I’ve been writing this piece in my head for some years, hand-wrote some stuff on a recent flight, and started typing up a piece last week. Than I noticed two blogs that I follow also put out Dylan pieces last week, and I stalled. Should I wait? Should I join the crowd? I decided to try to finish.
Before I get too far along, almost nobody is more copyright conscious than Dylan, maybe Prince, so putting together a playlist on YT is near impossible. You’ll be getting some live versions instead of the studio cuts that I typically listen to. You miss something if you don’t go find the originals. (To be fair, there is an official TY page https://www.youtube.com/user/BobDylanVEVO .)
I think a lot about death. Not in a morbid way, not suicidal or homicidal, but curiously. Philosophically. It’s had key impacts on my life; it part of everybody’s life every now and again
We’ve lost a lot of heroes over the past 2-3 years, and somehow that got me to thinking about Dylan one day. When Bob dies, the headlines will be all about ‘Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone”. The glossy mags will rehash the already-told stories of 1960s New York, The Village, that night he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and maybe that motorcycle crash that nobody really knows anything about.
I don’t mean to eulogize, I’d rather celebrate life than death, but death was on my mind recently when I started to scribble. It’s my time to celebrate him. Besides, maybe he really did make a deal with the devil; if he’s going to outlive me, I’d better get a move on.
People will write about that nasally voice, but that’s not my thing. (Why don’t people talk about that fucking harmonica? I hate that thing.) Two things I want to say about Dylan, I guess.
He is unafraid to move in new directions. Not with the stay-fresh anxiety of Bowie, but with a curiosity to spend time with new ideas, to add innovations to old traditions, and to find an assortment of new bandmates. I guess that’s a theme for me, and how I try to explore music: be not afraid, find anew. (I try to generalize that to my whole life, but hard to judge how I’m doing.)
In his biography, Chronicles volume one, he talked about letting Daniel Lanois put together a band for him in New Orleans. They made Oh Mercy, an album with ambiance that I’d bet Dylan never felt before.
I previously wrote about his foray into blues, but I’ll say again, it was pleasingly surprising for me. He really learned new tricks, and surrounded himself with new people, wonderfully talented new sounds.
An extreme example is The Traveling Wilburys. Finding new bandmates by getting some of the most important people in rock history together in one garage? That’s one way to do it. (Comments on YT are crazy. Yes, great and beloved artists die. And do you want to know what? Always, there are more to fill the void.)
The second thing I want to say, and this is amazing, I would not understand phrasing without Dylan songs. He writes great lyrics and surrounds himself with great musicians. He’s been around a long time and has his place of import in music, and now, literature. But mostly I think of his phrasing.
I was driving home from a day on The Mountain. A glorious hike, hot and dry, sweaty; I was 40 mph on dusty back roads, and I noticed when this song came on. I listened and re-listened. I probably played this song 20 times on the way home, over the moon with the way he put words together.
When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love
When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love
Everybody wants to hear that.
In the back of my mind, I could understand a feminist complaint about a man saying “make you feel my love”; turn it around, have a woman sing it.
The lyric here, the stories it can tell. Imagery. Mesmerizing mood. (Wow, this version is really excellent, too. Probably the best track I’ve managed for this blog piece.)
The air is getting hotter
There’s a rumbling in the skies
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
My memory of Bob Dylan is forever linked with Aimee Mann. My friend Betsy made me go to an Aimee Mann show once. Sometime in the late 1990s. I mean “made me”; I was a willing accomplice, but I would not have known to choose the show on my own. Good show. She played an acoustic version of “Voices Carry”, after an unfortunate fan called out a request. She showed a lot of poise, and more importantly, it was a really beautiful rendition. There’s this clip, so it must happen to her with some frequency. (She was the lead singer for ‘Til Tuesday, you know. I’ve always wondered what happened on Tuesday.)
When I saw her, she had to muck around with chords a little bit, memory and practice, before she actually played it, solo, with her band patiently waiting in the dark. It felt spontaneous. Now I see she does that old song frequently; perhaps that night she rediscovered the song. Or she’s a good actor. I’ll never know.
She told this story about meeting Bob Dylan. He told her, I’m paraphrasing, “You’re pretty good. You sing a lot of those story songs. I don’t like those song stories, you know, songs that tell a story.” Unimpressed, Aimee said, “well, you only have yourself to blame, Bob.” There’s an expanded version of the story in this radio interview.
Let’s close with “Hurricane”, one of Dylan’s great story songs.