Critical Mass

The mysterious Mr. Dylan

People try to get a grip on this fascinating man, but the vandals took the handles

Shadows in the Night
by Bob Dylan
Shadows in the Night by Bob Dylan

People like to talk about the new image of America, but to me it's still the old one -- Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, it's not computers, cocaine and David Letterman, we gotta get off that -- Hedy Lamarr, Dorothy Dandridge, that's my idea of America ... who's improved on it?

-- Bob Dylan,

notes for Biograph

After all these years, I don't know Bob Dylan.

Never met the man, never talked to him. Never wanted to, really, didn't think it'd be prudent. Don't know that I'd be disappointed, only that it's not important. I don't want to paw through his garbage, I don't want to commit no journalism on him.

I think he doesn't have any secrets anyway, that it's all out there in plain sight. And that's all there is.

If you want to know the truth, I believe we all collaborated on Dylan. He's a kind of mass hallucination. If he'd come along a few weeks earlier or later, he might have missed us; he might have sulked off into obscurity like a thousand others we never knew about. I can imagine him as a professor emeritus somewhere, one who keeps a luxury Gibson in his office and devotes a portion of his shelf space to his own chapbooks -- careworn sylphlike books filled with sub-Ginsbergian word riots. Old Doc Zimmerman was a hard grader, not beloved by the undergrads, but his graduate seminars were legendary.

I hear him crooning Sinatra and think why not? Both were good at conversational phrasing, at making the song seem like something intimate and discreet rather than blared through a Rudy Vallee megaphone. In 1995 Dylan performed at Sinatra's 80th birthday concert, remember? He was the only artist who didn't sing one of Sinatra's songs -- or should we call them songs associated with Sinatra, since he didn't generally write them? Dylan closed the show with "Restless Farewell" (But the dark does die/As the curtain is drawn and somebody's eyes/Must meet the dawn/And if I see the day/I'd only have to stay/So I'll bid farewell in the night and be gone), tying off the evening with a tender "Happy birthday, Mr. Frank."

Funny that Sinatra -- who allegedly requested that Dylan sing that particular song, which was written when the artist was 22 years old and which he'd rarely performed -- seems to never have recorded one of Dylan's songs. You'd think he'd had a crack at "Blowin' in the Wind," and on some level "Like a Rolling Stone" feels like it was written for him, but he never did. While we're dreaming up imaginary impossible covers, let's have Ol' Blue Eyes tackle "Positively Fourth Street" as well.

Dylan is in his 70s, and he's as grand an institution as Sinatra, still touring incessantly. Tonight he's in Greenville, S.C.; tomorrow Nashville; Wednesday New Orleans; Thursday Memphis, at the Orpheum Theatre. Then it's on to Oklahoma, Texas, etc. The European dates start in June. He's not hard to catch, and you figure he does it because he likes it, though in the back of the mind that old David Geffen quote turns round and round: "I would say that Bob Dylan is as interested in money as any person I've known in my life."

So what? Dylan's a songster now, a rich man playing the part of the working musician. He doesn't want the emeritus status, he's still keeping office hours, he's probably still writing songs even if they don't flash and jing like they used to; he's probably living his own version of the American Dream. We can only guess, or ask him, knowing that the Trickster obfuscates, and that his shape is never settled.


Nothing is for certain about this Dylan. While the facts of Robert Zimmerman's 73 years of existence are ascertainable, they reveal virtually nothing about Dylan.

Like Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, he told stories to entertain and obscure, to cover the tracks that led out of the Minnesota Iron Range. Say he took his name from Dylan Thomas, the Bushmills-soaked poet, and Dylan will deny it. At least he has, on occasion, denied it.

In the early days, he would tell folks he was an orphan; 15 years later, he had his mom, Beatty Zimmerman, onstage with him during the Rolling Thunder Revue. But, Nat Hentoff tells us, when Joan Baez tried to dance Dylan's mom down to the principals' microphone to sing a chorus of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," Dylan kicked Joanie -- the girl on the half-shell -- gently in her behind. Dylan wasn't willing to give up the spotlight to his mom.

You might think Dylan's lodestar in the beginning was Woody Guthrie, but it wasn't. First it was Johnny Ray, Hank Snow and Hank Williams and the illicit late-night rhythm and blues that sailed in from Chicago -- Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf. He used to say he thought Tin Pan Alley corny, but he has amended that recently. Those songs got under his skin too, affected him subconsciously maybe.

Little Bobby Zimmerman played in teenage bands -- the Golden Chords, Elston Gunn & The Rock Boppers. He showed up for a high school talent show with a credible impersonation of Little Richard. His favorite singer was Bobby Vee. He liked Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando and leather jackets and motorcycles. He played a girl a record and told her he he was playing on it.

Then he got the hell out of Hibbing, Minn., away from that dim, doomed Midwestern mining town. He stopped off at the University of Minnesota, joined a fraternity and ended up playing folk music in a little club called the 10 O'Clock Scholar in a place they called Dinkytown.

He learned a trade. He took off for Madison, Wis., then to Chicago for a few months, and finally on to New York.

