Bob Dylan at 65

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FRANK MICELOTTA / IMAGEDIRECT / GETTY

Bob Dylan performs at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

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BOB DYLAN AND I...

...never met. Which must be one of the great regrets of his life. But as a kid who loved folk music, I heard his stuff on a Philadelphia FM station and attended his first concert at our Town Hall. The local folk club, The Second Fret at 19th and Sansom Streets, hosted most of the singers Dylan hung out with and learned from. Dave Van Ronk played there; the gravel-voiced Brooklyn bear was one of my favorites, and an inspiration to the young Dylan. Indeed, I thought Dylan's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" was a radio-friendly bowdlerization of Van Ronk's "Baby, Let Me Lay It on You." (Turns out Dylan learned the song from its author, Eric Von Schmidt, and Van Ronk took it from Dylan. In his conversation with Crowe, Dylan says puckishly of the song, "Dave Van Ronk might have played it too.")

I also had the privilege to know Carolyn Hester, the beautiful "Texas songbird" of folk, who had secured Dylan's first professional recording gig as a backup harmonica player on her first Columbia Records album. (Hammond, Carolyn's producer, heard Dylan and promptly signed him to Columbia.) Carolyn, who was inexplicably omitted from the final cut of No Direction Home (though she had been interviewed for the film), had recorded with Buddy Holly back in Texas, and, according to The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Holly "followed her to Greenwich Village" in 1958. He wasn't the only one infatuated with Carolyn. Robert Shelton, the New York Times music critic who gave Dylan his first rave review (when he appeared on a bill with Carolyn) was also smitten by her. So was Dylan. Referring in Chronicles to her brief marriage to the poet Richard Fari–a, Dylan wrote, "I thought he was the luckiest guy in the world to be married to Carolyn." Me too.

I was in college back then, and couldn't miss the similarity between the poems I was studying and the ones Dylan was creating. The connection was particularly acute in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," his 1962 updating of the medieval ballad "Edward My Son," in which he compressed its seven questioning verses into five ("Where have you been?... What did you see?... What did you hear?... Who did you meet?... What'll you do now, my blue-eyed son, my darling young one?"), building a Chartres of apocalyptic imagery. Dylan once said he didn't know if the world would survive the Cuban Missile Crisis, so he put all his songs into one. This great one ends with a declaration of the poet's mission: "And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, / And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it, / And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin', / But I'll know my song well before I start singin'."

In No Direction Home, Ginsberg says, Ginsberg: "I heard Hard Rain and wept, 'cause it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation." The song had the same effect on Child Corliss, and in my innocence I thought my college English teacher, Mr. Morris, might feel the same. Anyway, I figured he's appreciate that some I typed up the lyrics and presented them to him with the midwifely pride Ezra Pound might have felt after seeing T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in print. Mr. Morris read the text and looked at me as if I was daft. This wasn't poetry, his mournful look said; it wasn't even English.

It took a while for traditionalists to cotton to Dylan's lurid vandalizing of the language, his faux-folk patois: "If'n ya don't know by now... The light I never knowed... Like ya never done before..." That was the Guthrie influence, which this hip hillbilly mixed with all the other sung and spoken poetry he'd ingested to create his own voice, grammar and verdant, wildly associative language. "I needed to sing in that language," he says in the Scorsese movie, "which was a language that I hadn't heard before." Maybe you had to be young back then to appreciate Dylan's knack of painting a vivid portrait of some awful moment in time, then of drawing a grander, more troubling lesson from it.

No Direction Home makes much of the aggrieved reaction to Dylan's going electric: to the howls of the faithful when he sang "Maggie's Farm" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. (They should've listened to the lyrics, if they could've heard them: "Well, I try my best to be just like I am, / But everybody wants you to be just like them.") In Britain the following year he was greeted with screams of "Traitor!", Judas!"and "How about switching it off?" Backstage, the burnt-out singer vowed, "I'm gonna get me a new Bob Dylan and use him. Here's the new Bob Dylan—see how long he lasts."

The switch to rock was fine with this Dylan fan; I loved rock 'n roll as much as folk and was exhilarated to think of the impact Dy;an could have in bringing an adolescent musical form to maturity. But by 1966 he wasn't having nearly as much fun making music as I was listening to it. The kid who wanted to be Elvis could now imagine dying like Buddy Holly: "You end up crashing in a private plane in the mountains of Tennessee. Or Sicily. ... I just wanna go home." He went home to upstate New York and crashed his 500cc T100S/R Triumph Tiger motorcycle.

A shame Dylan's penetrating magic couldn't last. But it was great while it lasted.

POST-DYLAN DYLAN

"You can't do something forever," Dylan told Bradley. "I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can't do that."

What he has done since the motorcycle accident in 1966, as a songwriter and performer, would amount to an excellent body of work, a pretty distinguished career, for anybody else. But four decades of post-crash Dylan can't come close to matching what he accomplished between the ages of 19 and 25. The changes he's put himself through are less radical and notable than the ones he achieved in his first years in the Village. (For a more acerbic take, see Richard Goldstein's recent cover story in The Nation.) Dylan still does concerts, playing the old hits in various, audience-confounding attitudes. In his quirky way, he's become his own tribute band; Dylan is Dylanesque.

So to celebrate his 65th birthday, do not bust out your dusty tambourine. Skip the Zimmerman bus tour of Hibbing. Instead, play those early songs again. You'll shiver at their stark profundity — at the way words, simple chords and a stray mutt's voice could combine to form an immediate and lasting legacy of pop poetry. Dylan was destined, as the beautiful lyric to "Mr. Tambourine Man" has it, "to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free." In following that fate, he taught the rest of us to dance with him.

Hey, Bob, if not for you...

RELATED MEDIA:

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, by Jonathan Cott

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, by Michael Gray

Bob Dylan - No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese

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