Jul 1, 2013

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan Rollin’ into Modern Times

Contents






How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?


Fraud, liar, thief, copycat, mooch, slut, poser, but then again, Bob Dylan was only 19 and gathering up the pieces of who he would become. He slunk around from couch to couch in Greenwich Village, guitar in hand, rarely washed, usually unkempt, strumming and humming a little, jotting down notes to songs, smoking, slouching. And often his confidence was out of proportion to his abilities—at first. But that confidence propelled him until his drive and
absorptive curiosity and life experience caught up with him. Somehow, he sounded authentic right from his first original song.
From the liner notes of his debut album, Bob Dylan, “In less than one year in New York, Bob Dylan has thrown the folk crowd into an uproar. Ardent fans have been shouting his praises. Devotees have found in him the image of a singing rebel, a musical Chaplin tramp, a young Woody Guthrie, or a composite of some of the best country blues singers.”
Dylan’s early vision is legendary, “He's the American song-and-dance man, the sleight-of-hand man, mixing up folk roots, beat poetry, Chuck Berry, Baudelaire, Texas medicine, railroad gin, and his own psychedelic mutations of the blues . . .” (Rolling Stone Biography).

There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.

Dylan affected hobo speech, mixed with hipster expressions—at an early age. He crafted talking songs, like Woody Guthrie. And much has been made of the Guthrie connection—how Dylan patterned himself after the great folk-troubadour, he of the “if you play more than two chords on the guitar you’re showing off” fame. At first it was affectation, then it evolved into Dylan’s unique voice and style.

But can he really sing? This topic came up in a recent discussion. One die-hard fan insisted Dylan sings better than Bono, and that he’s actually an accomplished vocalist. Another swore that his voice is lousy. No one questioned Dylan’s utter greatness and we all admitted how much we adore his music. I insisted that if you analyze Dylan, that greatness will start blowin’ in the wind. It’s not just his voice, his storytelling, his charisma, his inventiveness, his musicianship, poetry. It’s more—it’s his inscrutable Dylan magic.

Just as Billy Holliday’s voice changed after years of abuse, so Dylan’s has too. He finally blew it out somewhere between MTV Unplugged (1995) and Time Out of Mind (1997), I don’t know whether to mourn this change or not. The semi-sweet youthful growl had expressive flexibility. The newer, coarser growl is appealing in flava, reminiscent of old smoky blues honky-tonks and ramblin’ men. It’s all good, I want to say. However Dylan’s voice sounds, its monumental effect is clear. As Arlo Guthrie said about Dylan, “the truth rang out so loud in his words, not just for me, but for an entire generation.”

When you think that you lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I'm just going down the road feeling bad
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

As with other themes—women, drugs, friends—with religion, Dylan has gone through different phases. Of eastern European Jewish descent, he donned a different persona as he changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan in 1962. In 1979, under the influence of his lover, back-up singer Carolyn Dennis (with whom he had a child), he converted to Christianity. After a few albums dedicated to the cause (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love), he drifted back to himself, around 1983. “I don't go to church or to a synagogue. I don't kneel beside my bed at night. I don't think I will. I have yet to face the terror I read about in all the great literature. But, since politics, economics and war have failed to make us feel any better—as individuals or as a nation—and we look back at long years of disrepair, then maybe the time for religion has come again, and rather too suddenly—‘like a thief in the night,’ ” Dylan said in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview. He won’t talk about his beliefs, but he did study Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, starting in the early '80s, and reputedly continues to practice, at least on holidays.

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight,
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right,
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day,
Time passes slowly and fades away.

Who could keep it up for 40 years? Dylan’s had so many bursts of genius, and the last three albums, the “trilogy,” as Columbia Records CEO Steve Barnett puts it, referring to Time out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times) is but one example. Most A-list singer/songwriters would do well to have four or five enduringly great songs. With Dylan, you’d be hard-pressed to limit it to four or five dozen. And even in his lesser albums when his mojo stumbled during the 80s (Empire Burlesque, Knocked out Loaded), there are hidden gems, such as the silly and lovable “Ugliest Girl in the World” or the haunting “Dark Eyes.” Even the Basement Tapes, made when Dylan was ostensibly recovering from a motorcycle accident and that he recorded with members of The Band in a basement under the crudest of conditions—cannot hide his juiciness. As Dylan said, “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but to inspire them?”


Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'.
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.
It’s tempting to say Dylan’s brilliant lyrics and scorching expressiveness have raised the bar for popular music over the decades. Over 3,000 artists have recorded his music, and it’s been suggested that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and others of his generation were inspired by Dylan to write more authentically of their own experience. In Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Howard Sounes writes of Dylan, “He is a minstrel guru to millions who hear their deepest thoughts and feelings expressed in his songs, an artist who is perceived to be an original thinker, whose work encapsulates wisdom.”
But how does Dylan feel? He did make international news recently when, in a Rolling Stone interview, he tossed off music over the past 20 years as sounding “atrocious” and suggested that Napster was okay to give it away, because “it ain’t worth nothing anyway.” Admittedly, he seems to have been referring more to the quality of the recordings than to the ability or imagination of the performers. But does he disdain current artists? Hardly, as he famously name-checked Alicia Keys in his just-released Modern Times album, on the “Thunder on the Mountain” track.

Maybe Dylan will never be anachronistic, as much of his just-shy-of 500 song repertoire sounds freshly potent given the zeitgeist of the post-9/11, post-hurricane Katrina turbulent world as it did in the post-Cuban Missile crisis and nuclear scares of the 60s when he first started writing.



I went down where the vultures feed
I would've got deeper, but there wasn't any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn't any difference to me

Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?

Storyteller, embellisher, borrower, synthesizer, guest, womanizer, legend, but then again, he is known all over the globe, he has written 475 songs on 48 albums. He’s received the Polar Music Prize, a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, Kennedy Center Honors, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. His “Like a Rollin’ Stone” was named the greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone (with another 11 songs in the top 500, and 10 albums in the top 500). He’s won a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Did I leave anything out? Oh, he also has a Broadway musical, together with Twyla Tharp, that’s opening soon—as well as a movie, in which he plays a character much like himself, and a movie that involves six actors to portray six stages of his life. Dylan famously said, “What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”

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