May 24 2016: Happy 75th Birthday Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has always been almost as old as my parents. He has also always been forever young, staring up at me from the cover of the book that has graced my coffee table for decades.
I don’t remember when what he sang first mattered to me, yet I can’t remember a time when it didn’t, a time when I wasn’t tangled up in blue. In 1979, my high school English teacher let me borrow his Street Legal LP, an album that was crucified by a handful of critics who might consider themselves more qualified than I to measure the success of a Dylan song. (Not Michael Gray, mind you, who writes that it is “one of Dylan’s most important and cohesive albums . . . of astonishing complexity and confidence delivered in one of Dylan’s most authoritative voices.” He also points out that it was badly produced, but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me and anyone else who has ever missed someone – or something – is “Where Are You Tonight?” It remains a staple in the “soundtrack of my life” and maybe even yours. We all have one.
But without you it just doesn’t seem right.
Oh, where are you tonight?
“Hey, hey, HEY, hey.”
Examining the cover of the Street Legal album, it occurred to me that this was the first time I considered Bob Dylan in color. Until then my idea of him was monochromatic, an iteration of the Bob Dylan we know from the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video – forever flippant, flipping over his cue cards, dropping them in the alley. Deadpan.
Laid Off. Bad Cough. Paid Off. And, finally – naturally – What??
Always on the road, heading for another joint. That’s what. That’s why. Isn’t it?
Always on the road, heading for another joint.
During one of my first summers in the United States, an American cousin took me to Buffalo to see The Grateful Dead open for Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. In color. I had seen Dylan perform at Slane Castle in Ireland in the summer of 1984 – a mighty performance with Santana and a surprise appearance by Van Morrison.But this was different. This was as American as the idea could be. Deadheads. Tie-dye. Weed. The Wave. This was the Fourth of July. “It doesn’t rain on the Fourth of July!” Bob Weir told the crowd, and like poetry, the heavens opened. This was Positively 4th Street (What??), and I loved it.
As a going away present, my cousin later gave me the coffee table book. Published in 1967, it is a collection of photographs by Daniel Kramer. Black and white, these indelible images taken over a period of two years, reveal the young man Kramer characterizes as someone “who set his own marks and did not allow himself to be manipulated.”
For Kramer, Dylan is “someone worth photographing,” someone worth seeing from different perspectives. For me, Dylan is someone who forces you – without telling you – to shift a little in order to see better. Thus we find him perched on a branch in a tree or in an alleyway in London or Stuck Inside of Mobile. Or in the falling shadows.
Photography is just light, of course, and the good photographer finds the right light. It is writing with light, and there’s magic in it, as Amyn Nasser describes:
. . . the ability to stir the soul with light and shape and color. To create grand visual moments out of small and simple things, and to infuse big and complicated subjects with unpretentious elegance. [The photographer] respects classic disciplines, while at the same time insists on being fast, modern and wild.
Yes, the ability to stir the soul and to see things – like Bob Dylan sees things.
Dylan has a way of seeing into things right in front of us and into the empty spaces between them. It makes sense, I suppose, that the self proclaimed song and dance man is also a welder, making gates out of vintage iron and scrap metal. Gates appeal to Dylan, “because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”
Hundreds of fragments of songs from Dylan’s phases and stages ripple through every decade of my life, through all my twists and turns, through all the mess – the joy and the loss and the moments when my expectations were so low that I wanted only to make it through the day without being seen. By anyone. Nobody phrases it better than Dylan. Nobody.
On his 75th birthday this week, there will be fanfare and tributes and an unspoken relief that he is still with us in a year that has left us bereft, perhaps more aware of our mortality. There will be revised “essential” lists compiled by Dylanologists who have explicated and analyzed every lyric. There will be recycled stories about that time he was booed for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and perhaps renewed speculation about what if he had married Mavis Staples. What if? There will be arguments over the ‘seminal’ moments of his life. Some of us might disagree and just take a trip back to a hot night in the summer of 1988 when we saw him play at the Mesa Amphitheater – when lightning struck.
I just want to wish him a happy birthday and say thank you. I’ll maybe even buy a ticket to see him play one more time. With Mavis Staples.