Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I'm just digging the new Dylan album. I respect those who can't stand Dylan, can't understand Dylan, and just don't get him entirely. I used to be like that. And then one day, some trickster angel flipped a previously unnoticed switch in my brain, and I suddenly changed my mind, and fell for his music.

The old minstrel is 68 now. In 1988, when I graduated from high school and hated him, he went on tour. He called it The Neverending Tour and it's been going on ever since. So, now that I like him, I could still make it.

As I get older, I've found myself, more and more, listening to distant, lasting music from dead people I've never heard of. Historic blues and jazz stuff, real music, American music, and I think what I like about it is the sheer anonymity of it, with the sounds just standing for themselves. (I swoon over Big Bill Broonzy singing "Black, Brown, and White" with that one eternal voice and single instrument, recorded in all its glorious mono.) So much music is hype, ego, and pretense. I can't hear a single single nowadays without considering the musician's current or last girlfriend, their dumb politics, that dumb movie they were in, or that dumb thing they said at that last dumb awards show. (I can't even look at Springsteen anymore.) So if you had told me to go out and buy the new Dylan album, I most likely wouldn't have. But then a month ago I heard "I Feel A Change Comin' On" and couldn't help but be moved by the simple textures of it, and soon found myself humming along, loving it, asking, Is that Dylan? It sounds like Dylan. Really? It's Dylan?

Someone on iTunes wrote this Customer Review of the new Bob Dylan album, "Together Through Life":

Imagine you've never heard Bob Dylan before -never heard Greenwich Village Bob, Protest Bob, Poet Bob, Surreal Bob, Electric Bob, Hit-Maker Bob, Nashville Bob, Christian Bob, Jewish Bob, or State of the Union Bob. Imagine someone said 'we just found these recordings from some obscure old blues guy no one's ever heard of living near an abandoned coal mine in Minnesota. Give this guy a listen.'

You'd listen to these songs with dropped jaw, wide eyes and palpitating heart. You'd shout from the rooftops that we've just found an undiscovered master of authentic American, from-the-gut, honest, unflinching, been-on-the-road-and-lived-life-hard, music.

Overstated? Yes. But I bought the album anyway, and now I can't stop playing it. It's got some dark stuff in it, stuff about life's redundant unfulfilling meaninglessness, the looming specter of death, and the hopeless nothing that may or may not wait for us at that End, but with some upbeat chords, so it feels a lot like life -hopeful, bluesy, misery frosted with love. Yes, he's still got that funny voice, and he's still an ugly old guy, but somehow all this music fits him better now (as does his look, his face timeworn and ragged from the adventure of a lifetime.) He's a legend, and can't seem to shake it, so he just moves along and makes his music. (As long as he stops doing stupid stuff like this, the genius will go places! Seriously, what's going on there? An angel in her underwear is being stalked by some spooky sexual predator?)

Dylan has been all over the map with his spirituality, but instead of being insipid about it, you get the feeling that he's done some honest searching in his life. He's got a reputation for changing his religious tone over the years, so recently he's kept his faith pretty close to his chest in interviews, but it's out there in his music, and I kinda like it. Is he a Christian? Well, evidently he was for a while, among other things; Jewish, Bohemian, etc. I found this quote on Wikipedia from his Christian days:
Years ago they ... said I was a prophet. I used to say, "No I'm not a prophet" they say "Yes you are, you're a prophet." I said, "No it's not me." They used to say "You sure are a prophet." They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, "Bob Dylan's no prophet." They just can't handle it.

And that, to me, is the quintessential Dylan. He can speak some truth while diminishing himself, all the while knowing that the truth will inevitably fall in unappealing ways, to some.

In 2000 I was 30, and I was in a desperate period. I drove a hundred miles by myself one day to see the movie Wonder Boys at the last theater I could find it playing at, during the end of its run. I loved it. And I loved the Dylan song in the credits, "Things Have Changed", which ended up being a bigger hit than the film. I bought the CD and couldn't stop playing it. The words were speaking to me in sharp, hard-hitting verses, like a heavy, leadened dart thrown at everything I thought I was standing for at the time. A few months later the CD was on the driver's seat in my car one day and I accidentally sat on it, and broke it into a million pieces. I'd never seen a CD break like that before, and I remember that I was kind of shocked by the sight of the shimmering mess, but I stopped listening to the song then and there, out of necessity, and started making some changes in my life.

But it takes a long time to make some changes.