Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bob Dylan's Amazing Balancing Act

Bob Dylan is the consummate story-teller. Even when it's surreal ("Changing of the Guard") and even when a few of the facts are wrong ("Hurricane"), and especially when it feels very personal ("Tangled Up In Blue"), he knows how to tell a good story. He's been telling them in song all his life.

What makes a good story? First, there are the characters. And it's the author's task to make the reader or listener care about those characters. Second, there is a theme. "Simple Twist Of Fate" is about cognitive dissonance, and perhaps a $100 misunderstanding. "Neighborhood Bully" is a penetrating overview of Jewish history and why this beleaguered nation behaves as it does. Third, there is plot. "Lily, Rosemarie and the Jack of Hearts" not only has a storyline in spades, it's just plain fun as a tune. Fourth, there's usually a setting, a space in time. Again with Lily etc. it's the wild west. Finally, the story illustrates another feature of story writing: conflict. "There's something funny going on, you could feel it in the air." In the end there are decisions made.. with consequences.

If you read Chronicles, Volume One, you'll find that Dylan's not only a good story teller in song, but a writer of stories as well. Dylan's autobiography won't tell you the whole story of his life, and it won't be told in the traditional start to finish manner that many biographies follow. (eg.: Young Abe was born in a log house in Kentucky...) I've read it twice and recently picked it up again in preparation for this week's Dylan Days / Dylan Fest activities. Spring has finally sprung in the Northland.

Dylan's story is a about characters whose lives he intersected in one way or another. Anecdotal evidences of his influences peppered throughout.... John Hammond, Buddy Holly, Gorgeous George, Bobby Vee, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Van Ronk, Joan Baez...  in settings far and wide.

But what amazes me most after reading a dozen other Dylan biographies over the years is that he had so much privacy that he could still write volumes about what we didn't know. Dylan is perhaps one of the most public of all public figures. His website,, tells where his every live concert has been played for more than a half century, and every playlist from these concerts. We can track where he's been and where he is going, how many times he's played "Gotta Serve Somebody" and how many tours of Europe he's taken.

Which leads one to wonder how people in the spotlight create private spaces and thereby preserve their internal sense of self. Dylan has not only been a master of the craft of songwriting and performing, but he's also demonstrated a brilliant ability to balance his public and private spaces and selves. It's an amazing balancing act.

On one level, who Dylan really is is none of my business. But he's had a heckuva run telling stories that intersect with all of our business. It's an amazing balancing act.

The week ahead will be a celebration of all things Dylan. Join us tomorrow night for the Hard Rain concert at Weber Hall, UMD, Duluth as Scarlet Rivera, violinist who accompanied Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue and his Desire album, accompanies Gene LaFond and the Wild Unknown.

Better yet, join us at all the week's activities here and in Hibbing.
Check out the schedule to see where you can plug in. Celebrate the arts with us as we remember this man's significant contributions to music and culture. Or just come along and listen to the music.

Dylan portrait by Ed Newman. Photo by Andrew Perfetti, featuring Scarlet, Gene and the Wild Unknown, Weber Hall 2012.

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