Bob Dylan turned 80 on May 24. There are only a handful of artists who have changed, shaped, upended the musical world like Dylan. It is a telling fact that Dylan is the first songwriter to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 but he didn’t win it for songwriting; he won it for poetry. He also won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize For his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power. And that tells you everything you need to know.
But I have more on the topic of Bob Dylan. And this is where it gets personal.
Bob Dylan doesn’t sing sweetly like a Harry Nilsson and sometimes, especially in concert, it is difficult to make out the lyrics. But if you are going to Dylan for the tunes, you’re going for the wrong reason and the Nobel and Pulitzer prize committees understand that.
When I like authors, I don’t just like the stories they tell. I like the way they tell the story, the words they use. There is a reason Shakespeare is Shakespeare. In Henry V, my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, King Henry is encouraging his men before the Battle of Agincourt where the French outnumbered them 3:1. With the battle about to be fought on St. Crispin’s Day (October 25), Henry told his beleaguered troops:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For me, Dylan has that kind of poetic power. Whether he is being comical as in Buckets of Rain or indignant against injustice like Hurricane (about the framed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) or leisurely like Mozambique, he uses words and not melodies to tell the stories he wishes to tell.
Having listened to Bob Dylan for far more than 50 years, he never ceases to move me with his writing. In Shelter from the Storm, Dylan writes/intones:
In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
That stanza gets me every time I hear it. And I hear it a lot because it’s one of my favorites. More than that, it describes for me what my life was like leading up to when I fell in love with Nicole.
Then there is the poetry and power of All Along the Watchtower with its second stanza that almost become like hallowed scripture to me with its imagery and wisdom.
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late
Talk falsely now. What a phrase.
If Miles Davis is the embodiment of cool, Bob Dylan is the Spirit of cool. Here’s a great example: Dylan was invited to perform at the Obama White House. I heard President Obama describe this to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
“It’s mysterious. Has a little quirky smile on his face,” President Obama told Fallon. “That’s what you want from Bob Dylan. You don’t want him to be all chatty and eating off the cheese plate and all that stuff. It would disappoint you.”
He said that most performers show up early and chat up the staff and try to get a photo with the president. Not Dylan. “He showed up only a few minutes before the show and walked right on stage, sang, and walked off. He just looked at me and winked,” the President said. “I leaned over to Michelle and said, ‘He’s just so cool.’”
He performed with George Harrison in the Concert for Bangladesh and in The Last Waltz with the Band. He introduced me to Emmylou Harris back in 1975 when she sang seven songs with Dylan on the album Desire, especially the song One More Cup of Coffee which was inspired by Dylan leaving his time spent with Basques. It becomes a dialogue between a man and a woman who are forced to leave each other. But what makes the song even more amazing is the natural minor scale used and Dylan sings it in a Basque style of vocalization.
Again, you don’t go to Dylan for a catchy tune. You go for imagery and wisdom and the beauty of words.
I’ve only gotten to see Bob Dylan twice in concert and I wish Nicole could have been there with me. But we were taking a long drive one weekend to and from La Crosse. We found a radio station that was playing a marathon of radio shows wherein Dylan hosted the show and played songs of interest to him with his cool narratives between the songs. At one point, he said, “Did you know that the harmonica is the most popular instrument sold in the world? You’re welcome.”
Best of all, Nicole likes him as much as I do and she listens to him without prompting from me. My girl.
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