Shadows are falling and I've been here all day...
How do you get to the stage in life where the shadows are beginning to fall, and suddenly discover the mind and magic of Bob Dylan? How do you hear his voice all your life and not know what he's said?
It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don't matter, anyhow
In the summer of 1965, I was 13, and I loved a song that was all over the radio: "Like a Rolling Stone." I went out and bought the album, Highway 61 Revisited, and it was an oddity, there among all my Beatle albums. I spent time studying the photos of Dylan on the cover. Though I don't remember how, somehow I knew that he and Joan Baez were lovers. I found this erotically scandalous. Dylan's looks, his sound, his obvious sexuality were on the dangerous side. I recognized his pull but was a little frightened by it. My response came from the same place that made me choose Ringo over John in my girlhood.
Lord, you shouldn't mistreat me, baby, because I'm young and wild,
Shouldn't mistreat me, baby, because I'm young and wild.
You must always remember, baby, you was once a child.
Yes, I sure was. I let Bob Dylan drift out of my consciousness. I heard his music, what was played on the radio, and I remember -- a little older then -- smirking when my very proper mother was appalled by "Lay, Lady Lay" a few years later. You all have to remember that things were changing quickly and wildly in the 60s. But I still wasn't ready for Bob. Other than being aware of a hit song on the radio every now and then, I never paid any attention to the man The Atlantic recently named the fourth most influential living American person, and the fifth most influential American musician of all time, right up there with Louie Armstrong, Gershwin, Copland, and Elvis.
Well, the sweetest, richest dishes are saved for dessert, right?
I'd forgotten about you
Then you turned up again
I always knew
That we were meant to be more than friends
Early last summer, while reading the sports section of my local paper, following my beloved Red Sox, I noticed an item buried deep in a sportswriter's column. It said that Bob Dylan was going to be performing a series of concerts in minor league ball parks all across the United States. Dylan at the ball park? Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan likes baseball? I took this intriguing bit of trivia to my favorite Sox message board, and before long I was in a cyber conversation with a guy who's loved both the Red Sox and Dylan for decades. He's got his own story to tell about that, but he convinced me, talking about Bob's poetry, his storytelling, his folk roots, his genius, to buy a copy of Chronicles I, the first book in Dylan's planned set of autobiographical writings. I went farther, and also bought a book of his lyrics (1962-1985).
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
It wasn't the complete set, but what did I know then? I was just beginning. It's hard to believe how much I did not know about Bob at this time last year. I didn't know he came from Minnesota. I didn't know if he had ever been married, if he'd had children. I knew nothing about folk music or its influence on him. I didn't know what Highway 61 had meant to American music. The last two times I'd thought about Bob Dylan were in 1985, when I saw what I recalled as a dismal performance at Live Aid, and a few years ago, when my brother made me listen to "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," a "funny song." I liked it, sure, but I wonder what I would have thought if he'd played "Visions of Johanna" for me instead.
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
I got Chronicles early in June. It took me just a little while -- a few pages -- to understand that this was not going to be "I was born, I lived here, my parents did this, I went to school...." This was a Shot of Love ricocheting around events and places in his mind, not a straight-shot road through his life. And Dylan's mind is something to get lost in. I thought, How have I missed out on this all these years?
It was the most exciting discovery I've ever had, in more than a half-century of reading.
I bought two CDs, "Love and Theft" and Blonde on Blonde. I already knew the sound of young Dylan, so I plugged in "Love and Theft" first. His voice! Like gargling gravel! But moving and beautiful, addictive, full of feeling, irony, regret, humor. And the range of his musical styles -- well, I didn't and still don't know all the names for them -- rock and blues and croony-type ballads and you musicologists can name the rest for me. It doesn't matter. I listened to "Love and Theft" over and over again for weeks, alternating with Blonde on Blonde, experiencing the sound -- "Mississippi" and "Lonesome Day Blues" and "Moonlight" coming from the same mind?! the same mouth?! This man is incredible! Only gradually did I begin to pick out the words.
Everybody movin' if they ain't already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now
And of course he was right again. Things got very interesting. As the summer went on I bought more CDs, moving back and forth from the mature, musing Dylan to the amazing youth he'd been, and cherry picking a few things in between -- Time Out Of Mind, Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, Freewheelin', John Wesley Harding, some of the bootleg albums, and more more more. Modern Times in September. Desire. Shot of Love. And books and DVDs, too. Sneaking it all into the house because it was a private (and expensive) experience, playing Bob incessantly on my car CD player, staying up late at night reading Bob and about Bob.
I discovered his lovely poetry -- "Time Passes Slowly," "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" -- his great stories, intricate, sometimes hilarious -- "Nettie Moore," "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," "Highlands" -- his blazing, fearless intellect -- "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" -- his weird, unknowable images -- "Ballad Of A Thin Man" -- his humor -- "Po' Boy," "Talking World War III Blues," almost all of his interviews -- his romance and heartbreak -- "You're A Big Girl Now," "Cold Irons Bound" -- his regrets and perspective -- "Not Dark Yet."
And not just his mind. I was enthralled to discover the deep threads of spirituality woven throughout his entire body of work, even the earliest. And it seemed like everything he wrote mirrored my own experience of work, love, raising children, developing a spiritual life that wasn't simply hanging on a wall, static and unchanging.
When you think that you lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I'm just going down the road feeling bad
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
Howard Sounes, in Down the Highway, wrote, "He sings with such passion, feeling, and conviction that you think this is my life, this is everyone's life, this is what it is to be a human being. The way he turns a lyric, it's as if, to paraphrase Dylan himself, 'every word rings true and glows like burning coal, pouring off of every page as if it was written in his soul.'"
I still have so much to discover in the work of Dylan, many studio albums still to buy and live performances to hear. Those of you who have had a passion for Dylan for decades, perhaps this will remind you a little of how much fun it can be discovering his latest twist, enjoying a mis-heard line ("The warehouse has my Arabian drums"), or hearing a new sound. Those of you who haven't yet found Dylan, know that it's never too late. Even if shadows are falling, it's not dark yet. He's still a beautiful genius.