Bob Dylan turned 80 years old last Thursday. And because he has been a constant in my life for the past 16 years, this is a tribute to him. Happy Birthday, Bob.
I don’t have many heroes. But I have a few and highest-ranked among them is Bob Dylan. The reason he is my hero is that it was his music and particularly his writing that inspired me to start writing myself, and that decision has, besides my family, has been the most important and constant thing in my life
A lot of people never get to meet their idols, but I was lucky and got to spend some time with Bob one night in Toronto back in the 70s.
This post was written in about 2001.
It’s the end of January. Time flies even when you’re freezing your ass off. We have been in the grip of a long and very tedious cold snap. The dreaded North Wind has been sweeping down over The Big Smoke with unrelenting fury. More than a few nights went by when I wished I could actually take the dog out for a walk longer than once around the block But hey, I woke up this morning and it was a mere 3 below. I felt like stripping naked and running through the streets.
About a week ago a courier I wasn’t expecting came to the door. He had a package from one of my clients, Mike Elliot, who’s the Marketing Director of Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer brands). I had just finished a bunch of work for him on some TV commercials. Everything had gone well. Everybody was happy. Yadda yadda. I opened the package and found in it a note from Mike and a 3 CD/53 song set of Bob Dylan’s music called Biograph. It was Mike’s way of saying thank you to me, and I was really touched.
When you work on your own, you tend to develop close relationships with your clients. Mike and I get along very well. We think alike about a lot of things. I remembered that one day we were talking about music and I mentioned to him that I’ve only ever had one musical hero–Bob Dylan. No flies on Mike.
The Biograph set is a compilation of Bob’s music from the early sixties until the late eighties. Bob is my one and only musical hero since the first time I heard “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, back when I was about 16 years old and my interest in being a pro golfer (I was actually a 4 handicap) was slowly giving up ground to the urge to express myself in writing.
His songs have been covered by more artists than any songwriter in history, even Lennon and McCartney.
Bob is a pretty amazing guy. He popularized the folk-rock musical category standing on the shoulders of Pete Seeger. He popularized the protest song standing on the shoulders of Woody Guthrie. He brought country music to the rock and roll masses standing on the shoulders of Hank Williams and he single-handedly destroyed the Tin Pan Alley songwriting machine by making it OK for artists who had something to say to express themselves through their own music. His songs have been covered by more artists than any songwriter in history, even Lennon and McCartney. But you know, back when I was a 16-year-old, hiking through the perpetually snow-covered streets of Fort Erie, Bob was a window on the world. He was a complete departure from anything you could hear on the radio back then. There was gravel in his throat and real fire in his soul that you could feel coming out of even the tiniest of portable radio speakers.
Bob Dylan came from the Heartland of America. Some mining town in Minnesota. A place where you can look South and East and West and pretty much see where the country was at.
His songs were driven by lyrics, not catchy chorus riffs. His arrangements, early on, were mostly guitar and harmonica, the playing of which, I have since learned, is very hard to do, which is why so few artists ever even attempt it.
Biograph includes a cool little 64-page booklet written by Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe. This is a kind of annotated life story of Bob and his Various Incarnations, interspersed with cool archival pictures and supplemented with a lot of narrative from Bob himself. At the end of the biography section, there is a list of the songs and a brief story about each one.
The thesis which powers this Biograph effort is that Bob is actually a number of different singer-songwriter guys. There’s the kick-ass Protest Singer Bob, the tender Balladeer Bob, the defiant Rocker Bob, the Hopeless Romantic Bob, the American Storyteller Bob, and the Praise The Lord Bob. I guess I could find a few more Bobs if I thought about it a little more. But that’s all just the packaging. Inside, there’s really only one Bob and to me, he manages to defy labels, except the Pure Unadulterated Bob.
The Pure Unadulterated Bob has always spoken his mind in the most eloquent of ways. He has opened people’s eyes about many things with his honesty. He has created controversy with his bluntness. He has always been a little bit ahead of his time, which means that the world has always been catching up to him.
I have seen Bob in concert many times. On his own and with several different backup bands, most notably, The Band itself. Each time the experience has been magical. There are people who, though they don’t look it, are really larger than life. Bob is one of them for sure.
My Brush With Bob Dylan-ness.
In 1978, I had a chance to meet Bob in person. It was at Gordon Lightfoot’s house, one night when Gord threw a party for Bob and the musicians of his Rolling Thunder Review tour. How my wife and I got there is a story of its own. But I had a chance to talk with Bob for a good 30 minutes, sitting at Gord’s kitchen table, drinking a beer, and in the coach house out back that my wife and I lived in, courtesy of Gord. Bob was no motormouth and I had to work hard to keep from sounding like some sort of groupie. We talked about the road, where he had been most all this life up to then. I was working as a freelance photographer back then and had a couple of road stories of my own.
One of the most striking things about Bob was his hands. They looked totally designed for guitar playing. The fingers of his right hand seemed short and blunt. The fingers on his left were lithe and slender, with long hard nails. His body looked frail at first, but as he talked and gestured and rose up to give someone a hug, I could see that it was wiry and hard and that he could probably defend himself pretty well in a fight if it ever came to that. He was curious about me and how I came to be at the party. He was also curious about Toronto, what kind of city it was.
When I asked Bob what he thought he might be if hadn’t become who he was. He pointed out that he got asked that a lot and the only answer he could think of was that it never occurred to him that he could or would be anything else. He apologized for the non-answer. But I told him, I thought that was the best answer anybody could give.
We packed a lot of chatter into that 30 minutes. And though I doubt that Bob would ever remember me, I’ll never forget him.
Heros are hard to come by these days. So when you find one, make sure you appreciate your good fortune and let them inspire you. Bob inspired me to start taking my writing seriously, and I never stopped. And that’s a good thing because the alternative to being what I am is being something I am not. And frankly, that just doesn’t appeal to me.