Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dylan's Influence Continues As He Celebrates 71 Years Today

In case you haven't noticed, this week is Dylan Fest here in the North Country. Events have been varied, but there's been one constant: music throughout. Tonightlocal Dylan fans will be boarding the Blood on the Tracks Express for a whole night of music on a North Shore adventure with live music by Black Eyed Snakes, Dirty Horse, Sarah Krueger, Silverback Colony, The Freewheelers, The Bitter Spills and Jim Hall. I think six or more people asked if I was going to be on the train, and the answer this year has to be yes.

The Wave in today's DNT has details on where to board, and when you'll be returning.

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Today Robert Allen Zimmerman, whom the world knows as Bob Dylan, has turned 71. For this reason I take one more blog moment to tip my hat to a man whose songs have been been a part of our culture in ways we don't even see.

Time does not permit a fully elaborated essay on Dylan's influence, as countless books and millions of words have failed to fully reflect the man, the meaning of his life or simply the meanings of his songs. Just for the fun of it you should visit one of the many "song meanings" forums and see the discussions there on songs like All Along the Watchtower, Changing of the Guard and Ballad of a Thin Man.

At the panel discussion Monday regarding The Dylan Effect, I noted that his influence has been something akin to the influence on fashion of the Paris Runway. Very few of us have ever been there but, as Meryl Streep points out in The Devil Wears Prada, all of us are wearing echoes of what emerges there. In the same way, the songs that emerged from Dylan's pen have permeated our culture for more than a generation.

What a contrast between Dylan and the culture he was swimming in. In 1965 he wrote/produced the visceral "Like a Rolling Stone" with its audacious venom and pointed social commentary. Who out there even considered writing songs like that?

"You used to be so amused
At Napolean in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose,
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal....
 How does it feel?"

This was so raw, nevertheless it did reach number 29 on the pop charts for the year. Ahead of this we find songs like The Game of Love, Help Me Rhonda, Hang On Sloopy, Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, This Diamond Ring, I’m Henry the 8th I Am and Wooly Bully, all of which were higher on the Top 100 that year.

This is not a slam at lighthearted cheerfulness and silly love songs. There's a place for all that. But there was a lot of pain happening in the hearts of adolescents who were confused by the violence in our culture that stood at odds with all those smiling faces on the tube and on billboards and in pop music. Dylan the wet blanket was a breath of fresh air for many of us. Someone was out there expressing the inner turbulence we were feeling as we saw brutality against blacks on our TVs, a war that made no sense in Viet Nam, actual footage of our own president being assassinated and the accused gunman being shot to death on live television...

Dylan spoke a different language at the time. His roots had stretched deep into all kinds of musical traditions and he wove them together in a new way, a manner we can only call Dylanesque. 

Who but Dylan could write a song like "Ballad of a Thin Man" with its pensive, "Something's happening, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones." And it isn't just the lyrics but that snakebite manner in which they're delivered.

A year later, Stephen Stills would open one of his own songs with these words, "Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear." (For What It’s Worth)  A nod to Dylan? Maybe. John Lennon's is more direct, of the dots you connect. Cut two, side three on the Beatles' White Album is Yer Blues:

"The eagle picks my eye
The worm he licks my bones
I feel so suicidal
Just like Dylan's Mr. Jones."

Dylan's songs do not always carry this volume of weight. There's tenderness, there's reflection, there's challenge, there's airiness and there's continuous food for thought and for the soul. But at that time, when many of us were in need of a lament, he put it in words that captured something ethereal and simultaneously universal, the alienation and angst many of us famously felt yet had no idea that we were not alone. Isolated as we were, we discovered that we were in this thing together. 

A song like "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" sounds dreadfully harsh to one generation, but so liberating to another because it shoves aside the fog and illuminates dark squirmy things usually hidden under rotted timbers. It caught our attention and spoke volumes. From then till now, we've been together through life.

See you on the train.

Paintings on this website by Ed Newman unless otherwise noted.

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