I imagine you sitting in class. Woody, of course, is at the chalkboard, lecturing and rambling and composing and you’re in the front row, hunched over your notebook. It’s the only class you could ever learn in, Mr. Guthrie’s Composition 101, and while you sponge it all up, like a biscuit sopping up gravy, there’s Neil Young behind you, peeking over your slight shoulder. And behind Young there’s Springsteen, almost falling over as he tries to crib off of you too. Hendrix gazes out the window, thinking about the poem you dropped on his lap when you both skipped gym and smoked together.
That’s the way I imagine how you became America’s greatest lyric poet. It seems to delineate the rank, if you will. But the way you really became Bob Dylan was just you and Woody in Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, becoming fast friends, because death was just out the door, sitting in a chair, listening to you two chatter and play and sing and teach and learn. Death kindly waited until you became old friends.
Now you’re almost like Woody; when you had something wrong with your heart (was it really fungus from playing so many harmonicas?) I’m sure that many wanted to reenact your bedside vigil. But like fighting a pretend battle from the Civil War, that would be a stupid insult to an event of actual consequence. And besides, you’re too “busy being born” to be busy dying.
That’s why it is so good to see that you’re still on the road, bringing it out to the people. You’re doing what you were built to do, what you do better than everybody; you preside over the inevitable decline of this country into a senseless babble with grace, subtlety and wit. I’m no bitter fatalist, Bob, but when you speak truth you have to go where it takes you, the end of the road.
How is it that you can make this so pleasant without being trite, so sad without being melodramatic? For one thing, you have a tremendous volume of the best music around. I know avid fans who in their twenty-odd albums do not share more than a couple in common.
And your voice! I know people who cannot stand you strictly for your performance on a few songs that constitute a slender portion of the FM radio catalog. They haven’t heard your phrasing on “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or your comedy on “Talkin’ Bear Picnic Massacre Blues.” For some, listening has always been a waste of time.
But if they did listen they’d hear that wry comedy in your songs, the kind of humor that Guthrie used to sustain men and women who were working too hard for too little money. They’d hear their own best and worst impulses magnified and honored as lovers and fighters, and they’d see themselves in glory and shame. As much as the swindlers and faceless propagandists have tricked and lied and cheated this republic into a sweaty mass of demographics to be bought and sold, a human heart still longs for the same things. You point out both of these, what we’ve lost by following infidels, and who we really are.
But no one listens to music just for the pretty sounds, and yours, while often beautiful, can be as stark and driven as hard rain on blacktop. You challenge us, you’ve always challenged us. When you went electric and they called you Judas, you just said, “You’re a liar.” I think that’s when the republic started to realize that this wasn’t entertainment, or just protest. It was a dare to grow.
No one listens to music solely for the pretty sounds, we have too much wrapped up with it, our memories. For me, it’s the time I fell in love and the soundtrack was all your best songs. “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and “Hurricane.” It was “Isis.” You must know better than us all how it feels to fall in love and listen to Bob Dylan. Or maybe you don’t, so let me tell you that I needed her and I knew that when I met her. But I didn’t know how much I needed you.
We all may not know it, but we all need you, Bob. You’ve given us shelter from many storms, seen us through political and personal tempests. You laid foundations and kept the torches burning. When I hear “Stagger Lee” or “House of the Rising Sun” I hear the sound of an America that once was, and because of you, still is. Greil Marcus called it an “invisible republic,” kept like a secret, hidden from the headlights of the American machine, the popular culture. But when you play and sing it’s there in full color, like soup kitchen lines stretching into living rooms, like blades of ivy punching through pavement and crawling up the towers of Wall Street, like a slug in the gut from the freak on the street, or the dream that never makes sense until it’s set to music and lays bare a naked reality; we’ve all got room to grow.
Bob Dylan plays the Adams Events Center this Wednesday, March 22. Call 1-888-MONTANA.