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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Bob Dylan

BobDylanFrontRevised.gif

[Illustration by ALEX FINE]

BY MIKE WALSH Let me make this clear up front: I’m not a Dylan-head, Dylan-ite, Dylan-phile, Dylan-ologist, or any other kind of extreme Dylan fan. In fact, I never bought a Dylan record or CD until just a few years ago. I never saw the need. Growing up in the 60’s, Dylan was on the radio all the time —“Blowing in the Wind,“ “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,“ “The Times They Are a Changin’,“ “All I Really Want to Do,“ “It Ain’t Me Babe, “Mr. Tambourine Man,“ etc., etc. Plus, many other bands had hits with his songs, like Peter Paul and Mary, Hendrix, and The Byrds. There was no escaping Dylan back then. You listened to him whether you wanted to or not.

In college, it seemed like everybody in the dorm except me owned Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2. So I had to listen to the same songs all over dylancartoon.jpgagain at just about every dorm party. One kid down the hall even had a guitar, a neck stand with a harmonica, and a music book of Dylan’s greatest hits. So I got to hear the same songs played and sung live — quite amateurishly, to put it kindly. By the mid-70’s I’d had quite enough of Dylan — so much so that I did a nasally, slurred vocal rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone“ just to torture the Zimmermanites, even though they never seemed to mind. In fact, they joined in no matter how obnoxiously I wheezed, “How does it feeeeeeeel?”, so the joke was always on me.

What I wanted to hear was something different, something that wasn’t on the radio. Soon punk and new wave surfaced, and I’ve been a slave to indie rock and the underground sounds ever since, as my record collection can attest. My opinion of Dylan stayed the same during all that time, even though I didn’t sing “Like a Rolling Stone“ quite so often (although I did work up an even more annoying version of “The Needle and the Damage Done“ but that’s another story).

Then about five years ago I met this kid at work. About 25 years my junior and with 80 gigs of remastered 60’s classics by The Who, Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Hendrix, and Dylan on his iPod. We worked together and made quite a pair: a young kid who listened to nothing but 60’s rock heroes and a middle-aged guy still looking for the latest underground thing. It didn’t compute. We had arguments about Roget Daltrey, who I cannot abide, and The Replacements, who the kid just refused to enjoy. It was The Odd Couple Revisited.

I grudgingly agreed to listen to his 60s music, and behold — I became enraptured with Dylan, especially early Dylan. I pored through documentaries and books. I studied the deep LP cuts. I endured I’m Not There, and I tried my best to understand The Basement Tapes. Eventually even Dylan’s harmonica playing no longer made me cover my ears and hide. Part of Dylan’s appeal for me is the history and the myth, of course: Al Kooper, The Hawks, ‘Judas!’, Baez, Newport, Suze, Ginsburg, the whole crazy scene. I mean, aside from Brian Wilson who else from the 60s can claim to have influenced the Beatles? In fact, the Beatles were still singing about holding hands when Freewheelin’ came out.

So when I heard that Dylan was appearing at the Mann, I figured it was my last chance to see him. I mean, the dude is 70, and it’s a miracle he’s still alive dylancartoon.jpgand touring. Plus, I wanted that one memory of Dylan, something to remember whenever I listened to another Dylan song. Wednesday night did not start off well. A traffic jam and parking confusion meant that we got to our seats just as the Leon Russell’s set was ending. But it did give me an opportunity to gaze in wonder at Russell’s astonishing appearance — a glowing white pyramid of hair, like some cross between Gandalf and ZZ Top. However, the covers of rock standards with which he ended his set, like “Roll Over Beethoven,” were eminently forgettable.

Soon I was in a food line and got into a conversation with a veteran of many Dylan concerts. I mentioned this was my first Dylan show. “It won’t sound like the Bob Dylan of the 60s or 70s,” he warned. “The performance is totally unsentimental. They play sixteen songs. The last two will be hits, like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or something like that, just to make everybody happy. Then they walk off stage. That’s it. The arrangements for his classic songs are completely different than his records, so it may take a minute or two to recognize them. Don’t be disappointed. So just sit back and enjoy a great rock band.”

