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My life as a fan: 44 years with Bob Dylan

When I was 14, with a brand-new $35 guitar and my own frizzy take on Joan Baez‘s flowing hair, I sent a buck to the Columbia Record Club and acquired a whole clutch of LPs for my folk collection: Peter, Paul and Mary (too slick), the New Christy Minstrels (too hokey), Harry Belafonte (my grandmother’s heartthrob) and a minstrel poet who instantly won my heart with his image on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

BobandsuzeI’d heard about this Dylan guy. College kids couldn’t get enough of him and my idol, Joan Baez, was urging all the world to buy his records. In the photo, he loped down an icy Greenwich Village street with his hands thrust into his jeans pockets, a young man in a hurry, his hair exploding every which way and a lovely, long-haired girl (“woman” was for matrons then) nuzzled against him with a look of pure joy. I wanted to be that girl. And I wanted to hear what this Bob Dylan had to say. My parents recoiled at his voice (“like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire,” some waggish oldster had said). But I was mesmerized. He sounded like no one else—by turns, caustic, tender, prophetic and wickedly funny.

With every whoop, wail and strum, he declared his intention to remain absolutely himself. I coveted that fierce, unswerving independence. I sensed that Bob Dylan was going to be part of my mental landscape, a grounding influence even when his songs missed the mark and his life careered off the rails.

Looking back, I see his songs everywhere.

The coffee-stained cover of my high-school notebooks, on which I’ve proclaimed Dylan’s line “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles”—a shout-out to the unknown rescuer who was supposed to whisk me onto the Route 66 of romance.

The electric typewriter where, for peanuts, I kept turning botched copy into publishable prose despite the growing suspicion that my job was Maggie’s Farm and my window of opportunity was made out of bricks.

My living room at dusk on 9/11 as, instead of turning on the lights, I put on track six of Freewheelin’ because “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” released in 1963, told me more about the meaning of that day than the endlessly replayed image of the falling towers or the stunned speculations of talking heads.

Like the faces of old friends, the songs have changed over time. So has their creator, evolving from the fiery young rebel of my youth to a battered and much-honoured elder (he received a special Pulitzer this past spring) speaking subtler truths about mortality, regret and what it takes to live more or less honourably in a corrupt and dangerous world.

After 44 years of fanhood, I can get a little possessive when other people mention their own bond with Dylan. I have this need to prove that I discovered him first. “I’m one of the original fans,” I will say, although this isn’t quite true. Freewheelin’was Dylan’s second album. And I might as well admit I’ve been a fair-weather fan. When hard-core folkies denounced Dylan for going electric, I was one of those who thought he’d sold out. When critics later pronounced him a has-been Jesus freak who had lost his way, I stopped listening.

It didn’t occur to me then that an artist will have dry spells, or that full-tilt creation can churn up a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam along with work that lasts. How did he put in one of his early rockers? “I need a dump truck, baby, to unload my head.” What inspires me now about Dylan is his fearlessness, the way he keeps knocking on new creative doors instead of ripping off his own greatest hits. He has said he once tried to write another “Mr. Tambourine Man” (which was thought in the loopy 60s to be about drug-induced visions but is actually an ode to poetic inspiration). He quickly saw the error of his ways because “I really can’t do it if it’s not interesting.”

Suze BookI’ve never wanted to be his friend. Never wanted to ask him searching questions (the only answers he has are in the songs). Never wanted to lay across his big brass bed—this guy has been a handful for the women who loved him. (I wasn’t surprised when Suze Rotolo, the muse on the cover of Freewheelin‘, published an affectionate but clear-eyed memoir about that heady time in which she says they parted mainly because she wouldn’t be another string on his guitar.) What I want from Bob Dylan is simple. I just want him to be out there somewhere, following wherever the Tambourine Man leads.

When his journey brought him to the charmless Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, I was in the second row with a local, my friend Yvonne. The crowd’s awestruck jubilation suggested a revival meeting, but the grizzled icon just got down to business in his customary broad-brimmed hat and a saggy bandleader’s suit no woman would have let him wear. He looked even older than his 67 years, chanting his songs because he can’t sing them anymore and occasionally breaking into a decorous little dance as he leaned on the keyboard (did he need the support?). Every syllable, every gesture carried the weight of deliberation; it seemed the entire performance had been summoned from a great depth. “Like a Rolling Stone” sounded almost poignant that night, as if age had turned this famously private artist into Napoleon in rags, with no secrets to conceal. Yet it thrilled me to see how much boogie-in-the-aisles intensity Dylan could still summon, alongside a rueful wisdom he didn’t have in his youth. Make no mistake: he rocked the joint.

We filed out both elated and sad, wondering aloud if Dylan would hang in for another tour in our direction. “He’s old,” Yvonne sighed. This did not sit well with a 20-something fan who promptly retorted, “He’s awesome!”

“Old and awesome,” my friend said. All the way back to her place, we listened to Dylan in the dark.

Note to hard-core fans: I learned about Dylan’s misguided attempt to duplicate “Mr. Tambourine Man” from Jonathan Cott’s fascinating anthology Bob Dylan: the Essential Interviews. Skip this book if you’re looking for personal revelations. But for insight into Dylan’s creative processs, it’s a must-read.

Posted by Rona

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