May 3, 2021
Most patrons of Musser Public Library would be surprised to learn that of the two Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 21st Century, one of them is my greatest musical hero, Bob Dylan, who was so honored in 2016. Arguably the most influential American artist of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, Dylan will turn 80 on May 24th, an event that has already spawned a new round of books and celebrations. For anyone wanting to learn the facts of Dylan’s life and career, among the biographies available I’d recommend Howard Sounes’ 2001 Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, which can be found on the shelf at MPL.
Of course, if one just wants the basics, you could always look to Wikipedia:
If a documentary is more your approach, Martin Scorsese’s definitive film No Direction Home, from 2005 and also available at MPL, insightfully covers Dylan’s most famous period of the early and mid-‘60s up through his July 1966 motorcycle accident.
No Direction Home trailer.
For an historical perspective of how Dylan fits into the history of American culture, Grateful Dead publicist and historian Dennis McNally’s On Highway 61 is, I believe, completely spot on. McNally, whose credits include A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, traces American culture from Henry David Thoreau through Mark Twain, minstrel shows, Blues and Jazz up to the point of Dylan’s first album of rock and roll, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. His conclusion? That Dylan and his music are the ultimate synthesis of the key component of American culture: the combination of black and white cultures that makes up the core of American music. This is another item available at MPL.
For my part, I’m taking stock in all the ways Dylan has been a profound part of my life from early childhood to the present and sharing them here. Being a born music-nerd, I learned to read on album covers and record labels. I clearly recall that, when I was 4 in 1969, my mom was a big Johnny Cash fan and we had an album which contained the Man in Black’s cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe.” In my memory’s eye, I can still picture under the song title on the label (B. Dylan). I asked mom what that meant and was told “That’s the person who wrote the song.” Another event from that same time that I know I witnessed but don’t have a clear memory of is that my family watched the Johnny Cash Show every single week and Bob Dylan was the guest star on the very first episode.
Johnny and June Carter sing “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which was recorded in 1964.
Johnny Cash introduces Dylan on his TV show, which aired June 7th, 1969. The entire segment can be seen on The Best of The Johnny Cash Show dvd set, available at MPL. Dylan’s current album at the time, Nashville Skyline, featured country material, a duet with Cash as well as Grammy-winning liner notes written by the Man in Black himself.
The next time Dylan entered my consciousness I was 13 in 1978, when an older cousin of mine bought a Bob Dylan album on 8-track and was playing it in his car. At the time, I was a typical teenager and my favorites were KISS and Elton John. My first thought was “That guy can’t sing!” which is a moment I can laugh about now.
It was early in my sophomore year of high school, fall of 1980, that Dylan’s greatness first registered with me, and in a surprising way. This was around the time Ronald Reagan was elected president for the first time and there was much talk that he might start a war with Russia. I was in a communications class and our assignment was to get up and read a poem. I’ll never forget this girl named Laura, who was the quiet, studious, wallflower type that I had barely spoken to after 10 years of being a classmate, got up and read Dylan’s “Masters of War.” I was hooked from that moment on!
In those days, on my teenager’s allowance, I was big on buying compilation albums and so Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (on 8-track!) was my first purchase. The fun part of this story is that I used to give my little sister, Pam, a ride to school and she became so enamored by Dylan that she bought a harmonica, learned to play it, and to this day can sing all four verses of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by memory.
However, for the next decade-plus, I was merely an average Dylan fan. Several of his albums I didn’t really like or even understand. The first time I saw him perform in person, June 17, 1988 at Forrest Park Amphitheatre in St Louis, there were several songs that I didn’t even recognize and I recall being completely baffled by them. Years later, upon acquiring a ‘bootleg’ recording of this performance, one of those songs turned out to be an old folk song, “The Lakes of Pontchartrain,” in what was a stunningly powerful performance that went completely over my head at the time.
The next time I saw Dylan was August 19, 1989 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield. Pam and I had only heard about this concert that morning and decided to make the trek (we lived in Collinsville, IL at the time, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis and only about 90 minutes from Springfield). Upon arriving, we were told that Standing Room Only were the only tickets available, so we took what we could get. As it turned out, the concert stage was set up inside the harness-racing track with the grandstand used for seating, and SRO meant standing on the racetrack itself, not far at all from the stage! My great memory of this concert was that it was a windy day with storm clouds looming. In fact, during the acoustic set, Dylan performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” As Dylan and band rocked out on “Like A Rolling Stone” nearing the end of the show, it started raining, not a hard rain, but not a sprinkle, either. As they left the stage, I thought, “Well shoot, that’s probably the end of this concert,” but to our great delight, Dylan came back with an acoustic guitar and sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the rain. What a thrill! In my mind’s eye I can still see the expression on his face as he sang.
