Bob Dylan Preview: Shelter from the Storm
By Tom Robotham
I didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anybody. ~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One.
Last winter Bob Dylan saved my life.
OK, that may be an overstatement. But he got me through one of those dark nights of the soul, and that’s something I’ll never forget.
It was around 9 in the evening, and I was alone in my apartment, dwelling in a state of melancholy about the circumstances of my life. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel like being out; didn’t feel like being social. I just needed to reflect. But at that moment, reading held no appeal either—not even my go-to books for inspiration: the essays of Emerson and Thoreau, the poems of Rilke, Rumi and Neruda; the glittering passages from Great Gatsby, Middlemarch or other favorite novels. Instead, I poured a scotch on the rocks, lit up a cigarette, dialed up my Dylan play list on the iPod that’s plugged into my stereo, and began to listen.
This was somewhat unusual. I’ve always admired Dylan’s writing and enjoyed some of his records. But for years, I was ambivalent at best about his voice. In many cases, I preferred covers of his songs—The Byrds’ version of “My Back Pages,” for instance, or Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” I know a lot of people who feel the same way.
That night, though, my attitude changed dramatically. It wasn’t just Dylan’s richly poetic lyrics that spoke to me; it was his soulful delivery of them. The gritty, nasal quality of his voice seemed to express a fierce individualism at odds with a society that insists on conformity.
Dylan (performing July 24 at Farm Bureau Live in Virginia Beach) carried that spirit with him even as a young man in 1961, when arrived in New York in hopes of making his mark on the Greenwich Village club scene. He’d already been heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie, whose songs, to Dylan’s mind, had “the infinite sweep of humanity in them,” as well as folk icon Pete Seeger. Two years later, with the hit song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he established his reputation as a kind of heir to their legacy. But it wasn’t long before Dylan began to chafe against the expectations of the emerging 1960s counterculture and the folk-music scene. That, indeed, was the great tragic flaw of the counterculture. Its most ardent adherents demanded a conformity no less rigid than the “Establishment” that it was railing against.
The most famous example of this early in his career came when he was booed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival for playing electric guitar—a stellar example, not only of Dylan’s iconoclastic nature, but of the fact that folkies who favored acoustic protest songs, could be just as narrow-minded as the mainstream society at which those songs were aimed.
A year earlier, Dylan had revealed his own impulse to grow and change with his song “My Back Pages”—particularly in the refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The song has been interpreted as an expression of Dylan’s dissatisfaction with the earnestness of his earlier songs, and that interpretation makes sense to me. But to my mind the richness of literature and poetic song lyrics is diminished by simple interpretation of the author’s “intent.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “There is…creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.” Dylan’s refrain has spoken deeply to me these last few years because it’s how I feel: Younger than I was 20 years ago, when I was chasing conventional and narrowly defined dreams of a “grown-up” middleclass existence. What Dylan’s growth suggests to me, in other words, is that youthfulness is about openness to new experiences and new ways of thinking.
And yet it would be simplistic to think of Dylan as an unshakeable model of individualism. Like a lot of celebrities who find themselves trying to live up to expectations, Dylan in 1966 began to feel the pressure. Ironically, a motorcycle accident forced upon him a much needed temporary escape from “the rat race,” as he later put it. He fully recovered, of course, but over the next decade, critical and popular reception of his output was mixed—sometimes deservedly so. But prophets (and Dylan is nothing, if not a modern-day prophet) are often misunderstood in their own time. When he released Blood on the Tracks in 1975, one Rolling Stone critics called it “shoddy,” and others were similarly disparaging, or at least ambivalent. Today it is widely regarded as one of his greatest albums.
Still, the befuddlement at the time is understandable. Indeed, in the late 1970s, Dylan reinvented himself yet again in the most surprising way possible. He became a born-again Christian. The conversion turned off a lot of fans, and for me—never an ardent fan to begin with—it felt like the last straw. Anyone who claims to be a born-again Christian, I thought at the time, is either an idiot or a charlatan. I remember wondering whether it was just some stunt on Dylan’s part. I realize in retrospect that I was being self-righteously judgmental—and not really paying close attention. Stephen Olden summed it up well in The New York Times in 1981: “Neither age…, nor his much-publicized conversion to born-again Christianity,” Holden wrote, “has altered his essentially iconoclastic temperament.”
In 1985, he stirred controversy yet again, when he remarked a Live Aid, a fundraiser for famine relief in Africa, that he hoped some of the money could be used to help struggling American farmers. Though many thought the remarks inappropriate given the event’s purpose, they inspired Willie Nelson to create Farm Aid. It was yet another example of his reach and influence. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate Dylan’s influence on the formation of 1960s counterculture, not to mention many of the greatest musicians of our time—the Beatles very much included. When Beatles were still singing a lot of simple love songs, Dylan was penning lyrics as poetically dense as the Beatles’ lyrics at the zenith of their evolution.
Take the 1965 song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for example. Most people think of it as a simple folk song, a jingle-jangle for the campfire, as it were. But consider these lyrics: “Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand / Vanished from my hand /Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping / My weariness amazes me, I am branded on my feet / I have no one to meet/And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.”
Toward the end of that year, of course, the Beatles released the ground-breaking Rubber Soul. But I think it’s fair to say that Dylan’s sophistication emerged before the Beatles’ and had a huge impact on their evolution as songwriters.
Some of Dylan’s early lyrics also had an edginess to them that was rare for an era largely defined by simple pop songs about puppy love. One of my favorites, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” has been called the first anti-love song.
And yet, Dylan remained full of surprises. Much later in his career, in 1997, he wrote one of my favorite straightforward love songs of all time: “Make You Feel My Love,” which begins with the lines, “When the rain is blowin’ in your face / And the whole world is on your case / I could offer you a warm embrace / To make you feel my love.” The lyrics aren’t remarkable. But the song just works, as evidenced by the fact that it has been covered by Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, Adele and Kelly Clarkson.
Dylan, in short, is nothing if not multifaceted. He has had a tendency to be cryptic, edgy, sarcastic, and bristling, but also joyful, passionate, idealistic and light-hearted. The exuberance of the short-lived Traveling Wilburys, the super group that included, Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, is a testament not only to his enduring youthfulness but to his collaborative nature, something we don’t always associate with larger-than-life iconoclasts.
The song that moved me most deeply that lonely winter night, however, was his 1974 tune “Forever Young,” which begins with the lines, “May God bless and keep you always / May your wishes all come true / May you always do for others /And let others do for you / May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung/May you stay forever young.”
I’ll freely admit that as the song unfolded, the last one of the night, tears were streaming down my face. It felt as if Dylan were speaking to me and my circumstances, as I sat at a crossroads of life, feeling discouraged. This, I think, is ultimately what characterizes great art—the ability to make each listener, reader or viewer feel understood on some deep spiritual level.
By the time he reached the soaring chorus, repeating the phrase “forever young,” my heart soared with him, not only because of the lyrics but because of the quality of his voice, which I had somehow dismissed for so many years. I guess the only way to explain my earlier attitude is by repeating that line from “My Back Pages”: I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.