That turned out to be very good advice because I could not recognize Dylan’s the first song until someone told me what it was “Leopard-Skin Pillbox-Hat.” “Don’t Think Twice,” which he also played early in the set, had what you might call a looping R&B beat and also took me a minute to realize what it was. But the very first thing I noticed was Dylan’s voice. It was so deep and rough, he made Tom Waits sound angelic. Throughout the show, he barked or purged a couple unintelligible syllables for each line, and I took it on faith that he was approximating the actual lyrics. The only lines I could clearly make out were the choruses of songs like “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Desolation Row,” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise since Dylan has been shouting into microphones for 50 years and probably smoking for that long too.

Who cares about lyrics anyway? It was Dylan, man! Live! And it sounded like Dylan, and nobody sounds like that. So what if his voice has devolved into a gruff series of primal grunts and groans? Nothing wrong with primal. Plus, Dylan is a snappy dresser. He wore a chocolate brown suit with yellow piping, a wide brimmed white hat, and white boots — like some cross between a traveling minstrel and a hotel doorman. The rest of the band, in black except with white dinner jackets, set off Dylan’s flashy outfit even more.

Speaking of which, the band was terrific, providing rock solid rhythms to the mix of blues, country, soul, gospel, and jazz styles. The grooves featured a dylancartoon.jpgconstant stream of spirited guitar leads and fills from the wonderful Charlie Sexton. But Dylan is no slouch as a player either, matching the band’s skill on organ most of the night. He took up the guitar on a couple songs, playing clean, solid guitar lines, especially on “Simple Twist of Fate.” His harmonica leads were impressive and confident as well. That skinny old cat can jam.

He played plenty of his classics, like “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, “Tangled Up in Blue,” and a long version of “Desolation Row,” along with more recent standouts, like “Mississippi” and “Blind Willie McTell.” The end of the main set was the highlight, with “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and a haunting, driving “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I felt shivers when Dylan growled the surprisingly clear lines, “And something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I don’t know exactly what that means, but me and the other 6,000 attendees knew it was some heavy shit.

The encore featured a straight version of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” which I barely recognized. Then the band lined up in front of the drums, Dylan nodded, and they left. Just like the guy said — unsentimental. Dylan didn’t speak to the audience at all during the show, except to introduce the band members. But he wasn’t standoffish either. He gave an emphatic performance, moving his body, bobbing his head, leaning into the mic, bracing for a harmonica lead, and swinging enough to let us know that he was into it and was working for us. His performance communicated more than enough for me. I mean, this was Bob frickin’ Dylan. He gets to do as he pleases. Mere mortals like you and me, we don’t get to criticize Dylan. For one night, I was happy just to bask in his uncompromising and eccentric genius. I may have been about 40 years late to my first Dylan show, but I’m sure glad I finally got to the promised land.

For more articles by Mike Walsh, go to missioncreep.com, a site that supports the work of numerous Philadelphia-area artists and writers.

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26 Responses to “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Bob Dylan”

  1. Dahlia Says:

    Hey Mike,
    Don’t worry – you’re not alone! I’m a bit older than you and my experiences were very similar. Dylan’s music was around – I heard it all on the radio in the 60’s but wasn’t enthralled. It was there and so was he. Life went on. I only got hooked when I heard a cut from Modern Times when that came out, and I was smitten. I started to research and learn all things Bob and saw him first in 2007. Have now seen him 6 times I think. I was at that show at the Mann and I felt the same way -Standing right there, singing and swaying, is BOB DYLAN, the man who wrote Chimes of Freedom among many other classics. Have you read the lyrics to that song??? It didn’t matter to me what he spoke or didn’t speak to the crowd – Why do people whine about that anyway? He’s Bob Freakin’ Dylan!
    I was also 40+ years late to my first Dylan show but I’m trying hard to catch up because I have decided that Bob Dylan is the greatest most powerful singer-song writer in the history of the universe. :-) Really.

