Bob Dylan turned 80 years old last week.
Some people will tell you they are astounded by this, because just yesterday (when they were young) he was a-snarlin' and a-smirkin' and changin' the times. He was making that greasy-kid-stuff rock 'n' roll worthy of adult attention. He was stampin' on the graves of the masters of war. He was doing thin, wild, mercury music.
Some people can't believe Dylan is 80 because they can't believe that they are whatever the calendar says they are.
But to me, he has been old a long time now. It feels like the numbers are just starting to catch up with the sage. Moses was 80 when he called out Pharaoh, told him to let his people go.
"I was born about 10,000 years ago," Elvis Presley once sang. Precisely. He was there "when Pharaoh's daughter put Moses in the water" and he's still with us. (He'll fight the man who says it isn't so.) That's what's being a unregenerate ghost is all about. It's not dark yet for Bob. He'll be here awhile.
Dylan tours. Or he's trying to. He last played live in December 2019. He had his Japanese tour canceled in April. A Google search seemed to indicate he was playing his post-pandemic (or what we hope is post-pandemic) tour in Duluth last Saturday night as part of its annual Dylanfest. But it turned out it wasn't Dylan, just a conglomeration of "all-star" Minnesota musicians playing Dylan covers.
Too bad, because the show went off in the same armory where it all started, or at least where, on Jan. 31, 1959, young Robert Zimmerman stood in the front row to watch Buddy Holly. On Feb. 3, a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza carrying Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson crashed a few minutes after taking off from the airfield at Clear Lake, Iowa.
That night, at the Moorhead, Minn., National Guard Armory, they determined the Winter Dance Party must go on anyway, since Dion and the Belmonts had arrived via bus. So they recruited local acts to fill out the bill, among them Bill Velline's band, which featured his 15-year-old brother Robert as lead singer.
Within a couple of months, a piano player who called himself Elston Gunnn (with three n's), joined that band, now called Bobby Vee and the Shadows. It didn't work out, in part because Gunnn could only play in the key of C, and because Gunnn really wanted to get out of Minnesota.
Less than two years later, Gunnn, now calling himself Bob Dylan, self-described "orphan from Oklahoma," tracked down Woody Guthrie at Robert and Sidsel Gleason's apartment in East Orange, N.J.
Guthrie was actually living in Greystone Park Psychiatric hospital in Morris Plains, N.J., but his old friends the Gleasons brought him down to their place every Sunday where he visited with his family, who drove down from Brooklyn, and fans who took the bus down from New York. Sometimes folk singers like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Ramblin' Jack Elliott stopped by to see them. Sidsel fed them biscuits and stew.
Guthrie had Huntington's disease, a hereditary disorder that causes the victim to gradually lose control of his body even while his mind remains sharp. People used to call it "the shakes" because that's what people with Huntington's do.
Guthrie had been declining since 1954, when he checked himself into Brooklyn State Hospital complaining that he was having trouble with his motor functions. After he was discharged in 1956, he was wandering the streets of Morristown, N.J., penniless. When the police picked him up, he told them he'd written thousands of songs and a bestselling autobiography, so they assumed he was a paranoid schizophrenic. When he asked them to transfer him to Greystone, they agreed it was for the best.
His family left him in Greystone even after it was determined that his problems were physical and not mental because no one could really do much for someone suffering from Huntington's in those days.
Dylan, who'd just dropped out of the University of Minnesota, found out that Guthrie was in East Orange when he knocked on the door of the Cape Cod house in Queens where Guthrie's second wife, a former Martha Graham dancer named Marjorie Greenblatt, lived with their three children. A 13-year-old kid answered the door. Arlo Guthrie told Bob Dylan where his dad would be on Sunday. Dylan took his guitar and got on the bus to East Orange.
Guthrie could barely speak or move, but he liked to hear his own songs, and Dylan knew a lot of them. He played them for the old man, who was then 48, and played his new "Song for Woody." Guthrie hadn't been able to play guitar since 1956, when he'd splashed gasoline on a campfire in Florida and burned his right arm when it flared up. He couldn't sing. But Ramblin' Jack memorized his act, and Dylan studied him, just like Guthrie studied Huddie Ledbetter.
Bob Dylan was not yet 20.
In 1987, Bob Dylan broke his thumb.
Maybe he did something worse. In "Chronicles, Volume One," his famously unreliable autobiography, he writes: "My hand, which had been ungodly injured in a freak accident, was in a state of regeneration. It had been ripped and mangled to the bone and was still in the acute stage — it didn't even feel like it was mine ... "
So like anyone else would do in his situation, he went to the closest emergency room. Since he was in Malibu, Calif., maybe he wasn't too surprised when he saw a guy who looked an awful lot like Brian Wilson. So Bob Dylan walked up to him and said, "Are you Brian Wilson?"
And Brian Wilson said, "Yeah. Who are you?"
Because even though it's Malibu, Calif., you don't expect Bob Dylan to walk up to you, even if you are Brian Wilson.
"I'm Bob Dylan," Bob Dylan said.
"We talked a little bit about nothing," Brian Wilson wrote in his autobiography "I Am Brian Wilson." "I was a big fan of his lyrics, of course. 'Like a Rolling Stone' was one of the best songs, you know? And 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' and so many more. What a songwriter!
