The Folk Musician

BOB DYLAN Master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation

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    Dylan got booed when he showed up with rock musicians behind him, and the booing didn't let up until his great songs like Desolation Row and Like a Rolling Stone pierced the consciousness of a whole new generation, making everyone realize that rock music could be as direct, as personal and as vital as a novel or a poem. That popular music could be expression as well as recreation.

    Dylan was suddenly a singer no longer. He was a shaman. A lot of people called him a prophet. In a way, it must have been scarier than being booed. Everything he sang, said, did or even wore took on a specific gravity that made it harder and harder for him to move. The music became so important to so many people, took on such awesome proportions, that Dylan could respond only with the ultimate sanity: silence.

    After a motorcycle accident in 1966, he used the recovery time to retreat and cook up some new music that was mystical and playful, and so deliberately rough-edged that it seemed almost spontaneous. It wasn't, of course, but the music of those years--much of it heard in the song cycle that's known informally as the Basement Tapes--charted a more inward course. It was music that deflected any easy response.

    A dizzying number of changes followed--from born-again Christian testifying to deep blues--but Dylan has been consistent only in one thing: he has never stopped making great music, or being cagey about it. And funny, when he feels like it. And hip, without peer or precedent. Accepting a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991, he leaned into the mike and delivered himself of this reflection: "Well, my daddy, he didn't leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, 'Son,' he said, he say, 'you know it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.'" Say amen, somebody. He gave us a great record last year. The album, Time Out of Mind, was greeted as a masterpiece, his greatest work since Blood on the Tracks more than 20 years before. In fact, it was much of a piece with the extraordinary albums he's been making for most of this decade, including Oh, Mercy, a kind of prelude and companion piece released in 1989, and two subsequent albums of folk music that seem to have been made in some secret, mysterious place where the past never stops.

    Dylan had a brush with mortality just before the last album was released, and spent some serious time in the hospital, which brought everyone up short. It was a warning that time was passing, everywhere but in his music. So Time Out of Mind brought Dylan safely back home again to the hot center. It was as if everyone suddenly woke up and figured it was Dylan who had been asleep all these years. In fact, as always, he was the only one with his eyes open. To know that, all you had to do--still, and ever--is listen. And ask yourself the same question he flung at us.

    How does it feel?

    Jay Cocks, a former film and music reviewer for this magazine, is a screenwriter

    They Shall Overcome
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