You may know the rest: The adventures in Greenwich Village. The session where he played harmonica for Harry Belafonte. The review by Robert Shelton in The New York Times ('' ... there is no doubt he is bursting at the seams with talent," Shelton wrote about a Dylan performance at Gerde's Folk City, an unprecedented report since Dylan was only the show's opening act, not the headliner). The way he was signed by Columbia Records producer and talent scout John Hammond, the man who "discovered" Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and, later, Bruce Springsteen.

Maybe you know how the first album was released just before the singer turned 21, that it sold miserably and was dubbed "Hammond's Folly." Maybe you know that the first album recorded by the man who was to make songwriting an essential skill for would-be rock stars contained only one song written by Dylan, the derivative "Song to Woody."

It was "Blowin' in the Wind" off the second album that was published in Broadside Magazine in 1962. Subsequently recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, it became the fastest-selling single in Warner Bros. history.

Dylan became a darling of the folk crowd. Then he went electric and got booed, and emerged as a rock hero. He had a spooky James Dean-like motorcycle accident, his marriage broke up, he became "born again." If you don't know the history, you could look it up, or watch it on TV.

There is a scene in Don't Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film of Dylan's 1965 tour of England. Backstage before a concert in Newcastle, a young blond man with fat glasses (Terry Ellis, who'd go on to co-found Chrysalis Records) approaches Dylan and sidekick Bob Neuwirth. Awed by the scruffy 24-year-old musician, this "science student" obviously wants to scrape up against Dylan, to make some kind of connection to the artist.

After a few minutes of painful teasing -- a cat batting a mouse between its paws -- Dylan lunges for the student's throat.

"I'm, I'm a person, you know," the wounded student pleads.

"Well, so what? There's a million, thousand, billion -- there's so many people outside. Only you can't know them all."

"No, no, but ah -- ah, if I meet somebody, ah, to speak to them a few minutes, I think that guy might be able to give me something."

"Well, now we're getting down there, huh? What is it that you want?"

"Um, everyone is out for whatever they can get. Well, I might be able to get -- I might be able to get something material."

"You might be able to get a chick!"

A second later, a disgusted Neuwirth hands the science student an old harmonica. The student protests that he doesn't want it, that he can't play it -- but it is all he gets, and maybe more than he deserves.


Fifty years on, our man Dylan is still a crank. You might not like him as a person, he might not like you. So what?

You get what you get from him and not much else. He paints a bit. You get the music -- and though some people don't get the music, it's really all that is available.

He is an artist who demands a lot from his children, from those of us who've alternately embraced and rejected him over the years. He is prickly, wheezy, squinting and difficult. One of the most closely guarded secrets at Columbia Records during the 1960s was how small Dylan's album sales actually were. Columbia even let him slip away during the early 1970s to record Planet Waves on Asylum. It was only a few years ago that his first album -- Hammond's Folly -- finally went gold.

There are a lot of people who don't like Dylan, who say he is not musical, that he can't sing, that his concerts have become tedious. That he deliberately messes with the tempo of his hits to prevent audience singalongs.

While it's fair not to like Dylan's music, it is just wrong to complain that he's unmusical. He is a gifted guitar player (listen to his first album or World Gone Wrong). And he is a much better singer than he lets on (listen to "Percy's Song" off the Biograph collection or "Lay Lady Lay"). Technically his harmonica playing may be suspect, but technically John Lennon was a lousy musician. Dylan makes a gorgeous groaning noise.

When he wants it to be, his voice is a tremendous instrument. Anxious rasps and hoarse whispers, it sounds real and right -- Guthrie whipped, busted, bitter, bloody, unbowed.

From his early journalistic "protest" songs and his midperiod psychological investigations to his current hash of gospel, blues and pumped-up pop, Dylan has always found a distinctive sound. (He also managed to write "Like a Rolling Stone," perhaps the best rock song ever.)

Maybe he doesn't write collections of songs like Blonde on Blonde anymore. After Presley, who never wrote a song, there is no other American rock 'n' roll figure who comes close to matching Dylan's Promethean contribution to the modern American pop sensibility. He is on the same trajectory as Whitman and e.e. cummings, as Wallace Stevens and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as Andy Warhol -- another howling, thwarted, damaged outsider's voice from the American hinterland.

Dylan made rock 'n' roll a viable medium for adults; his lyrics were serious stuff. Until Dylan, rock 'n' roll had been unabashedly juvenile. And while it would be wrong to call Dylan a poet, he is as influential as any poet this country has produced in the past century, and they will be playing his songs a century from now.

Dylan also remade himself into a character as compelling as Huckleberry Finn. Critics invariably fail to explain Dylan because Dylan is smarter than they are -- genius has its own alchemy, you don't break it down with a centrifuge. You don't know it. You can't.

Maybe you wouldn't want to. Maybe you pull back the curtain and reveal something mortal and bowed, an old man at a keyboard wearing a ridiculous hat. Bob Dylan's earned that hat, that tour bus, those musicians, this never ending work.


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Style on 04/26/2015

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