I make no secret of the fact that I love Bob Dylan, and why should I? Millions of people love Dylan and there must be thousands of writers who spend their time reading about Dylan, researching and writing and thinking about him and his work just as I do and have for quite some time now. But what I want to talk about today and this is totally different from anything else I’ve written, is strictly how Dylan looks and his evolution over time. Not his music so much, though that factors in, but the Dylan of the early days and of the mid-sixties – the one I think of as my Dylan, that is the uber-thin Dylan dressed in black peg-leg pants and a black turtle neck and jacket with his trademark curly and out of control hair and that clear-skinned and free of hair face that held all that at least I wanted to see in him.
Don’t get me wrong; I had no illusions about Dylan being “our Dylan” or being “of the folk movement” or for The Left as it were. As Dylan himself has noted, he never was for any cause and was always for himself. He if he was adopted by certain movements, and understandably so with songs like A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall and Blowin’ in the Wind and so many others, it made perfect sense and it does seem slightly disingenuous of him to then cut all strings with the group after signing with the Queen of Folk herself, Joan Baez.
Still, Dylan is changeable and always was. So are the rest of us, and isn’t it his right as well. I never understood it when journalists demanded more of Dylan that they did of him, asking questions like “Are you sincere?” to which Dylan replied, “I’m as sincere as you are…” which to me seems a fair and reasonable answer. Still, as I said, Dylan is, like us, changeable. I should not be surprised then that after his motorcycle accident when he disappeared and re-emerged eighteen months later for a tribute to Woody Guthrie, he would appear a changed man.
For one, his motorcycle accident, though many debate this, is and was rumoured by some to have been near fatal - enough to shake enough up anyone, and though other rumors suggested Dylan had overdosed or wanted a break, most stories tell that Dylan had suffered a near brush with death in that he had broken several neck vertebrae, severe lacerations and bruising on his face and elsewhere as well as a severe concussion. Of the accident Dylan has said, “I saw my whole life flash in front of me… the fact that I made it through is pretty miraculous.” All of this came just as Blonde-on-Blonde was gaining success and about to land Dylan his third straight gold album.
And so it was that at the Woody Guthrie Tribute Dylan appeared in a grey suit with a scraggly beard and a moustache as well, backed up by The Band, performing three of Woody’s songs, “This Land is Your Land”; “I Ain’t Got No Home”; “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt”; “The Grand Coulee Dam”; “This Train is Bound for Glory.” But it wasn’t the songs so much that struck me, although they did echo back to Dylan’s beginnings – the self-mythologizing Dylan who had “come to New York Town on a freight train” as he told the story (until he was outed) and who had changed his name, was playing at Café Wha, visiting Woody in the hospital, and emulating his hero down to affecting an Oakie accent.
That we could see a glimpse of the early Dylan is or was to me anyway a sign that all was well and that “our” Dylan or as I’ve always said “my Dylan” was back and would go back to his trademark Ray Bans and peg-leg black pants and drawling and howling slowly out the words to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” or “I Want You.” … soooooo baaaaaddd
But that didn’t happen and never again would I see the Dylan of “Eat the Document” or “Don’t Look Back” except for repeat playings of both on DVD, yes for themselves, but yes, just to see the iconic Dylan in his prime if you can call it that, which I know is debatable, but to me, this was his prime.
But it was the end of a period and Dylan, like the rest of us would change and that meant that his style would change too – not just the way he looked, but the way he would and did sing, sound, and the whole presentation... I can long for the old Dylan all I want, purely selfish reasons and I admit, for as much as I can write about Dylan objectively as a journalist, there is a still a piece of me that knows damn well that Dylan would have been, was and maybe still is desirable in every way, fame or no fame.
Dylan had a look that was cool and hip and the music was perhaps a bonus at the time, but from a purely physical point of view, none of that would have mattered, despite what so many musicians are wary of. As they say in the film “Almost Famous” there is a huge difference between a “Band Aid” and a groupie. A groupie is a hanger-on – someone who is there but there for the fame without even really understanding why. It could be anyone they would worship or fuck or whatever.
A Band Aid was someone who “truly loved a tiny little piece of music.” Does that mean I would follow Dylan around the country? That I would go with him on his tour bus and be there in hotel rooms and the like? Ask yourself this, male or female, if you had the chance to tour with Dylan, would you say No? (obviously, I ask only those who are Dylan fans this question; otherwise, it’s a moot point and one cannot possibly relate in this case.) Or, or would you, like me, would you have gone? Would you go now?
The last time I was Dylan was at Campagnelli Stadium and the show was, after much waiting in the midday boil and heat of the day with a group of hundreds if not a couple of thousand, we stood against the hot concrete of the baseball park for five or more hours waiting to see Bob and I tell you, it was worth it. I’d do it and will do it again in a heartbeat and likely next summer I will, and if not here, then I will travel to where he is. If he won’t come to me, then I’ll go to him.
This Dylan again had morphed ~ he was the Dylan we saw in No Direction Home, which I wrote about elsewhere here. He was yes, dressed in black and for a moment, my heart skipped a “could it be” beat, but no. The coat was long and country-style and he was bearded and shaggy haired and not in the way that I and so many others had come to love. When we think of Bob Dylan, almost everyone finds a photograph of the younger Dylan, not the older Dylan.
This is not a rejection of the new work – because I’m a huge fan of the new work. It is some of the best work he has done and songs like “It’s Not Dark Yet” will move you to the bone if you listen to the lyrics and care enough. “Time Out of Mind” is a terrific album – all of it, or it is to me anyway. But what I find interesting is that the front cover of today’s Dylan is blurred, his face obscured; he remains fuzzy, out of focus as if he is someone we don’t know. Turn the album over and there is the Dylan we all know – younger, or looking younger to say the least and in a striped shirt and his black suit-vest. The photograph I like, and these are rare and harder and harder to come by these days, is the inside flap of the CD which shows a smiling present-day Dylan, sitting with his guitar and in darkly lit room but happy anyway.
Maybe that’s just it; maybe he just doesn’t smile anymore and that’s what we or he have lost. I want to send him a letter or I want him to smile again or see him on stage and hand him a note that will make him laugh and no doubt, the next time I go to a show I will do that. I remember the last time I was a t a good show, besides the Dylan show, when I went to see Paul Weller of the Style Council and of The Jam (now solo). There were throngs of girls at the stage with their made-up and beautiful faces and pushed up breasts and eager smiles all reaching with paper and pen for Paul’s autograph.
I walked up just at the end and wearing nothing but my khakis and a black t-shirt, handed him my piece of paper and a pen and for whatever reason, he came to me. Maybe because I wasn’t’ trying to hard. Maybe I didn’t look desperate but I looked honest. Maybe I looked like a Band Aid and not a groupie. Or maybe I just looked like a girl who liked his music.
Whatever the matter, Weller took the paper from my hand and leaned over and put his other hand on top of mine. He flipped the paper over to see what he was singing and began to laugh. It was a prescription for Valium, 5 mg x 3 day; the only piece of paper I had on me. He signed it, squeezed my hand and handed the autograph back.
I never could fill that prescription after that, but it didn’t matter. I had made his day and he mine. He’s not an easy guy to get the attention of. I wonder the same of Bob. Not about an autograph but perhaps a discussion. Perhaps, despite his reputed and lord knows I’ve seen it, dislike of journalists, he’ll see that after all I’m just a girl who “really knows what it means to truly love a good piece of music just because….