Sunday, March 8, 2015

How to Love Bob Dylan

Some of my good friends have confessed (they didn't see it as a confession, but I took it that way) that they don't like Bob Dylan.  Actually, what they said was that that didn't understand why anyone likes Bob Dylan.  So, my challenge is to explain how to fall in love with Bob Dylan--his lyrics, his voice, the whole enchilada.

You're probably asking yourself, Why should I even try to like Bob Dylan?  

Consider this:  

In 1963, the great Johnny Cash bought Dylan's second album, The Free Wheelin' Bob Dylan, and "listened to it constantly,"  That same year, Cash wrote Dylan a fan letter.  Dylan was 22 years old.  When they met in 1964, Johnny Cash gave Bob Dylan, (now 23), his guitar as a gesture of his respect and admiration. [Credit:, the Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash Sessions.] 

Nice, huh?  No?  Okay.  Stay with me.  Listen to this recording of "Lay, Lady, Lay."  (I tried to find Cash and Dylan doing the duet of this song, but no luck.)  This is an early recording of it by Dylan, when he was still using his early melody-focused singing voice.  

Not too bad, huh?  Later, of course, Dylan transitioned into his better-known voicing, which, I would argue, focused more on phrasing.  Here are some prime examples of brilliant phrasing.  

Did you know that Dylan wrote "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow"?  In 1963.  He was 22 years old. He also wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" that year.  At 27, in 1968, he wrote "I Shall Be Released."

Dylan wrote a lot of great songs, no argument there.  But how do you really get into Dylan, on a personal level?   First, you'll need to get yourself some angst, lots of angst.  That's the heavy cream that provides the rich saucy basis for this recipe.  If you're an adolescent, perfect.  If not, try to think of something exquisitely painful that happened to you, and focus on that.  Here's a list of suggestions:

1)  Unrequited love

2)  Rejection

4)  Disappointment in your fellow man

5)  Loss of love

6)  General sense of hopelessness

It's two in the morning.  (Pretend.)  You're all alone, wearing headphones.  No one understands why you're obsessing about this stupid sh__.   You can't remember when it started, and you're afraid of the emptiness that would follow should you empty your head of it.  So, while it's there, clogging your arteries, why not enjoy the feast?  How bittersweet it is...

take, for example, this one song

From "Idiot Wind":

I noticed at the ceremony, 
your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
Don't look into mine.

Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom.

People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that

Now, if you're in this mood (keep the mood, it's important), do you really want a Neil Diamond kind of melodious voice crooning these lyrics?  You want it to sound pretty?   Hell, no!  You want a cry from the soul, not too pretty, smoky-scratchy, drawing out the hard meaning, salty and bleeding.  You really do want the voice Bob Dylan.

Give a listen.

The genius of Bob Dylan--the genius of genius--is that it speaks directly to the human condition--our condition--which is, in this case, was a voluntary state of possession bound by misery.  But connected to the universe through the grace of Bob.  

The quickest way to love Dylan is to give in to the beauty of that particular, terrible mood.  

Well, that's how I came to love Dylan.  There may be other ways, but I doubt that they burrow into the marrow of the bones quite as effectively.  

Dylan is a part of me.  I recommend that you make him a part of you.  I didn't say it would be easy--but truly worth it.

Dylan's lyrics are a painful indulgence--a moment to dwell on bittersweet memories.  To be in the presence of the ones you've lost.  A time to wonder the what-if's.   It is a reckoning with the limits of your time and choices, your life petering out, your choices describing borderlines everywhere around you.  Let your thoughts drift to the past, linger on regrets, quaff the bitter drink.  Swim in the wanting nature of your mind within the confines of your prison.  

And then, shake it off.  Shake it off.  Just for now.