On The Tracks (1975) certainly sounds polished (he was trying real hard), but I prefer the aftermath. The rhinestone lament that should have been on Blood is “Up To Me.” “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter From The Storm” rock harder on the live Hard Rain (1976). Drenched in echo, with the spectral air of a Sun Records acetate, Desire (1976), also recorded live to tape, is a more compelling portrait of doom and regeneration.2

The point? Bob’s a troubadour. Music pours out, greatness strewn. Even bad albums have gems. “Every Grain Of Sand” (Shot Of Love, 1981) is the best example of this.

* * *

Stardom, marriage, divorce: Bob’s career in three acts. In 1977 Sara Lownds divorced him. He’s been a road warrior ever since. He didn’t peter out in the 70s — he stopped trying to outdo himself. A Martin Scorsese film, No Direction Home (2005), proves this. Burnout was inevitable.

Last week he came to Sacramento. As he bent down to play the keys, I wondered: How does he see himself? We’ll never know, of course, but I suppose that’s one reason we continue to listen to him.

Now we have perspective, the full swath of a man’s life. Yet something’s been lost. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who lost it — but something’s been lost. “Don’t even have anything for myself anymore.” That’s from “Mississippi” (Love And Theft, 2001).

Will the real Bob please stand up?

1 It’s not what he says so much as how he says it.

2 For some folks, Desire confabulates the real-life subjects of at least two songs, “Hurricane” and “Joey”, beyond all good conscience.  But Dylan tells tall tales.  And he knows that history is a series of tall tales, as prone to fact as it is to theater and reinvention.

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