Bob Dylan, now in his 80th year and whose shadow blankets the last half-century of American culture, is both a celebrated hero and a man whose journey has doubtless been a burden.
Who would want to be Bob Dylan? Who would want to have lived a life so under the microscope of public/media examination that your trash cans would be stolen, their contents examined and publicized?
Scavengers pawed and sifted his household garbage hoping to glean clues and discover secrets. Really.
(I’m aware of no other pop stars, not The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or Taylor Swift, who have ever been the target of such weird, obsessive, abusive, cult-like idolatry.)
And it goes on. Even today, virtually all Bob Dylan’s public, and some private, words and music are recorded, circulated, evaluated, scrutinized and written about by fans, journalists and, so help me, college professors.
If this weren’t freight enough for one man to haul about, the journalists and the professors have been picking his prose, poetry, songs and paragraphs apart for as long as he’s been grinding them out. These writers and critics, with sharp pens and dull minds, have been toiling years to boost their own images and careers by dragging their prey down into the holes they’re in.
Oh, but Dylan’s wealthy and lives the life of a pasha you say. Well so what? Name someone else, no matter how wealthy and including any other rock star, subjected to the sort of shabby treatment Bob Dylan has endured. I assure you there is no cottage industry for Elton John and Elvis Presley concert recordings enabling fanatics to dissect secret meanings buried within ‘Bennie & the Jets’ or ‘Hound Dog.’
There’s nothing I envy about his life, certainly not the fame and the riches. His career now seems a (mostly) uninterrupted slog of hard work and genius, plus the usual sex-and-drug fruits that were common side dishes for 20th century celebrities. I admire his prodigious accomplishments but would be unwilling (and unable) to pay the price he’s paid to be Bob Dylan.
For reasons no longer clear he was once perceived as a mystic, a man tuned into a spiritual wavelength and able to tap into visionary truths.
Sounds crazy, but everyone under the age of 30, or at least everyone under the age of 30 who smoked marijuana, once believed Bob Dylan capable of transmitting cosmic wisdom and other mysterious malarkey his pot smoking followers yearned to know.
We thought he had answers. We thought he knew Where It Was At, and when he declined to yield up his secrets, the demurrals seemed all the more tantalizing. Bob Dylan alone had peeked behind the curtains, seen beyond the clouds, and those were the visionary insights we longed for him to share.
The record albums suggesting such delusions were ‘Bringing it all Back Home,’ followed by ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde.’
Except for his songs, Dylan remained silent, unwilling to escort his adoring fans the half-step beyond ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Mister Tambourine Man.’ In 1968 his songs became less obscure, less introspective and less open to wild interpretation, and then, to the horror of his fans, veered right into country music. The unhipness of ‘Nashville Skyline’ was an insult.
He remained reclusive, then burst out with a worldwide tour in 1974 and a series of albums (‘Blood on the Tracks’ and ‘Desire’) that revived his career among fans and critics. He then made a big movie, ‘Renaldo and Clara,’ and lost them again.
Finally, in 1979, Bob Dylan at last provided the millions upon millions who had been begging for decades the key to the kingdom. He revealed his cosmic truth. As explicitly and enthusiastically as he could possibly make clear, he sang, repeatedly, The Answer is Jesus.
We meant the Other Answers was the response from people extremely disinterested in his Christian albums. The trio: ‘Slow Train Coming’ along with ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love.’
Now, 40 years and a couple dozen more albums behind him, an explicitly Christian message exists in all his albums and most of his songs.
So what else is new? All these years, and the answer was hiding in plain sight.
There has rarely been a time or an era in which Bob Dylan’s music was not steeped in Christianity. His earliest recordings include ‘Rugged Old Cross,’ ‘Gospel Plow’ and ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.’ The entire ‘John Wesley Harding’ album (1968) is soaked in religion; it’s woven into ‘New Morning’ (’71) and is the primary theme in both 2012’s ‘Tempest’ and his latest, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways.’
Some references are obscure. But when has Bob Dylan’s music been lacking symbolism and illusion? He remains elusive to this day.
He’s our generation’s enigma, the mystery inside the conundrum, the riddle that’s tangled up in blue and stuck inside of Mobile.
And knockin’ on heaven’s door.
(Tom Hine sometimes writes under the TWK byline, and has been a Dylan fan for too many years to count. He lives in Ukiah.)