  2. thinman61 Says:

    the writes states;
    “The only lines I could clearly make out were the choruses of songs like “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Desolation Row,” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”

    Did you even go to the show or listen? None of those songs have a chorus!

    “Who cares about lyrics anyway? It was Dylan, man! Live!”

    Yeah umm, only about 99.9% of his fans. He’s considered one the greatest lyricist of all time..

    If you are going to write about something that you don’t know anything about Please do some research first!

  3. thinman61 Says:

    So you do shotty research for an article or the very least dont know what you are talkin about, I point it out and you wont post the comment. Yeah real cool..

  4. Chris Says:

    FYI, “Tangled Up in Blue” isn’t one of the “60s classics.” It was released in 1975.

    You’re only response to Mike Walsh’s incredibly honest and heartfelt piece is a petty gotcha about what year “Tangled Up In Blue” was released? Really? Really? You’re missing the forest for the trees, son. [--The Ed.]

  5. kate monaghan Says:

    Now You Know

  6. RAGHAV Says:

    A great read.’am addicted to the master.

  7. How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Bob Dylan | Bob Dylan Says:

    [...] from Phawker [...]

  8. woody Says:

    nice article.

    I saw Bob Dylan recently. However, i am not well into my 40s. As a matter of fact, i’m 16 (you can tell from my grammar). I saw him and his band at his very first show in China in April 2011 in Beijing. I have to admit at that time, i wasn’t very familiar with his songs but since seeing him perform i have bought all the albums in a record store that i can get my hands on.

    So yeah, if i said anymore i would be repeating what others have said about him all these years AND they’ll say it much better than me.

    Funny story – when i first saw them and the lights went on and they started playing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”, i thought Bobby was Charlie Sexton! but then i averted my eyes a bit to the right and saw the man in a flashy outfit with that hat only he can pull off!

  9. Paul Jannes Says:

    I just had the same experience. Never like Dylan, always evenlaughed with him but suddenly, after listening to his show in the bootlegs series 1966 , the light went on. And since then, I cannot tell why and don’t ask me why but he is only singer and songwriter that matters. All the rest just try….

  10. paul lynam Says:

    glad you finally i have the rare treat of seeing knopfler and dylan in dublin ireland next month double trouble

  11. Tom Says:

    Welcome to beautiful rock ‘n roll music, the roots of it…

  12. Pat S. Says:

    I understand EXACTLY what you are saying, because you sound just like me. I was turned onto Bob 40 years late myself. I listened to Bob in the sixties and seventies and eighties, when his music came on the radio. I REALLY got into Bob in 2001, when my new hubby turned me on to Bob. I started doing research, listening to his music, buying books, going to the library and checking out books about Bob. I started going to his concerts. I even bought a couple of movies he was in. (Hearts of Fire, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Masked and Anonymous). I also saw “I’m Not There”. I also have “The Last Waltz”. There are lots of You Tube videos that are from the 80’s when Bob was with Farm Aid, and a lot of concerts!!!! I had a lot of catching up to do!!!! I have seen Bob several times in recent years, and would love to see him till the Never Ending Tours end when he retires, or when the Lord up Above calls Bob home. I really love seeing him, and realize ALL I missed when I was younger. He IS and will ALWAYS be the GREATEST singer-songwriter EVER!!!!

