Friday, May 24, 2013

Celebratin' in the North Country... Bob Now 72

This past Tuesday evening we were treated to a wonderful film event, courtesy members of the Duluth Armory Arts & Music Center and the DuSu Film Festival: one dozen live Dylan performances. This underground collection -- assembled specially for this week’s North Country Dylan celebration by Nelson French and John Bushey, host of KUMD’s Highway 61 Revisited -- offered new thrills for even the most devoted Dylan fan.

Bushey introduced the film with a few reminder remarks about Dylan being born here in Duluth, and evidence that shows he has not forgotten his roots. A few additional comments about Dylan’s significance are worth adding here.

History is replete with individuals in every discipline who've made important contributions. But the list is much smaller of those whose lives were total game-changers. I think of Martin Luther's influence on church history following that epic nailing of his 95 Theses to that Wittenberg door. I think of Hemingway’s impact on literature, transforming it from flowery prose to direct succinct force… Abraham Lincoln’s impact on civil rights, Beethoven’s influence on music, inventing music for the ages and not simply to satisfy a momentary contract. Dylan brought a new poetic, literary sensibility to all forms of contemporary music.

Interestingly enough, Dylan is not even close to being the best-selling musician of our time. The Beatles have sold more than a billion records and Dylan has sold maybe 100 million worldwide. At least forty other artists have surpassed Dylan in record sales. But are record sales the ultimate measure of importance?

Within the confines of a single decade the Beatles produced one hit after another that topped the pop charts and made cash registers zing. To my knowledge Dylan has never had a number one chart-topper in the U.S. as a single. Again, was this his aim? Not at all.

When Dylan emerged on the scene he was noticed as a young man whose impact would be felt. His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, showed a maturity that far exceeded his 22 years. From the start he produced songs that would reverberate far into the future. Songs like Blowing in the Wind, Girl from the North Country, Masters of War and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright showed that Dylan brought a new sensibility to the music of these times. While Bobby Vinton was crooning “Roses Are Red (My Love)” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” reeled across the airwaves, Dylan was scribbling out lyrics to a potent new kind of music that drilled deep into hearts and minds: aesthetically stimulating, intellectually challenging, pricking our moral sensibilities, grabbing us by the nape of our necks and giving us a shake.

When A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall arrived, there was no ambiguity in this song whose every line was art. Explosively thought-provoking. Devastating, this mirror of a broken world… a theme Dylan would return to for decades to come.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The poet’s aim was not chart-topping singles. Columbia Records is to be commended for producing this young artist whose influence bled into all who followed in his wake.

Tuesday’s film/event at the Redstar Lounge showed just how amazing this young man’s life would become as he matured. Bushey and French created an especially invigorating retrospective by sharing the clips in a non-linear way, opening with a 1994 recording of Tombstone Blues. The next displayed a very boyish Dylan performing Blowing in the Wind, troubadour-style. Next, Dylan’s live performance in Australia, 1986, accompanied by Tom Petty with gospel-style backup vocalists, in a clip preceded by a rap about heroes. “Who’s your hero? Mel Gibson? Michael Jackson? I don’t care nothin’ about any of these people. I’m gonna sing about my hero now.” The song “In the Garden” commenced.

What followed then was that pulsing heart-stopper rendition of Hard Rain, accompanied by a full symphony. Nara Japan, 1994. If you’ve never heard this rendition of the song, you owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in its throbbing heart. Endlessly. It has the power to leave one humbled and broken.

It’s been said that one of the effects of great art is its capacity to lift us into a higher plane, for if a man (or woman) can create something so beautiful, it dignifies all of us. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul.” And so it is that Dylan brought this poetic sensibility to contemporary music.

When I listen to Hard Rain it’s always with awe, whatever version. 

This piece was followed by Girl from the North Country, Romance in Durango, Maggie’s Farm at the Newport Fesitval in 1965, Just Like a Woman at George Harrison’s passionate Concert for Bangla Desh in 1971, The Ballad of Hollis Brown from the Johnny Cash Show, I Threw It All Away, Forever Young, the heartfelt I Believe In You on Saturday Night Live in 1979, a rockin’ Silvio with Ronnie Wood and an expressive set of guitar breaks in Hyde Park in ’95. At the very last we saw/heard Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan decked out in silk shirt and bells with decorative piping in Cleveland, 1995. Oh yeah.

Thank you, Bob, for having given us so much. Happy birthday.

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