Times Have Changed
By Devon Wendell
On Tuesday, May 29th, President Obama presented Bob Dylan with the Medal Of Freedom — designated as the nation’s highest civilian honor — at the White House. Obama’s comments at the ceremony about Dylan’s influence on his life and American culture were the typical “Voice of a generation” spiel that Dylan himself has rejected throughout his 50-year career. This got me thinking about the vast differences between Dylan’s appeal to the baby-boom generation who witnessed him first (like President Obama) and my generation, which followed.
I’m 37, and I recall viewing Dylan first on the “We Are The World” video. His phrasing was off, his tone nasal, and I thought it was the worst sound I had ever heard. My Mom drilled into me that this man “changed the world for us.” But I shrugged it off, and that was it until high school.
I attended a Quaker school in Brooklyn which was run by some aging hippies who were downright obsessed with the ‘60s culture they grew up in. The school’s Principal even had Allen Ginsberg come and read “Howl” on two separate occasions in front of the entire staff and student body.
I was already a stubborn purist who had discovered blues and jazz at the age of ten and looked down on rock and folk music. At that time, I didn’t even like The Beatles or The Stones. For me it was all about Muddy Waters, Son House and Albert King, as well as Miles, Bird, Monk, Coltrane, Ellington, and Rollins. I also liked Motown, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix, whom I’ve never considered to be a Rock n’ Roller.
I was a young, budding musician and believed rock and folk lacked originality and richness and was geared towards teeny-boppers and the pop-charts. There was nothing remotely interesting about The Byrds or Peter, Paul and Mary to me.
The few friends I was able to collect shared my musical views and taste.
We also had resentments towards our parents and teachers. (The irony is not lost here.)
One summer afternoon, a few friends dropped by my house to hear me practice my electric guitar, listen to records, and sneak some wine. One of them had brought a tape compilation of Bob Dylan songs.
I was weary because this kid also liked punk, which I found boring and stupid. He knew I had a chip on my shoulder and liked the sound of rage or just being fed-up. Howlin’ Wolf singing “I’m Gonna Leave You Woman Before I Commit A Crime” — that was real to me. When I saw the kid had a Dylan tape, I instantly thought of whining hippies in the mud, flowers, and unicorns.
After some arguing, I finally let him play the tape and I couldn’t believe what I heard. The music was fantastically snarling and evil. “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend,” “You’re an idiot babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe,” “How does it feel to be on your own?” “Forget the debt you left, they will not follow you,” etc. Most of the music was set to Chicago blues or music I could relate to, so that got me too. It was clear that Dylan loved and understood American roots music and was proud of it at a time when it was being co-opted by The British Invasion.
I loved everything I heard. This wasn’t the “Times They Are a-Changin’” Dylan that my teachers and my mother spoke of. This was a big middle finger to the world.
My friend proceeded to show me bootleg videos of Dylan’s press conferences from 1965 following the release of “Highway 61 Revisited,” in which Dylan was chain smoking, dismissive to the press, and seemed emotionally disengaged. My pal also told me the story of how Dylan had stood up in front of The Emergency Civil Liberties Union in 1963, a month after the assassination of JFK and declared, “There is no difference between the left and right anymore,” and that he wouldn’t be some musical puppet for anyone’s political agendas.
Suddenly Dylan seemed as rebellious and complex to me as Charles Mingus. I started really listening to Blood On The Tracks, Blonde On Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, and Oh Mercy. I identified with the way he viewed the world as being hideously absurd, rejecting old notions of how to live and think, and most importantly the way he viciously struck back at heartbreak. With pen and tongue he relentlessly did it in a way that was both harsh and beautiful.
I felt the pain and necessity in that brutality that stemmed from his sorrows. At the same time, where you had the viciousness of “Idiot Wind,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” you also had “If You See Her, Say Hello,” “A Simple Twist Of Fate” and “Ramona,” in which Dylan wasn’t afraid to show his vulnerability.
That dichotomy of the pissed off nerd poet (Boy, could I really relate to that), who even said “Fuck you” to the Pete Seegers and the growing “counter culture” of his day, and the forlorn poet, whose pained verses reflected his struggles to maintain a healthy/long lasting romance, seemed more universal than the “Blowin’ In The Wind” Dylan. Wars pass, and so do trends, but the Dylan loved by my generation tapped into the same themes as did Shakespeare, Yeats, Thomas, and Rimbaud.
This being the case, I was a little disappointed that Dylan didn’t unleash the beast at The White House when receiving the medal, voicing his disgust towards such trite ceremonies and the current political climate. To me, his lifeless stare as the President rambled on spoke volumes – he didn’t act like someone who was completely grateful for the award. But who knows how he really feels, and does it matter?
What matters is his music, and that’s something all generations can appreciate. Wait, that sounds too corny. Dylan would hate it. Ultimately the great thing about Bob Dylan is that you can’t sum him up.
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To read more posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.