My earliest impression of Bob Dylan was as a songwriter. Mostly, I heard the cover versions of his songs first, recorded & released as pop tunes by folks like the Byrds, Turtles, and Peter, Paul, Mary. Like many listeners, I found his own voice too grating, which tended to distract me from the lyrics. I just felt that other artists interpreted his songs better than he himself did. Or at least more melodiously.
Still, his songs of social awareness awakened a lot of us back in 60s. From “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “The Times They Are A-changing,” he spoke directly to the issues of our time. Folks singers everywhere shifted their focus to the present as they learned these modern anthems. But Bob remained the undisputed source of the best songs of the time.
Then, he went electric, arousing the ire of many, but turning that corner deftly to come out smiling. He kept pushing fearlessly forward, pioneering socially conscious folk-rock, still pulling us in with his lyrics, like these in this early example of a music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
By the time he released John Wesley Harding, I was listening to the man himself more than the others. Mostly, I’d hear individual songs on the radio and followed from afar. I played catch-up in terms of listening to his earlier music by nabbing “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2.” It also included a number of previously unreleased tracks like “hen I Paint my Masterpiece.”
Dylan showed his chameleon side again in the 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, by acting as well supplying the soundtrack. His minor character brings an element of comic relief to the story from the minute he shows up at Billy the Kid’s encampment.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Alias anything you please.”
In a later scene, lawman Pat Garrett finds Alias and 2 of Billy’s other allies in a small, isolated store. While holding 2 of them at gunpoint, Garrett tells Alias to read the labels of the canned goods (“air-tights”) loud enough so he can hear it as a way to keep him busy. So, we get treated to the main dialogue with a background chatter of Bob Dylan saying “Beans…beans…spinach…beefsteak…beans..tomatoes…beans…” — a legendary scene in its own right.
But it is the scene when Chill Wills’ character is dying with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” playing that remains my favorite version of that song. The powerful visuals echo the haunting lyrics and no other performance I’ve ever heard comes close to this for emotional impact.
Unfortunately, when I finally got the chance to see Dylan performing in person in 1978, I was severely disappointed. Playing with a large band and a bevy of backup singers, it seemed to me that he raced through most of the music, practically throwing away the old classics with an indecipherable, rapid-fire delivery. It was if he really didn’t want to be onstage and he really didn’t want to sing the older songs yet again for another time. That experience chased me back to the recordings, and, yes, covers of his tunes by other performers.
Like the Grateful Dead. When Dylan & the Dead announced a joint tour in 1987 with the Dead playing as Dylan’s backing band for his sets and alternating headlining spots, I was intrigued but not interested enough to pursue tickets.
Later, I read how that watching the Dead play during that tour sparked Dylan’s interest in live performing again. Seems I had not been the only fan annoyed at what looked like a dismissive attitude to playing his classics.
Going onstage nightly with the Dead and hearing them play their songs, he realized they played from a huge repertoire of songs but had been playing most of them for over 15 years. Yet, they still brought a sense of newness and wonder and delight to the old stuff every night.
That changed Dylan’s attitude to performing and he rededicated himself to bringing his music to his fans for their enjoyment.
I didn’t see him perform live again until his 2007 appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival. The contrast to what I had seen 30 years earlier could not have been starker. Bob and the band performed excellently, firing on all cylinders all show long.
From the crowd-pleasing opener, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (with its simple singalong tagline, “Everybody must get stoned!”) to the final encore of “I Shall Be released,” his performance never faltered. Never once did I feel like he was throwing away lyrics like they were worn-out rags. Every song shone as he moved backward and forward the years of his songwriting.
That’s the memory of Bob Dylan I carry now. And of course, I await his next move.
Happy Birthday, Bob!