Give the anarchist a cigarette: Happy 70th, Bob Dylan

May 24, 2011

Adapted from The Shortstop’s Son (University of Arkansas Press, 1999):

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

In the 1980s, at a party in Morningside Heights not far from Columbia University, a New York University film student pointed out Bob Dylan’s daughter to me.

“Would you like to be introduced?” the film student asked. I declined. Dylan’s daughter looked like she was having fun, like she might have forgotten for the moment that she was Dylan’s daughter. It was better to leave her alone; she looked happy.

All Dylan’s children have a special burden. Their famous father was famous in part for hiding them out, for shielding them from the pop of flashbulbs, the hot stare of klieg lights, the killing fallout of celebrity.
The film student’s friend figured it would be, if not rude, at least inappropriate to make Dylan’s daughter’s acquaintance. Knowing that she was Dylan’s daughter poisoned all possibilities of human interaction. Maybe, he thought, if you simply met Dylan’s daughter, and only later found out who her father was, it might be OK. Then there might be a chance you wouldn’t send her spinning off in horror, crashing down the stairs and into the cold brittle merciless New York night. Maybe.

It must be tough being Dylan’s kid.

Dylan would know, if you could find him to ask him — because Dylan created Dylan; he thought him up and invented his name and his history.

The real-life Robert Zimmerman was someone else, a personality subsumed by his willful creation, by the monster he made of himself. Say the name comes from Dylan Thomas, the Bushmills-soaked poet, and Dylan will deny it. At least he has, on occasion, denied it.

Nothing is for certain about this Dylan. While the facts of Zimmerman’s 70 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. In the early days, he would tell folks he was an orphan; 15 years later, he had his mom, Beatty Zimmerman, on stage 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.

Little Zimmie — Dylan said we could call him that, in “Gotta Serve Somebody” — played in teen-age 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 and Marlon Brando and leather jackets and motorcycles.

He got the hell out of Hibbing, Minn., away from that dim doomed Midwestern mining town. 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.
Thirty years on, our 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. 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. While it’s OK to not like Dylan, it is wrong to say he is not musical. 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 to “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 —Woody Guthrie whipped, busted, bitter, bloody, unbowed.

From his early, journalistic “protest” songs to 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 the best kiss-off song ever — “Positively Fourth Street” — and “Like a Rolling Stone,” perhaps the best rock song ever.)

Maybe he doesn’t write collections of songs like Blonde on Blonde anymore. After Elvis 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.

Who is better equipped to mumble a benediction over this bloodiest, most American of centuries?

Dylan made rock ‘n’ roll a viable medium for adults; his lyrics were serious stuff. Until Dylan, rock ‘n’ roll had been an unabashedly juvenile form. And while it would be wrong to call Dylan a poet, he is as influential as any poet this country has produced in this 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.

On Labor Day weekend in 1995, Dylan showed up at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He wore a rock star’s gold lame shirt (and in doing so came closer than anyone else to invoking the ghost of Elvis) and muttered his way through a ragged electric set. He played electric guitar mathematically, finding the box and poking his fingers at the strings. He did “All Along the Watchtower” and made it sound like a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. He even deigned to speak to the audience, something he very rarely does anymore.

“Let me hear you say `Broooooce,’ ” he urged before bringing on Bruce Springsteen, with whom he sang “Forever Young.”

It wasn’t the greatest performance, but it was earnest. And when Dylan stepped away from the mike to let Springsteen take a verse, a vague glimmer of a smile as brief and blue as cigarette smoke trembled on his lips.

And Dylan, child of Dylan, induced a generous impulse — one that commanded, “Leave him alone, he looks happy.”


3 Comments

  • Comment by tmfw — May 25,2011 at 9:59 am

    Bonus points question: What other famous person came from Hibbing, MN?

  • Comment by Philip Martin — May 25,2011 at 10:05 am

    Kevin McHale, for one.

  • Comment by Uncleredeye — May 26,2011 at 8:45 am

    Mr. Jones,

    What do you suppose the beknighted Dylan would have to say about this column?

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