I was driving through downtown when the radio announcer ended a story on the presidential election and moved to the next item, opening with the words: “Bob Dylan.”
A bolt of dread shot through me. I was about to learn that the singer-songwriter who means more to me than any other had died.
Only Dylan hadn’t given up the ghost. He’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Caught in an emotional whiplash, I surprised myself. I began crying soppy tears of jubilation. I considered pulling over to compose myself.
By any objective measure, my reaction to Dylan’s prize — an honor that transcended anything any sane person could have imagined for this bard of social change, existential angst and loves lost — was over the top.
Was I a superannuated fanboy?
Dylan and I go way back. In 1966, my sophomore year in college, I was eating dinner by myself in the dining hall when a song came over the sound system that knocked me cold.
It was Dylan’s “Desolation Row” which begins: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.”
For the next 11 minutes, Dylan spat out wild images of Einstein disguised as Robin Hood and the Titanic sailing at dawn.
I describe my dining hall discovery of Dylan as comparable to a religious conversion. After “Desolation Row,” my life cleaved into two segments: life before Dylan and life after.
Dylan’s voice has been rough stuff for years, practically un-listenable, but the lyrics — sweet, sarcastic, kaleidoscopic — remain as fresh as the moments they were written. If you don’t like Dylan’s renditions, there are thousands of versions by others to choose from.
A dozen years ago Cheryl and I drove up to Lake County for a Dylan concert at Konocti Harbor, which I considered a cheesy venue for such a venerated performer.
I’d heard Dylan decades earlier at Berkeley’s Greek Theater when he was still a reasonable facsimile of his ‘60s self. At Konocti, his voice seemed shredded by a garbage disposal.
The whole concert he never talked to the audience. He hardly even looked at us.
Cheryl was more than a little miffed. What gives? she said.
It’s just Dylan, I said. That’s how the Great One presents himself. He does not pander. It’s up to each audience member to prove himself worthy.
For people who fix on dense, tangled lyrics, today’s hip hop music may represent a golden age. Unfortunately, my tastes were formed long before hip hop came along. Once I imprinted on Dylan, the game was over.
Dylan expresses my world view. Our sensibilities align. There is hardly a degree of separation between us.
When he released “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” guess where I was? In Mobile, Alabama for a rainy New Year’s Eve, having just driven down from Memphis.
I rest my case.
My brother Joe in Indiana is as big a Dylan fan as I. When he was going through tough times earlier this year and in a medically induced coma, his wife Ellen sat at his bedside and tried to find a way to communicate.
She hit upon using her phone to play artists who were Joe’s favorites — Van Morrison and, of course, Dylan.
Did “Tangled Up in Blue” penetrate Joe’s sleeping brain? Joe’s memory can neither confirm or deny. I’m betting it did.
My brother and I talked last weekend. As with me, Joe was caught off guard when he heard the Nobel announcement. As with me, unbidden tears of happiness flowed.
We celebrated Dylan’s Nobel Prize as the perfect honor for someone whose life’s work covers half a century and touches on more eternal themes than a Russian novel.
Dylan is our Walt Whitman, Joe said.