The early morning drive to my temporary day job at U.S. Steel involved a scheduled pick-up of a college buddy who was fascinated with folk music. 1965, jazz played mostly solo in my mind along with a bit of soul and blues/rock. One morning my passenger slid front seat my vintage Plymouth Savoy bursting with excitement, then starts reciting - “Come you masters of war, you that build all the guns, you that build the death planes, you that build all the bombs, you that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks, I just want you to know’I can see through your masks.”
Damn! I’d never heard words crunched together like that. “Listen to this” he says, “that ain’t all. You that never done nothin', but build to destroy, you play with my world, like it's your little toy, you put a gun in my hand, and you hide from my eyes, and you turn and run farther, when the fast bullets fly.” Holy, holy – what did I just hear?
It was easy to comprehend why Bob Dylan’s words stuck in the head and tapped an emotional chord with young men of an age. We were facing hard time in Vietnam and not sold on killing people we only knew by rumor. A day passes and pick-up time and upon re-entry buddy shoves an LP in my lap. “Take it home and listen, you’ve never heard anything like this.”
Freewheelin’ rests in my hands as each track spoke a language unfamiliar yet invigorating. “Girl from North Country, Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” A great cover will draw you in .Even greater cover art will place you in the picture. There was this sense thousands of young men of my generation would have swapped places with Dylan and slipped into his denim jeans and brown leather jacket, walked the cold streets arm and arm with a young woman to warm the heart and felt they’d won life’s lottery.
The beat poets hung around the fringe of Louisville, Kentucky and respected Dylan. It was a time of transition. Bands saturated with horns and multiple singers pared down to four or five piece ensembles and relied more on guitars to fill the gaps. Then all hell broke loose – The Byrds' “Mr. Tamborine Man.” "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I'm not sleepy and there ain't no place I'm going to .Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, in the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you, though I know that evenings empire has returned into sand, vanished from my hand, left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping, my weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet, I have no one to meet, and the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I'm not sleepy and there ain't no place I'm going to. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, in the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.” Words and sentences as such did not arrive from a Manhattan music factory – they had to come from a place no lyricist had ever occupied.
Claiming the prestigious Nobel prize for literature from this vantage point is a much-deserved recognition of Bob Dylan’s mastery of language. Some argue it should have gone to Leonard Cohen which I get but Dylan is an all together different scribe.
To this day I can drop a needle on those early sides and step back in time. It’s still about the broad human landscape –connecting with a soul-mate, inhaling early morning desert air, sucking up long stretches of dusty backroads, hitchhiking, grabbing sleep when and where you can, - penniless, rolling in optimism and fighting back pessimism, the journey.
It was never about the singing quality of Dylan’s voice; nasal and choking - but the delivery. You could hear the con-man man shout for your attention - preacher man summon the holy spirit, a street corner prophet warn of impending doom -it’s all there in coarse cinematic verse.
A decade ago back Gary Slaight suggested I wind up my jump blues band – the Saturday Nite Fish Fry - and record some of Dylan’s songs. I’m thinking great idea but we are a blues band. Then exploration. After several months digging and digging through Dylan’s vast catalog it became apparent a good portion of Dylan’s output was blues based. Long phrases, many stanzas – few repeats. The true beauty in this exercise was just reciting the words and looking for meaning. “Ten thousand men on a hill, ten thousand men on a hill, some of ’m goin’ down, some of ’m gonna get killed. Ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue, ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue, drummin’ in the morning, in the evening they’ll be coming for you. Ten thousand men on the move, ten thousand men on the move, none of them doing nothin’ that your mama wouldn’t disapprove. Ten thousand men digging for silver and gold, ten thousand men digging for silver and gold, all clean shaven, all coming in from the cold.” Who writes like this?
In a more traditional frame: “Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride. Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride, if I can’t find my baby, I’m gonna run away and hide. I been pacing around the room hoping maybe she’d come back. Pacing ’round the room hoping maybe she’d come back. Well, I been praying for salvation laying ’round in a one-room country shack. Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed. Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed, ’til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered ,and I’ve been freed.” Dirt Road Blues! How beautiful and rewarding it is to spin words so poetically calibrated off the tongue.
To this day I can revisit old footage of Dylan and feel my life clocking in rhythm with the planet - Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home or the 1965 tour of England with Dylan, Donovan and Joan Baez – Don’t Look Back. Thumb through a second and third read of Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles and never feel shortchanged with disposable language. Dylan’s lyrics are literature for soul, mind and body and most of all a masterful oral portrait of contemporary times!