Today is the 75th birthday of that mod, mad minstrel Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman).
Writing about an artist who’s so important to me is a Cow in a Can I have kept kicking down the road ever since I started this blog. In contrast with the vaudevillians and classic comedians we have written about here (with whom we started off with an initial biographical post and gradually expanded some of them outward with additional posts until they formed entire categories of their own) I have found that I’ve sort of done the opposite with some of my favorite rock and pop stars: lapped around the edges first, deferring the creation of some definitive, encapsulating post or perhaps never doing one.
One major reason for this is probably that everyone knows who they are, they are already in our face all the time, and there are even many books about them. There’s no point in going “Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, etc etc” like I might with Joe E. Brown or somebody because everyone already knows all that.
But secondly, these contemporary artists loom too large in my life. There can only be essays about aspects of them because I have too much to say. So I’ve written it piecemeal. I wrote quite a bit about what Dylan and the folk revival means to me in this post about Inside Llewyn Davis here (no, go ahead. Follow the link. Read and come back. I know you can do it.) I wrote about the Rolling Thunder Revue here. And I’m planning a couple of others, one called “Dylan Drippin’s” (about the records Self-Portrait and Dylan) and an upcoming 50th anniversary appreciation of Blonde on Blonde.
But now it’s his 75th birthday and that calls for something special. I can’t blow it off and I can’t wait around for his centennial…or even his 80th birthday. And a bio’d be ridiculous. So I figure I’ll ramble on a little bit about what he’s meant to me personally and artistically.
Where did he come from? His father was just a small town appliance salesman. It is as though the culture itself gave birth to him, like one of those science fiction movies where a supercomputer becomes sentient and then builds itself an artificial man to inhabit. He is of course self-created, but usually there’s some person as catalyst. Young Bobby Zimmerman took it all off the radio and records and TV and from books, and then later from the people he encountered, gobbling the substance of their souls like galaxies. The electronic babysitter begat its own Johnny Appleseed.
Especially fascinating that he comes at it from the OUTSIDE. It’s almost like he can see this vision of Americana more clearly, with more perspective because he’s watched the rodeo from the audience (as a midwest middle class Jew in the 1950s). So he simply put on a mask and BECAME a cowboy, was one because he SAID he was one. And there’s something so American about that, the imposture, the mask, the reinvention. A con man, a Mountebank, a Duke, a Dauphin.
When he first moved to New York he lied to EVERYBODY about his background: his friends, his colleagues, his patrons, Columbia p.r. people, the press. He said he’d been a hobo, that he’d ridden the rails (like Woody Guthrie), that he had studied and played with famous old black blues men, This was the days before you could easily check up on anyone’s story. For a couple of years at least, he got away with it. I find it so glorious and inspirational and enviable to have been able to move in a world so free. I am who I say I am, and I’ll be somebody else tomorrow. If you don’t like it, I hear there’s six billion other people for you to hang out with. Take me at my word. It doesn’t have to be true. But it’s not on you to join me on this joke. The INSTANT you claim to understand me or be “on” to me, or to have me figured out or reduce me to some “definition”, is the instant you are farthest from the ACTUAL truth. Dylan understands — as Whitman did — that to possess consciousness (as plainly only some men do) is to BE a universe. You can’t figure me out any more than you can predict the direction of the wind. If you say you can, I’m gonna call ya a liar so loud the whole fuckin’ barroom will hear it. I’ll call you out. Then when you throw yer punch, I’ll blind ya and confuse ya by being dressed like a little old lady.
Some early writers compared his physical presence onstage to Charlie Chaplin, this funny, little rambling, gambling hobo character. Dylan denied ever seeing Charlie’s films, but it is kind of astounding, the overlap in their obsessions. Embodying this creature with no fixed identity, who’s whoever he needs to be, whenever and wherever he needs to be it. (It’s obviously something that fascinates me as well, I’ve returned to it in several plays, The Confidence Man, The Fickle Mistress, Jasper Jaxon et al, right down to the name of my theatre company Mountebanks). Anarchy and rootlessness and refusal to knuckle under to ties and straightjackets and boxes and multiple choice exams. The answer is in the spaces between A, B, C and D.
Which is probably why I’ve managed to get through an entire (if brief) appreciation of Bob Dylan without ONCE talking about his music.