One of the weirder moments in Dylanological history was his performance when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Jack Nicholson on the Grammy broadcast in February 1991. This was right in the middle of the first Gulf War and many viewers may have been expecting him to come out with an acoustic guitar and sing a pleasant version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”However, he came in with his touring band and, just a few months before his 50th birthday, did a radical, punk-rock version of “Masters of War” which, needless to say, was confusing to a lot of people, although there were a few people who understood what he was doing. Later that year, I read an interview with Eric Clapton, who said “Bob Dylan’s performance at the Grammys proves once again that he is miles over everyone else’s head.” I admit I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time, but I believe I do now.
Still, at this point I was only a minor-league Dylan fan. That all changed during the winter of 1993, when I began seriously listening to the first edition of Dylan’s official Bootleg Series. This was a 3-cd set of alt-versions and out-takes that still blows me away to think of the great songs on it that Dylan had never even released before. Not only that, but I had recently experienced a few disappointments in life, and some of these songs got me to thinking that maybe the conventional values I had grown up with weren’t right for me. I like to refer to this episode as my true “Bobpiphany,” a word I coined myself to describe the moment when one realizes that, as George Harrison once said, “Bob Dylan is The Man, and 500 years from now, he’ll still be The Man.” As for Dylan having had such an impact on my personal views and intellectual growth, Bruce Springsteen put it best when he said, “Dylan was a revolutionary; the way Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.” I can certainly say Dylan helped me learn to think outside the standard American value system.
This is Springsteen’s speech honoring Dylan at the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, from which the above quote is taken.
The next most significant moment in my “Dylanological” journey came on September 30, 1997, when Dylan, after nearly two decades of hit-and-miss albums and tours which had his critical and commercial standing at low tide, released what is widely viewed as his comeback album, Time Out Of Mind. I bought it the day it was released, and to this day I’d say it’s my favorite Dylan album, not just for the great music, but also because it hushed up all the people who were saying Dylan was a has-been.
This was before I had access to the internet, and my Dylan lifeline was to a quarterly fan magazine called “On The Tracks” that also published a monthly newsletter, which among other things contained the most current concert-date information for what is known as the Never-Ending-Tour (since 1988, Dylan averaged more than 100 concerts a year, before the pandemic). I was overjoyed to find out that a show was scheduled for February 17, 1998 at the greatest concert venue I have ever personally been to, the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St Louis. What’s extra-special for me about this concert was that I had always wanted to take my mom to see Dylan, and as it turns out, over that winter she had been dealing with breast cancer, which she had just defeated in the days leading up to the show. So we were in a celebratory mood driving to the show with a few other friends. Naturally, we were all talking about what songs we hoped to hear and mom’s choice was “Forever Young.”With as huge a song catalogue as Dylan’s, the odds that he might sing your special song on any given night are long ones, but sure enough, Dylan’s first encore number was, you guessed it. . . “Forever Young”!
Only eight days after that, on February 25th, Dylan took home three Grammys for Time Out Of Mind: Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Male Rock Vocal for “Cold Irons Bound” and Album of the Year. Needless to say, my favorite Grammy broadcast of all time!
Here Dylan accepts the Album of the Year award:
There are so many other memorable moments. Dylan’s album Love & Theft was released on September 11, 2001. I was in my car on the way to buy my copy when I heard the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In 2005, I moved back to my old hometown of Wayne City, IL (pop 1,100) and started a Dylan fan club, The Skillet Fork Society of Dylanologists. On August 24th, 2008, the whole group went to see Dylan perform at the Mesker Amphitheatre in Evansville, IN. It was at this time that I began contributing to the fan reviews on boblinks.com.
Another excellent concert from that period was July 2, 2009 at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, IL. This was Dylan’s first tour after the release of his Together Through Life album, and I had high expectations of getting to hear Dylan tackle one of the new songs onstage. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed, and in fact had one of my all-time greatest musical experiences on that day. This is my fan review for boblinks:
There are times when one can feel a bit persecuted about being a Dylan fan. I don’t know how many times I’ve been walking down the street and a friend will see me and start singing “how does it feel?” in an exaggerated Dylan-voice. However, there is a sense of solidarity among us fans, a mutual understanding that was brilliantly captured in this Rolling Stone article by fellow Dylan fan Mark Jacobson. With equal parts compassion, humor and insight, Jacobson captures the zeitgeist of what it means to be a “Bobcat.”
If you don’t have time to read the entire article, the following excerpt will give you at least a bit of insight into what it’s all about:
“Rock is full of cults, but nothing — not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis — rivals Dylanology. Back in his dark-sunglasses days, Dylan might have been the coolest, but Dylanology is not about cool. Neither is it a hobby, a fleeting affectation or indolent lord-it-over-you taste-making to get girls, like in High Fidelity. Dylanology is a risk, a gamble, a spiritual declaration, a life choice, and if you don’t believe it, ask those real Weathermen, erstwhile college students who took the drama of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to heart, maybe too much. A year after Rubin Carter addressed the United Nations, several of those forgotten revolutionaries continue to rot in jail, so ask them which way that wind blows. But this is how it is with Dylanology. To be a Bobcat is to acknowledge the presence of the extraordinary in your midst, to open yourself to its workings, to act upon it. In a world of postmod ephemera, this is a solemn bond.”
