1976 was the year I discovered music. Not that I hadn’t noticed it before. I had been an enthusiastic member of a Baptist church choir for several years and had even sung solos. But I hungered for something else. My mother had been a fan of country music and my father liked Broadway musicals and what used to be called “light classical” and these types of records were available to me. But the radio was much more alive. Every weekend I tuned in to hear Casey Kasem report on the progress of my favorite songs and to learn of the new hits on American Top Forty. It was the era of disco and rock, hard or soft, with a few touches of funk or soul. Most weeks I knew the lyrics to nearly every song on the pop chart.
This was pretty limited fare. I never heard jazz at all and my knowledge of classical music was confined to a few clichés. Experimental music was completely unknown to me as a category and if an artist failed to get a song on the charts then I never knew about that artist. After a couple of years I began spending more time on the FM dial, on the rock stations at first before finally discovering a college station.
Bob Dylan was just a name to me in 1979 when the big news came out that he had become a Christian. There was very little airplay of his music on mainstream radio. He had no hits to speak of and during the 70’s Knockin on Heaven’s Door was the only song I ever heard, except for the rare appearances of Lay Lady Lay and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. This is rather astonishing when you consider his large and varied output during the 70’s and the fact that Blood on the Tracks is undoubtedly one of his best records. But then the rock station playlists haven’t changed much in forty years. The extreme reactions to Dylan’s Christianity quickly instructed me on the popular image of him at the time: hugely important protest singer from the 60’s who had become irrelevant in the 70’s and now had become a freak. Parodies of Dylan were more common than Dylan.
And yet there was the record Slow Train Coming. Mark Knopfler had just hit it big with Dire Straights and he was on the album—which was good enough for popular audiences to produce a minor hit song. So here was this icon has-been convert who had come out with a good record. Dylan was the Jerry Lewis of popular music: an icon from the past who was still great but who had fallen out of favor with the popular mind. I decided to learn about him.
While everyone, it seemed, ridiculed his conversion, I was fascinated by it. I had been a hardcore true believer for seven years, had recently suffered serious damage to my faith and was beginning to ease my way out of the church when the news about Dylan came out. Undoubtedly my exit from Christianity turned out to be slower than it would have been without the influence of Bob Dylan. I instantly respected him. When people made fun, I listened intently to I Believe in You, a song and performance that brought tears to my eyes. When people asked how the voice of the 60’s generation could become a Christian, I asked how the man could be a cultural icon and an underdog at the same time. And then, it was when I wanted to sing one of Dylan’s Christian songs in church and couldn’t get anyone to work with me that helped push me all the way out the door.
I learned about the young Dylan at the same time I was learning about the middle-aged Dylan. There was no doubt in my mind that his faith was sincere and that it was very personal. He needed something for himself—that much was clear. People seem to feel a sense of ownership of their pop stars. And this seemed to rankle Dylan almost from the beginning. It’s a kind of anger that I relate to: when people of a progressive mind, politically and socially, try to tell poets what they think poets should be saying. Just stop right there. Only I know what I must write. But when you write something like Blowin in the Wind everyone thinks they own it. That’s got to be a mind fuck, to write a song that becomes an anthem and then to feel the need not to be bullied by something you helped create. One of Dylan’s most impressive performances on record is the MTV Unplugged album from 1995. He sings absolutely harrowing renditions of John Brown and With God on Our Side. The war in Bosnia was taking place close to this time but truthfully most Americans viewed it safely from the sidelines. War was not uppermost in the minds of Americans at that time. It would be 10 years before damaged veterans of the Gulf Wars would begin coming home and commit suicide by the thousands, and most had forgotten the sufferings of the Vietnam veterans. Yet Dylan chose to sing those songs with such passion on MTV at that time. And in doing so he transcended the moment, which for a great many Americans was about getting as rich as possible any way possible. If Dylan’s example means anything, it’s that poets sing when they are ready, and they find their own voice.
There’s a fascinating video going around of a guy who got to be an audience of one to a Bob Dylan concert. You watch his reactions as if seeing this individual’s Bob Dylan. In another video he discusses the experience. To watch these videos is to confront the experience of engaging with a musical performer and to consider the true sense in which the artists we love are ours and at the same time their own person. And so I have my own Dylan. He says in No Direction Home that he felt as though he was born in the wrong place and is just trying to get home, an eternal orphan. I know that feeling, and I know in my bones I will always feel it.
Just as Dylan’s career has had its peaks and fallow periods, my attention has drifted from him over the years, then come back. One day several years ago I bought the CD Time Out of Mind, without knowing anything about it and for no other reason than that I happened to see it in a store. I dumped it onto an mp3 player and hit “play” while I prepared dinner. It was like hearing him for the first time. Maybe in the 60’s Dylan’s voice happened to coincide with the progressive movement. But that may have been a coincidence. It doesn’t bother me in the least that right now he isn’t releasing a song about police brutality. For him it’s time to sing Sinatra. But when I heard Time Out of Mind, his voice merged completely with what was going on in my heart and soul. We take our poets as they come to us, and it isn’t in our place to ask, much less demand of them, to come the way we want them to. If we feel that something else needs to be said, we take up our pen.