My Bob Dylan

Dylan sketch, Mark Kerstetter

Dylan sketch, Mark Kerstetter

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.

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16 Responses to My Bob Dylan

  1. hedgewitch says:

    Yes, Dylan is and will always be for me an enigma. I remember his first album, recorded when he hit Greenwich Village out of Hibbing—old american folk ballads and Woody Guthrie redux, with two or three of his own songs, bare naked. I remember the outrage among the beats and folkies, who were not as yet quite hippies as per pop nomenclature, when he ‘went electric’ on Blonde on Blonde. Positively 4th Street, they were. Like most of his early fans, he lost me with Slow Train Coming and it was years before I listened to him again–like you, it was a bargain cassette for me of Street Legal, popped into the pick-up cassette player on a road trip. That album WAS my life. Yet there are dozens still I haven’t heard. I did check out Duquesne Whistle on youtube not too long ago–the man has the look of a burned out pilgrim who just can’t sit down because he might miss what he’s walked all those years toward, while not really thinking any more it’s there. A trip. Thanks for posting your experience with him, Mark–I’m sure there are as many Dylans as there are listeners.

    • “Duquesne Whistle “–not a bad little ditty but weird video. The albums ‘Oh Mercy’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ (both from the 90’s) are, to my mind, as great as his best work from the 60’s and 70’s.

  2. ManicDdaily says:

    Hey Mark–thanks! I am a very intent Dylan fan also. I actually rather liked Slow Train Coming. I thought he was crazy, but I really loved/love that song you gotta serve somebody. I think I am a bit older than you, though a little younger than Hedge–so I was back in forth in terms of my exposure and listening. I’ve been lucky enough to see him several times, the first time a friend of mine waited all night before an impromptu concert and we were in the middle of the front row–an incredible experience except that we were all wrapped up in Tangled up in Blue, and he sang a bunch of songs from Desire which I don’t think had even come out yet. I don’t like that album as much and of course we didn’t know the songs. He wore white face and a flower in a hat–it was a strange concert but wonderful. I’ve been to a few others but he’s gotten so weird in concert I don’t think I’d go any more as he seems to want to parody his old songs singing them in a way that is almost unrecognizable. Still, there are moments that are wonderful, but it can be quite frustrating and one wonders how much he needs the money from the performances as he doesn’t seem to like it very much. Thanks.k.

  3. ManicDdaily says:

    Is it blood on the tracks that tangled up in blue is in? Maybe–a great album. I tend to like the early stuff a great deal and this masters of war though–but the countrified Dylan is pretty great. Also The Last Waltz has some great performances–Forever Young– And Don’t Look Back–great movie. k

    • Yes, it’s on ‘Blood on the Tracks’. I went to a Dylan concert around ’85. He actually seemed pissed off to me. Every song sounded the same, like he was angry and spitting them out like nails. At the same time it was a large venue and people around were screaming for their favorite songs. In all the worst concert performance I’ve ever been to. It turned me off so much that I wrote Dylan off for quite a few years, deciding that he was all washed up.

      • hedgewitch says:

        Me,too. I saw him in concert about that time, and the contempt he had, not just for the audience, which is somewhat understandable, but for his own work, was very chilling and offputting. I’ve also seen some very sad interviews with him where it’s plain he should have stopped doing drugs way before he did, if he did. But as he says, ‘there’s a white diamond moon/on the darkside of this room/ and a pathway that leads up to the stars/ if you don’t believe there’s a price/for that sweet paradise/remind me to show you the scars.”

      • ManicDdaily says:

        I am trying to remember now–the one I went to that was great–except that there was so much of the Desire album when we were hoping for Blood on the Tracks must have been in 75 or 76. I went to see him a few times about, I guess ten years ago–and there were a few songs that were good, but so many were so strange. I’m sure his voice changed but you kind of wondered why he was bothering. He was touring with Willie Nelson then, who was great. Thanks for your kind visits. I hope all is lovely in Florida–it is a nice time of year there–very cold where I am! Pretty, but cold! k.

