I’m younger than that now — fifty years of Bob Dylan

Fifty years ago today, Columbia released the eponymous album Bob Dylan.

My first reaction to this factoid screams through my brain: How the hell can that have been fifty years ago? Fifty years!

It was two years later, in 1964, after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A’Changin’, that an old girlfriend introduced me to, among other things, the music of Bob Dylan.

Until then, I had been listening to AM radio, either the era’s top San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll station (KYA) or Oakland’s fabulous R&B station (KDIA). Only a year later, in 1965, I was living in residence, and thanks largely to Dylan, nobody I knew listened to anything but KMPX, the coast’s first full-time “alternative” FM station. Changing times, and all that.

Today, I still listen to 50’s & 60’s oldies, and I still listen to Bob Dylan. But I don’t listen to him in the same way that I did in those early days. Part of it has to do with the inevitable changes in attitudes and latitudes that constitute a lifetime. But part of it has to do with Dylan’s musical changes.

I read recently, in a review of Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, that even in those days he mocked his role as the voice of a generation, the Poet Laureate of protest and social conscience. He certainly mocked it later, with the disdain he showed for nostalgia — and, often, melody — that characterized his concerts. He might play his greatest hits, but he wasn’t going to play them in any recognizable form. I remember a Dylan concert in the 1990’s, at which he played Memphis Blues Again, a song whose every word and vocal nuance I had memorized in a smoky haze decades before. Dylan sang such a changed version that the song was almost half over before I realized what it was.

I don’t know whether disappointment or embarrassment is the stronger emotion I feel in response to the revelation that Dylan was less invested than his fans were in the issues about which he was singing. We spent many hours playing and replaying his music, learning all the words and the guitar chords, making these songs into anthemic representations of our newly gained social consciousness.

So I am disappointed that Dylan’s voice may not have been quite the pure clarion we imagined. And I am embarrassed to recall that we were naive enough to think that someone making royalties from a large corporation for shilling songs to an adoring public was anything more than a paid performer. Skepticism was a prominent feature of the 60’s, but only where The Man and The War were concerned. It certainly was not applicable to our own cultural heroes.

The most serious blow to the facade with which I had protected my  naive image of Dylan the social crusader happened in 1995. Dylan appeared on MTV Unplugged, at that time a wildly popular showcase of iconic talents. One song he sang was “With God On Our Side,” a blistering 60’s anti-war song. But a verse was missing. While Dylan still sang about the evils of wars in general, a very specific reference to the Holocaust was cut. Here’s the verse that Dylan left out:

When the Second World War
Came to an end,
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends;
Though they murdered six million,
In the ovens they fried,
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

Did corporate interests insist on cutting the verse? It’s hard to think otherwise.

So now I listen to Dylan, but less often, and with less fervor. As time passes, I listen much more to the late acoustic albums, Good As I’ve Been To You (1992) and the magnificent World Gone Wrong (1993). Find a recording of Pete Seeger’s version of “Delia” and play it back to back with Dylan’s “Delia’s Gone” from WGW. Are they the same song? The words are the same, but the singers inhabit different worlds entirely.

As time passes and experience piles up, I like the cynical Dylan of the mid-70’s (“Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks and “Black Diamond Bay” from Desire are good examples) better than the idealistic Dylan of the mid-60’s.

And my changed reaction to Dylan’s music has little to do with the infamous “Jesus Period.” I really like some of those songs, even if their supernatural sentiments are, well, supernatural and sentimental. “Changing of the Guards,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and “Jokerman” are the best of this period, I think. And the slightly later “Brownsville Girl” combines the talking blues of the 60’s, the cynicism of the 70’s, and the changed perspective of the 80’s in what may have been Dylan’s last great “story song.”

Many critics — and Grammy voters — loved the agéd troubadour of Time Out of Mind (1997), but I generally dislike its weariness. Emotional fatigue is not a sure sign of profundity or wisdom, I’m afraid.

In the end, I wish that Dylan had possessed the grace to retire before he released the unspeakably awful 2009 album, Christmas in the Heart. In a performance that is worse than Pat Boone’s covers of Little Richard, worse even than William Shatner’s The Transformed Man, a feat that I had thought impossible, Dylan sings Christmas songs, straight up. What little is left of an always iffy voice strains horribly through “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” If you haven’t heard it, you have no idea how truly awful it is.

Time to go, Bob. We’ll remember, never fear.

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