"I invited him over to my house for lunch the next day. That was a longer conversation. We just talked and talked about music. We talked about old songs we remembered, songs before rock and roll. We talked about ideas we had. Nice guy. He added vocals to a song I was working on around that time called 'The Spirit of Rock and Roll.'"
"The Spirit of Rock and Roll" was part of an album project that Wilson worked on for a few years called "Sweet Insanity." It was never officially released, Wilson told Dave Herrera of the Las Vegas Review Journal, because "We just didn't think it was good enough. They were just like demos. We recorded about 10-12 songs, and we decided not to put it out because we thought that maybe people wouldn't like it, so we junked it; it wasn't very good."
But there have been bootlegs of "Sweet Insanity." And so you can hear Wilson's "The Spirit of Rock and Roll," featuring Dylan and fellow Travelin' Wilbury Jeff Lynne on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=WE8vPvIoyJo). It's a strange artifact from when Bob Dylan was 46 years old.
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David Geffen once said he never knew anybody more interested in money than Bob Dylan.
It's unclear how Geffen meant that — as a slur or as a comment on how we all are interested in money, or maybe as an interesting observation about the mysterious stranger who has been slouching in the corner of the national saloon/salon for more than 60 years now: It's not all oracular mumbles and futile looks with him, you know.
I know a few people who have met Dylan, and imagine he's far more normal than we like to think our mad geniuses are. He is probably an all-right guy, less the dusty mystic than the old black-and-white posters make him seem. No doubt he's aware of how some people see him, but he figures he can't help that, and nobody has the right to be understood anyway.
He came around at the right time, after Elvis and Jackie Robinson broke the color line, before the record companies figured out the business, that they make lots more money selling music to little kids and followers of fashion than they ever could to people who need it like they need bread.
Anyone who attains any level of success is from time to time afflicted with imposter syndrome, and maybe that's why he keeps going out on tour, to prove something to himself.
I don't try to figure Dylan out — I don't mess with him and he leaves me alone, except sometimes when I really need to hear "Every Grain of Sand" or "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" or "Blood on the Tracks" from beginning to end. It's not often that I need that, so when I do I'm grateful to him like some people are grateful to Jonas Salk.
In 2006, Dylan released his 44th album, "Modern Times." It was his second of the 21st century, after "Love and Theft," which was released on Sept. 11, 2001, and the third in a string of late-career masterpieces that began with 1997's "Time Out of Mind."
At the time we might have thought these valedictory albums, but Dylan kept going. Make what you will of the crooned standards and the Christmas album, but no matter how much Dylan likes his money, it's for sure he didn't need it, and wasn't chasing fashion. It's not like he's going to squeeze himself into a white silk catsuit and ProTool that bovine squall into a rough approximation of chi-chi Hollywood pitch anytime soon.
"Modern Times" might well turn out to be the last great Dylan album, but last year's "Rough and Rowdy Ways" at least suggests he's still capable of greatness. It's enough to make me want to see what comes next.
"Modern Times" is sonically there — guitars and keyboards, voices and harmonicas. It's slap bass and brushed drums and road-worn, hammered out by a touring band. It's Dylan at 65.
Everybody loves Dylan now, even if they can't take the way he sings, because they understand what he represents: a kind of alternative America. If you're of a certain age, maybe Bob Dylan is who you'd have turned out to be if you'd had the courage of your convictions and some genuine talent and inspiration.
Maybe he really is our Yeats and not some poesy-spouting pop star who couldn't quite be Elvis so settled for Sal Mineo. Maybe he isn't just "good with words, and at keeping things vague"; maybe the chapbook lyrics tore through him like a Teflon-coated slug. You look down and see the hole in your gut and wonder, "What was that all about?"
You credit him as one of those American products, not crazy like Elvis, but self-invented and sly. He is a changeling, but now he has settled into a piano man, a working musician on a never-ending tour of Double-A venues. He has become a jazzhead, one of those cats who catches the noise and turns it, tweaks it, who shimmies up a microphone and snowplows down a glissando.
To catch Dylan you've got to go where he is, see him onstage in his blocked hat and suit of lights, surrounded by his lucky merry band. Just don't expect to recognize "Like a Rolling Stone" when they start to play it, because now they start it in the middle and work out toward the ends.
Dylan at 80 is a working man, always headed for another joint. Maybe it's like Geffen says: Dylan might care too much for money (which can't buy him love), but if I look at his career and don't credit him with all I do, I'll admit he transcended rock star celebrity. He's a great American, like Emerson or Mark Twain.
While he may have started out wanting to be Bobby Vee, he has wound up as a kind of American Picasso — a fine artist with highbrow pretensions, one who employs his own celebrity in the art-making process.
Dylan would most likely deny this — he has at various times in the past assured us he is nothing more than a "song and dance man," a comment that echoes Huddie Ledbetter's protestation that he was but a "songster." Whether you admire his music or not, it's hard to agree with this self-assessment, almost as hard as it is to believe that Dylan believes it. He understands how American, how important, he has become.
The pandemic stalled his never-ending tour, but I hope he gets out there again and soon. Nobel Prize and all.