Another wonderful aspect of being a Dylan fan is that it seems like without fail, other Dylan fans are great people. My high school friend LaMar Choate and I discovered Dylan together. In 2001, I drew a work assignment to El Paso, TX. Just down the street from the hotel I was staying was a dingy little bar called WIldhares. I decided to stop in for a beer, and a fellow named Pat Hamilton was sitting on the stool next to me. It turned out he was a major Dylan fan also and we automatically became good friends. A couple of other more recent examples are that I met my wife, Terri, on the Dylan discussion forum at expectingrain.com. One of the more outstanding friendships I’ve developed though my “Bobsession” came about through a friend of mine who was attending the University of Iowa and sent me a link to a story in the school newspaper about a law professor, Pat Bauer, who was such a Dylan fan that he sometimes quoted his lyrics in lectures. After reading the article, I decided to email him, got a quick response, and Terri and I have been friends with him ever since. Linked below is the article that served as a catalyst for a lasting and rewarding friendship that could not have come about any other way.
There have been other great concerts, good friends and fun times, including the time I spent a year doing a special weekly Dylan radio feature on Muscatine’s own KMCS. However, I want to end this by sharing a few of Dylan’s many accolades and achievements. I’ll start with some lists from Rolling Stone.
Dylan ranks second on the list of greatest artists, behind only The Beatles. It took all four of them to top Dylan! You’ll have to scroll down just a bit to get to Dylan.
The Beatles may be #1 on this list, but make no mistake, the Fabs looked up to Dylan, not the other way around. Here each of the Beatles expresses their admiration for Dylan and even tells the legendary story of how the first time they met Dylan was also the first time they smoked pot!
Here’s one to make all those who say things like “That guy can’t sing” scratch their heads. On RS’s list of 100 greatest singers, Dylan ranks 7th, just in front of Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. The only two Caucasians ahead of Dylan on the list are Elvis Presley and John Lennon. How to explain this? For one, Dylan’s role models as a singer were not pop vocalists but folk and blues singers such as Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. Rolling Stone editor David Fricke once called Dylan’s voice “a sandpaper that roughs up the heart.” The other unique quality in Dylan’s singing is his incredible capacity to convey powerful emotional intensity in an understated way that, quite simply, no other singer can hope to match.
As an aside to this question of Dylan-as-great-singer, I admit that I was confused about this issue myself early in my career as a Dylanologist. I used to think “Most people say that Dylan can’t sing, but all I know is when I hear him sing, I love it.” Fortunately, I found a writer specializing in Dylan who helped me come to understand this phenomenon, the late Paul Williams. His 3-part series Bob Dylan: Performing Artist was absolutely essential not only in helping me understand why Dylan’s voice affected me the way it does, but also taught me how to appreciate the way he was always changing his songs around in concert. I might add that we have Volumes 2 and 3 of the series on the shelf at MPL.
For a brief primer in Dylan-as-great-singer, I’ll take this excerpt from Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner’s review of Dylan’s 1979 album, the GMA Dove Award-winning Slow Train Coming:
Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God’s greatest gift to him.
Putting Dylan at #1 atop the list of songwriters is a no-brainer, but worth mentioning all the same.
Dylan’s mid-60s anthem “Like A Rolling Stone” ranks #1 on the list of greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. If you have heard this song enough times to really absorb it into your system, it’s clear that it is the only choice for the top spot on this poll.
Dylan’s impact and influence over American music goes far beyond the realm of popular music. On NPR’s list of the 100 Essential Folk songs, Dylan’s early-60s civil rights and anti-war anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” is second, behind only Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
In 1999, Dylan’s name appeared on Time magazine’s list of “100 Persons of the Century”:
In December, 1997 Dylan received the Kennedy Center Honors. To make the evening even more special for me, my all-time favorite actor, Gregory Peck, gave a stirring speech on Dylan’s behalf.
Then, Bruce Springsteen brought the house own with a powerful rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’”:
The list goes on and on, with far too many awards to mention individually. In addition to the aforementioned Kennedy Center Honors, Nobel Prize and Grammys, there’s the Oscar, the Pulitzer, the Polar, and induction into numerous halls of fame.
As Dylan approaches 80, there really is nothing left for him to prove or accomplish. History has already been written, and his place is secure in the books. However, as he has already proven time and again, it is foolhardy to assume Dylan is done just because of his age. What the future holds is anyone’s guess, but I know that, for myself, I’m still looking forward to his next move. Hopefully once the pandemic is over, Dylan will be back on the road, headin’ for another joint, continuing his Never-Ending-Tour. When and if he does, Terri and I will be there, somewhere, to pay our undying respect and gratitude.