Photo by Don Hunstein/Columbia RecordsBob Dylan: Cosmic Smurf or electric magpie? The voice of a generation or the lone practitioner of his own private language? What the fuck is Bob saying? Have you seen him in recent years? He's singing in goat-speak or something. It's like he's the only guy in the world who has a right to be contemptuous of his songs. Some artists, like Don Everly, reinterpret their classic melodies every time they sing them, only rarely improving on them but at least keeping things fresh. Dylan strangles his nightly and throws them in an unmarked grave. "Glarb scoomith mumble skree, eg kugel snomash to me," he sings in "Masters of War," driving home its message for a troubled new generation.
Sometime in the past decade, Dylan decided he was a lead guitarist and started peppering every song with whimsical solos that were as expressive as they were simple. Then, a couple of nights before he arrived at the Pacific Amphitheatre last year, Dylan decided he was a pianist, which he was in a mallet-handed sort of way at the Pacific show, though the main impact was that half the audience only saw his back all night. What a treat for fans who had only seen his front for decades!
Jeez, where's the immediacy, the drama, the sense of presence that once infused his music? Been there, done that a thousand times over, I guess, in a career that spans the first and, one hopes, second JFK in the White House. By now, perhaps Dylan has ascended to a higher level of being, where our old values don't apply. It's a miracle he's still out there, fit and touring ceaselessly, and we don't get to pick the content of the miracle. There's an old documentary about a holy man in India who miraculously could wiggle his hand in an upturned jug and produce an endless amount of dust. India wasn't exactly lacking in dust. Why didn't he bring forth chicken masala or Otter Pops or something they might need? It's an enigma, and Bob is nothing if not enigmatic.
I know a guy who knows Brian Wilson, and one day around 1990, Wilson called him up to enthuse, "Hey, Andy! Guess who I met today?"
"I don't know, Brian. Who?"
"Folk music's Bob Dylan!"
Can there be two geniuses more different: one, Wilson, who struggled to define himself in the context of the world around him, and the other who consciously created himself in spite of his surroundings? In a nation that's only something like 2 percent Jewish, Dylan grew up a Jewish merchant's son in Hibbing, Minnesota, where Jews were maybe something like .002 percent of the population. There were probably more Jews in Texas, where, Lenny Bruce observed, Jack Ruby probably shot putative JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald so all the Goyim would go, "Wow, what balls he has!"
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Lacking an assassin and bullets but evidently not balls, young Robert Zimmerman instead took to the stage, first casting himself as a Bobby Vee-style rocker using the stage name Elston Gunn at a school performance. Then he took to the road and assumed Woody Guthrie's dustbowl twang. By the time he arrived in New York, he was the self-created Bob Dylan, with a bio that posited himself as a hard-traveled orphan.
Go figure: as Bob Dylan, an artificial construct, he created some of the most original and authentic music of our times. How would the '60s have shaped up without anthems such as "Blowin' in the Wind" or "The Times They Are A'Changin'" or such conscience-stirring album tracks as "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"? How different would the Beatles have been if Dylan hadn't turned them on to weed and lyrical content?
And that was the least of it. The guy reinvented rock & roll. Before him, it was largely a music of known quantities—boy-girl, gonna rock tonight, yeah—very Newtonian in its certainties. Dylan was the music's Einstein, cracking it open to the subatomic level. And just when everyone was getting resigned to the surreal unknowables of "Desolation Row," Dylan ducked into the certitude of country music. When everyone jumped into that hat with him, he in effect said, "Okay, jump into this pile of shit now" with his Self Portrait album. From 1970 on, Dylan has made only one great album—1983's Infidels—and probably just to further befuddle those who had written him off. There are other moments of bitchen Bobness (several of them on Shot of Love, one of his three "Christian" albums), but almost everything else he's done, including the critical darlings Blood on the Tracks and the Grammy-dappled Time Out of Mind, seem like conscious efforts to fuck with the legend we've built up around him. His public has cloaked him in mystique, and he's spun it into glossy bloat on record. All that's left onstage is a rocking band with a guy singing palpable nothings in front of it. I, for one, find it entertaining as hell. As they used to say on American Bandstand, "It's got a good beat. I can dance to it." Elston Gunn, come on down!
BOB DYLAN WITH SPECIAL GUEST AT THE BREN EVENTS CENTER, UC IRVINE, MESA & W. PELTASON DRS., IRVINE, (949) 824-5000. WED., 8 P.M. $29.50-$40.50. ALL AGES.