“He not busy being born is busy dying.” – “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”
I had been on the planet for about four months when Bob Dylan released his eponymous debut album. A collection of mostly traditional folk songs, the album featured only two originals that weren’t exactly a bellwether of Bob’s future legendary songwriting prowess. His second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” changed everything.
“How many times will a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”– “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Growing up a kid in the 1960s, I was aware of the great music happening all around me. The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel were my early favorites; my favorite Christmas gift in the mid-1960s was a small Sony transistor radio that opened up the world of music to my young ears. I was a little aware of who Bob Dylan was, but his music mostly stayed under my radar.
What changed that for me was Anthony Scaduto’s book, “Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography.” Published in 1971, with a number of really good photos by Daniel Kramer, this book opened my eyes to the possibility that one guy with a guitar could make a real difference.
“Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind.” – “Mr. Tambourine Man”
I began devouring Bob Dylan’s music, first acquiring his first and second “Greatest Hits” albums. Then it was just a matter of time (and teenage financial considerations) before I was able to own all his albums. “Blonde on Blonde,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “John Wesley Harding,” “Desire,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” the aforementioned “Freewheelin’”… Bob’s music became the soundtrack to my young life and was perhaps the main reason I picked up a guitar and started writing my own songs.
“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” – “The Times They Are a-Changin’”
I was fascinated by the reaction to all of Dylan’s changes in persona: the folksinger, the protest singer, the rocker, the pastoral country crooner, the Rolling Thunder rebel. He kept reinventing himself and his music, alternately upsetting and delighting those who “really knew” the “real Dylan.” He brought poetry into rock and roll, and along with the Beatles, changed all expectations and limitations of the popular song form.
“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” – “Visions of Johanna”
The first time I saw Bob Dylan live was in 1978, on the “big band” tour in support of the underrated “Street-Legal” album. It was an absolutely amazing show, more than two-and-a-half hours of some of the greatest Dylan songs from the 1960s and ’70s. Unlike a lot of other Dylan tours, on this particular one he was engaging the audience, telling stories, and having big fun introducing his band members. Introducing multi-instrumentalist Steve Soles that night, Bob said, “All right, the youngest member of this group, 15 years old, been with me now for five years. Doesn’t smoke dope, drink whiskey, chase women. All that’s gonna change tonight.”
I’ve seen Bob more than a few times in the decades since. As true Dylan fans understand, he often changes the arrangements of his songs all the time to suit himself — sometimes even in the middle of a song. It’s always a thrill to finally hear a recognizable lyric and be able to discern the song he’s singing. I had a front row seat at a Sunrise Musical Theater show in 1989 while G.E. Smith was Bob’s bandleader. The band had left Dylan and Smith alone on stage to do some acoustic songs. As soon as they started “Tangled Up In Blue,” a woman jumped from the crowd on stage, and stripped to a teddy and g-string and proceeded to dance to the music. Dylan waved off the security and somehow managed to keep composure while G.E. Smith was doubled over in laughter. When the song ended, the woman picked up her clothes and stepped back into the audience — to enthusiastic applause from Dylan and Smith.
“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” – “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
I saw Bob Dylan in a double-bill with Santana — bloody amazing on both counts. I saw Merle Haggard and the Strangers open for Dylan, and it wasn’t as unlikely a pairing as you’d expect. I saw Dylan in 1998 at the small Cameo Theater on Miami Beach. I’ve seen him in performing arts centers and arenas multiple times since, and I’ve always come away from his shows happy and inspired.
This past Monday, Bob Dylan turned 80. Last year, he released a critically-acclaimed and top-selling album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” that contained his longest song ever, the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul.” Bob and his band were scheduled to begin another tour when the COVID pandemic hit; one can hope that as we come out of lockdown, Bob will hit the road again. I’d sure like to see just what he’ll pull out of the hat this time! Happy birthday, Bob, and I’ll sign off with an appropriate quote:
“May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung, and may you stay forever young.” – “Forever Young”
Catch John Wednesdays at Herbie’s, Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, Friday on Facebook Live, Saturday night at the Key Colony Inn, and Sunday at Havana Jack’s. Music wherever you get your streaming or downloads. www.facebook.com/john.bartus