  13. d.s. handy Says:

    Um, actually, The Beatles were still singing about holding hands when Another Side of Bob Dylan came out. In concert they were still singing about it until Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61. Who else could have influenced the Beatles? Um, Donovan, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Ravi Shankar, etc., etc., etc. The Beatles, like Dylan, didn’t exist in a self-enclosed bubble.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the show. Dylan’s voice takes some getting used to, apparently, but if you’ve listened often to his recent records, and have seen him live at least several times in the past decade or so, then you won’t have such a hard time understanding him. I never have any trouble understanding him. Personally, I think that he’s a great singer, with the voice of an authentic bluesman (which he aspired to back on his first record); it’s just that he doesn’t have a pretty voice.

    The great thing about Bob Dylan is that, the next time you go to see him, most of the songs will have a new arrangement. This keeps the songs fresh for both him and his audience. He’s not afraid to challenge his audience, who are up for the challenge.

    The Replacements? I always thought that they played imitation punk rock to college kids who were too insulated to experience the real thing. Too bad you didn’t play your co-worker a great band from that era, such as the Gun Club, or the Jesus and Mary Chain.

  14. Chris Says:

    Dear “The Ed.”,

    You misread my tone. My “FYI” was offered in the interest of correctness, in hopes other readers would not be misled. It was not a petty “gotcha” intended to undermine the authority of the article. If you see it doing so, that is your problem with the article, and you need to blame your fact checkers, not me, and follow through on the journalistic convention of offering a correction note. It’s an ok piece, and, yes, as you say, presumably honest and heartfelt. I enjoyed reading it, dig the Kubrick allusion, and recognize that much of what he says here could be said about about my late arrival to the many bands who folded or transformed long before I got to them (I really wish I’d discovered Pussy Galore and Bad Brains on time, among so many others). This happens to anyone who listens to music seriously enough and long enough.

    That said, I’ve been listening hard to Dylan for decades, ever since I was in middle school (and listening casually before–my parents, uncles, and aunts all played the early LPs when I was a tyke), and I doubt I miss much more of the forest that is his catalog for its trees than most other long-time, devoted listeners do. And I also didn’t miss Walsh’s forest due to the tree of that one mis-dating; I see his point, and it’s cool.

    On the front of “petty” gotchas: shouldn’t an editor know the difference between a possessive pronoun and a contraction? Some of those trees are pretty darn beautiful, as is the forest of language in which they are found.

    As for the gratuitous and ad hominem “son” you offer, well … something is happening here …

    [Ha, touche. My bad for misreading your tone and assigning a snarkiness where none was intended. Thanks for taking the time to clarify. Lesson learned.--THE ED.]

  15. Anselmo Says:

    I think it’s hard writing about Dylan, because the dylanologists are always ready to detect some minimal mistake.
    I understood completely your point and I’m surprised to found many fans in this same situation, I am too!
    Forgive my por english, i am a brazilian Bob fan.

  16. Anselmo Says:

    I think it’s hard writing about Dylan, because the dylanologists are always ready to detect some minimal mistake.
    I understood completely your point and I’m surprised to found many fans in this same situation, I am too!
    Forgive my poor english, i am a brazilian Bob fan.

  17. connie Says:

    i loved bob dylan since i was a kid when he first started singing . immediately i just thought that he was the greatest followed him all through his career and like others have still been playing all his music .read chronicles and something in his writing is just amazing .have recently seen him for the first time and he was magnificant. have now begun to get really into him again. someday he will go down in history as antoher master up there with bach,chopin, degas and other famous men . excuse the spelling please

  18. stevep Says:

    saw the master in Nottingham England last night 11/10/11 with my two sons. Nothings changed in respect of re-working the songs. some people do not get it but you have to realise bob will do and play what he wants and how he wants. my first concert 1978 blackbushe aerodrome, united kingdom awesome them and awesome still

  19. stevep Says:

    correction sorry awesome Then Not Them

  20. Richard Says:

    I was a junior in high school just south of NYC in a basement coffeehouse. I enjoyed the folk music and the Beat poetry. One of the open mic entertainers, a steelworker from Fairless Hills, started singing songs he said he heard from a young guy up in the Village (Greenwich). And that’s how I heard about Bob Dylan. I got the first two albums right after from a friend working in a record booth in a local farm auction. He’s been with me ever since, through the wars, divorce, deaths and change. A force of nature. A brave and old soul; always a new way of seeing the world. Just ahead, around the next bend. A highway man, masked and anonymous.