        • ManicDdaily says:

          ps — get Don’t Look Back if you haven’t seen it. He is so terrible to poor Donovan–who I’ve seen in the last ten years who was just great in concert. But Dylan is so great in that movie–when he sings this Medgar Evans song–it is just wonderful and others–so young. Thanks, Mark.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    Seems to me that Dylan has disappointed, or at least upended, his fans, at many points along the way, but he always comes out his own man, doesn’t he? I came to Dylan late, too, and for a long time couldn’t understand what the fuss was about–he couldn’t sing a note, or so I thought at the time. I remember, too, all the commotion about his move to electric guitar, but, in a way, that was nothing in terms of indigestible matter compared to his move to Christianity. Joan Baez speaks to the Dylan we each want vs. the Dylan who is quite beautifully in one of the documentaries, too–it’s possible he was never “political” in the sense many ascribed to him. So now, here’s a bit of off-the-radar Dylan history: a friend of mine was part of the NYC folk circle at the time (a singer-songwriter with crippling stage fright, so, while she wrote some truly fine songs and had a wonderful, smoky voice, she couldn’t do the “performing thing”). Dylan and whoever was his current girlfriend at the time (not Baez) crashed at her apartment once, and what she most notably remembers is that he threw up all over the common stairwell in the building. He, needless to say, is not the one who cleaned it up–my friend did. But he’s a great, an original, and we all know it. It’s as you said: “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.”

    • The move to Christianity must have seemed to people who were older than me like some kind of crisis or certainly a move backward. Yet you listen to his Christian songs and they’re very good; the lyrics all have multiple meanings. I think somehow it helped him get through a rough patch. Recently I listened to an interview with Jerry Lewis (who I find fascinating), who said that achieving celebrity is difficult, but maintaining it is far more difficult. Imagine being an icon like Dylan; how do you live with that?

      Thanks for sharing your story! I think I heard that Dylan puked when he met the Beatles for the first time. Dude couldn’t hold his liquor.

  5. Brendan says:

    Great post, Mark — I like that you titled this “My Bob Dylan” and led with the great sketch in your own hand. From the comments it’s clear that many of us have “a” Dylan or “our” Dylan — an interaction of our biography and his discography. Dude is a shamanic changeling, for sure, ruddering our time toward directions we didn’t know we were headed. My parents were folkies — at least, my mother was — her love of Joan Baez obviously intertwining with Dylan. There may have been an early Dylan album in the record stack next to the Magnavox in my father’s study in our ‘burb north of Chicago. In the ’60s when AM radio was still around, hits like “Lay Lady Lay” filtered in through with Motown and fizzy pop like The Association. I too headed into the church for a time, long enough to make a guilty break with it; I saw Dylan with The Band featuring stuff from “Planet Waves” – an accommodation that felt just beyond the Church for me, part of a first next step. Listened to a lot of “Blood on the Tracks” when I lived my father a while in NYC. Off in college near Spokane Washington in the mid-70s, I had a pal down the hall in my dorm who played Dylan endlessly, esp. “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisited” – he fashioned himself a troubadour in Dylan’s ilk and eventually tried to make his way in San Francisco. (Failed utterly, returned to Spokane.) Dylan’s Christian turn was wholly surprising, but in true contrarian style, he found a way even to piss off my post-Christianity. I’ve spent a lot of time singing back to Jack Gilbert in recent years, as I once did back to Rilke; articulating these voyagers voice inside our own is what cultural heritage (and burden) surely is. Great post, Mark. I’m working on a piece for next week that goes deeply back into my Christian break in the early ’70s.

    • He sometimes seems like a vessel channeling the material from somewhere else, throwing songs out like sparks. To his fans they’re almost bible verses; to him it’s just another song, he’s already working on the next one. Some are great, some aren’t, who cares, the point is to keep moving, like a shark that can’t stop.

  6. Stacey Lynn says:

    i actually was not familiar with dylan until i began college and was able to make friendships with artsy kids and amateur writers who praised songs like ‘blowin’ in the wind.’

    since then i’ve studies his lyrics and read his singular work of poetry, titled ‘tarantula’ which i found very difficult to read in it’s form…i’d much rather read his lyrics than his poetry.

    awesome post, enjoyed your thoughts and insight.

    stacy lynn mar
    http://warningthestars.blogspot.com/

    • Hi and thanks for your visit. I read ‘Tarantula’ a long time ago. Agreed, it’s not great. I actually think of Dylan as more of a storyteller than a poet. He’s one of the best storytellers in song I’ve ever heard.

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