I Was So Wrong About Bob Dylan
I couldn’t stand it. I just couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure why, but it was in middle school that I first remember hearing him. Bob Dylan. And I remember the lyrics:
How does it feel How does it feel To be without a home Like a complete unknown Like a rolling stone?
Or in my ears “Hoooooooooowww does it feeeeeeeuuuuuuhhhll?
Dylan was having yet another musical renaissance with the production of his album, Infidels, and the enthusiasm was trickling down to the 6th graders at John Adams Middle School in small town Iowa. But not for me.
For some reason, I had an aversion to Dylan. He was shaggy-haired and unkempt. Smoking and questionably sober. The snippets of music I “endured” sounded simple and his singing seemed sloppy. And if that wasn’t enough, I was convinced he embodied a 1960s countercultural movement that haughtily reveled in judging (and condemning) an imperfect America while remaining completely oblivious to the beam in their own eye.
But Bob Dylan sang on.
Years would pass. Dylan would age. New albums and accolades would pour forth. And I was still unmoved.
Dear friends would rave about him. Thoughtful critics would appreciate him. Even my much-beloved Bishop Robert Barron would voice his affection for the genius of Bob Dylan. And while I may have paused momentarily to once again consider the virtues of the man and his music, I soon found myself back to my smug conclusion: Bob Dylan wasn’t anything special.
I found myself working on a day away from clinic in a noisy restaurant. Slipping in my ear buds and probing my iPhone, I happened upon Dylan’s album Blood On the Tracks. It seemed that, in some pique of open-mindedness, I had downloaded it a year before. Apparently, it sat neglected in my music library since that time and, being temporarily sated on Mozart and Mumford & Sons, I thought it would be adequate background music. Nothing more.
Now, when you are working on medical charts, writing letters, signing medical refills and reviewing correspondence, your attention is foremost on the task at hand. The music provides a soothing background constant. But today, I found myself looking away from the computer screen more often than I was accustomed. Why?
Because I started to really hear Bob Dylan.
The music was engaging. It wasn’t noisy or brash. It wasn’t self-congratulatory in its nuance or cleverness. It was simply music that made sense. As my wife would say, “music you could hum.” But that’s not what made me look away.
It was Bob Dylan’s lyrics.
After making my way several times through Blood On the Tracks, I bought The Essential Bob Dylan and The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. It was then that I came across Not Dark Yet.
Just consider a sampling of what he sang.
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away Feel like my soul has turned into steel I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal There’s not even room enough to be anywhere It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Or a few lines from Girl From the North Country (a duet with the incomparable Johnny Cash).
Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline Remember me to one who lives there She once was a true love of mine
Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm When the rivers freeze and summer ends Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see for me if her hair hangs long, If it rolls and flows all down her breast. Please see for me if her hair hangs long, That’s the way I remember her best.
I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all Many times I’ve often prayed In the darkness of my night In the brightness of my day
Not Dark Yet, an aching testimony of suffering, a bending under encroaching hopelessness that somehow, someway leaves a door cracked for hope. Darkness is coming – perhaps here – but there is still a shaft of light. As I turned this song and its lyrics over in my mind again and again in recent days, I couldn’t help to consider the notion that there was an undeniably Christian narrative embedded in it. A narrative of dignity, suffering and hope. When I found out that this was the piece Dylan submitted and was included as the finale piece for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I was not surprised at all. I was simply in awe. Girl From the North Country, is a deeply poignant ballad of the sweetest unrequited love of youth. The shaggy-haired, unkempt icon of the 1960s counterculture was singing of the wistfulness of agedness looking back on time spent and love lost. Dylan’s tenor and Cash’s baritone commiserated in the most deeply affecting way. To be honest, it was hard for me to listen to this without getting a bit choked up. I could go on. Shelter From the Storm, Dignity, Every Grain of Sand and so many others carry incredible depth in them. And that is not to say Dylan is incapable of a musical lark (or even a bomb), but here is what I learned about Bob Dylan. Unlike any modern artist (other than perhaps Bruce Springsteen), Bob Dylan strikes me as a poet – a true poet – whose music in its relative simplicity, steady rhythmic waves, and duration (each song usually twice as long as most modern songs) serves as a hypnotic vehicle for the poetry to reach you. And once the poetry reaches you – if you are honest – you have to chew on it, consider it and often grow just a bit from it. Now, I’m not saying I like all of Bob Dylan’s songs or that I agree with everything for which he stands. Not at all. And as St. Basil once said,
“So we, if wise, shall take…whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest.”
But, damn… Damn, I have to admit…I was so wrong about Bob Dylan. ————————————————- Image Credit: http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/dylan/