Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bob Dylan - Voice of Every Generation?

I saw Bob Dylan as part of the Americanarama Tour last week in Atlanta. I wrote this last year for an event on the occasion of Bob Dylan's birthday. I previously wrote about Dylan here.
This is not going to be your standard celebration of the greatness of Bob Dylan. On the occasion of Bob's birthday, I'm not here to give you something you're probably read a hundred times about all of his folk anthems, or his artistic fearlessness, or his political significance. I don't really care, and I'm not interested if you do care, about how his music has made the world a better place or given it meaning. If it has, you probably haven't been paying enough attention to what his songs actually say.

You see, Bob Dylan was not the voice of my generation. Not at first, anyway.

A little background, and then maybe you'll understand. I was born in 1970, the year Richard Nixon entertained Elvis Presley in the White House. When I was born, Bob Dylan released his "Self Portrait" album, the most universally loathed release of his career. He was in a creative slump and unsure of himself after producing a string of seminal albums, any one of which would have been enough to cement anybody else's career. A myth endures that Dylan was intentionally trying to sabotage his image at this point, to demystify himself from the folk god, then rock god, he had become. He was a married father trying to turn a page.

By the time I was conscious of him about 15 years later, he was charitably called a legend, which is a polite way of saying what he called himself later - "a worn-out star." He had just alienated many of his most ardent fans with a trilogy of uncompromising Christian albums, and he was settling into a string of late eighties works with a bloated band and lackluster songs. My high school classmates used to give their best imitations of his portion of "We Are the World."

And to top it off, frankly, he annoyed me. I was a child of the eighties, which meant that I grew up viewing the sixties through a jaundiced eye. Dylan, frankly, symbolized everything I detested about the Baby Boom generation - its endless self-celebration, its elevating pop culture to the status of religion, its obsession with refighting the same political battles over and over. Besides, the guy had a voice like a rusty chainsaw running out of gas.

So I politely declined in the fall of 1990 when Dylan came to Tuscaloosa to perform at homecoming while I was a student at the University of Alabama. I rolled my eyes as I heard friends talk rapturously about hearing him sing "Tangled Up In Blue" and thought to myself, yeah sure. Ban the Bomb. Make Love, Not War. Blah blah blah.

I really knew it all, didn't I?

Almost immediately after that, two things happened. First, I began to really discover Bob Dylan. Not the legend that I was already sick of hearing about, but the actual artist. And second, Bob started yet another career renaissance, the most improbable of his life.

My first actually appreciation of Bob's music came when I played "Subterranian Homesick Blues." To any kid who grew up listening to rap music, what Dylan is doing here doesn't sound all that unfamiliar. But his word play, his inventiveness, the slick way he carelessly tosses off the words gets under your skin. It stays with you. He seems to be saying, as every kid ever born says at a certain age, "They really don't care all that much about us, do they?" When you're a certain age, you don't care who "they" are. "They" is shorthand for the whole world.

But Dylan didn't stay in his 20s forever, and neither did I. It's amazing how a public figure can grow in your estimation the longer he stays in the public eye. Dylan simply wore out my generation, giving hundreds of live shows a night all over the world in what became known as "The Neverending Tour." Then, there was his health scare in the late 90s when he hovered near death for a while, only to emerge with his most celebrated album in years, "Time Out of Mind."

In one of those quirks of fate he is famous for, Dylan followed that up with an even better work, "Love and Theft," which appeared on music store racks on Sept. 11, 2001. I was on vacation at the beach, but when I saw the Towers fall and heard him sing, "High Water Everywhere," you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing that day. A few years later, here he was again with "Modern Times." But Dylan was true to form, peopling his songs with characters waiting on trains instead of sending out tweets and status updates on Facebook.

In these three albums, it would be easy to say that Dylan cemented his status as rock's elder statesman, passing judgment as he always has on a world gone wrong. But that is also one of those too-easy labels, like calling him the spokesman for his generation. Yes, of course, "Blonde on Blonde" or "The Basement Tapes" are worth hundreds of listens on your turntable or iPod, but Dylan sounds like a man who actually knows what he's talking about in "Ain't Talkin'."

He's experienced life. He's not singing some borrowed thoughts from some old bluesman. He's been kicked to the curb by his best friends and he's come back to name a few names. Perhaps the best statement you can find is his Oscar-winning "Things Have Changed." In its lyrics, he trots out the Bible, the jitterbug, a gallows, but he's never sounded so current. People are crazy and times are strange, but he, like us, has seen it all before, and he is bound for something eternal. "Don't get up gentlemen," he cautions, "I'm only passing through."

If you live long enough, you're bound to see anything. When I first encountered Bob, he was famously squeamish about interviews and somewhat aloof from his fame. Now, Bob Dylan has done a Victoria's Secret commercial. He recorded an album of Christmas music that sounded at the same time like an elaborate prank and the most fun he's had in years. He hosts his own radio show, but declines to play his own songs. He has passed seven decades and shows no sign of slowing down.

And me? I'm forty now, about the age he was when I formed my first wrong-headed assumptions about him. But I see him now as a man who isn't content to be what other people expect him to be. He isn't interested in celebrating the past. Even when he performs the songs people never tire of hearing him sing, he changes the arrangements to make them almost unrecognizable. Though he borrows from virtually every source, he manages to create something original and lasting.

A survey recently showed that one in seven people think the world will end in their lifetimes. So maybe at last I can recognize Bob Dylan as the voice of my generation. And every other one as well.

There's nothing to worry about, he says, tongue firmly in cheek, because it's all good. The answer is...well, you know the rest.


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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