  21. josh e Says:

    i think what was cool about this article/comments is the ed. of the page came back to the one poster (above) with his tail between his legs and used the word “snarkiness”

  22. Adrian Says:

    DYLAN ORACLE?

    Really great article Mike. I fully enjoyed reading it. Don’t listen to the detractors, they just, imho, have nothing better to do than rag people down. Apparently, it makes them feel better about them selves. Go figure.

    I’ve never been a huge Dylan fan or anything (more into Frank Zappa back then myself :), but credit where credit is due. Dylan would have to be, with out doubt, the Shakespeare of the modern music age. No one comes even close to writing lyrics anywhere as prolific, and amazing as Bob Dylan.

    I had the privilege of seeing him live just the once, in Auckland in 1976 IIRC, (I was 16). Spent about 3 months hitch-hiking around New Zealand. Just happened the there when the master wordsmith himself was touring. It was a massive open air gig, and was packed to the non-existent rafters! :) Had to Hitch-hike all the way from Wellington to see him. Took me a couple of days but f***! it was so well worth it!

    Dylan was only a dot on the stage, but I got to breath the same air as him and his band for an hour or 3, and listen to the man himself do his stuff. My life ever since, has been all the richer for it. What a gift to the world he is!

    But really, the main reason I am writing this reply is to ask if anyone else has heard of the “DYLAN ORACLE”, better yet, knows where to get a copy?

    Somewhere around the mid to late 80ties IIRC, a computer program was released (apparently with Dylan’s blessing) which contained every line Dylan had written up to that date. It was the Dylan Oracle. You could ask it any question, and it would answer with a relevant line or three from one of his songs.

    At the time I didn’t have a computer, let alone software. So anyway, Please, Please, Please, if you knows anything at all about it, can you post any info you have here to this thread. I’ve always wanted a copy, and still very much do.

    The answer my friend is somewhere on the net! :) Peace, Love, and Brown Rice to all from Adrian Down Under.

  23. Jeannebb Says:

    Not only am I in the over 40 club, but I am in the over 50 as well. I have to say, I have been a Dylan fan since I was a kid in the 60’s. Although I have only been to one Dylan concert also, it was the best I have even seen/heard. He played a mix of old classic Dylan and some of his new songs as well. I didn’t have trouble understanding him in the least, and as a matter of a fact i was so moved that I sat there with tears streaming down my face as I sang along. I might add, I wasn’t the only one singing in the audience either. What a great man and performer…..

  24. Buffettville Says:

    Over the years, I’ve never truly know what kind of Dylan show I was about to experience. At first, it irritated the hell out of me. Nonetheless, I learned to just to bask in the experience. I’ll always have the original recordings to enjoy whenever I want, anyway.
    The latest show I attended, I sat with a 17-year-old male on one side and a “middle-aged” woman on the other. Both of them, just like me, were there by themselves because none of their friends or significant others were at all interested in experiencing the talents of a living legend by the name of Bob Dylan.
    And, even though my own two adult children, a boy and a girl, do not enjoy listening to Dylan, they clearly understand the various roles he’s played in our history.
    Perhaps, they’ll appreciate Dylan, as well as many other influential artists, a bit more when they inherit their father’s extensive record collection.

  25. Kat Says:

    Awww…Bobby’s got a heart of gold :-)

    http://simplelifesecrets.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/bob-dylan-and-and-henry-louis-gates/

  26. Doreen Says:

    Man of dreams gives me wings, gives me wings, to flee, to flee inside ur dreams of dreams, that r of u and me, that r of u and me, where dreams inside of dreams r always of u and me.
    Bob Dylan always of u and me….

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