Assuming anything with Bob Dylan is a big mistake.
---Winston Watson, drummer
Bob Dylan stays with me. His album Tempest stirred up a renewed interest in Dylan and renewed interest in poetry. Over the last several weeks I've been picking up books of Chinese poetry, TS Eliot, wanting to read the Four Quartets again, Wendy Salinger, Lu Yu, Han Shan, Tao te Ching. Recently bought a copy of Louise Gluck's collected poems, which I love as much as Dylan songs. It would sound cool to say I love her poems more than Dylan songs, but it's not so. The same. I found a video made of home-movie footage, interviews, concert footage, featuring Dylan's drummer in the early 90s, Winston Watson. It's called, Bob Dylan: Never Ending Tour Diaries. The content is Watson talking about experiences in relation to Dylan and playing drums with the band. I liked Watson's spirit. He seemed to have a spirit similar to Bobby McFerrin, a round-faced, self-sustaining attitude toward life. I liked best seeing and hearing about being a musician with Bob Dylan, what it's like on the inside. It appears to be the same on the inside as the outside. Dylan doesn't talk much with the people in the band. He doesn't give them instruction on how they're to play, unless they're way off. Watson said he is especially demanding on the guitar players, because Dylan plays guitar too.
I saw Dylan in Atlanta in the summer of 1974 or 1975 at the Omni. It was his first tour. Two shows there, both sold out. From where I sat he looked like an ant standing on its back legs. The Band was with him. I took off the shelf my Dylan album LIVE 1975. It's with the Rolling Thunder Revue. I'm not a Dylanologist, so I don't know about the sudden change, same year. It must have been 74 I saw him. He didn't have white paint on his face. I didn't know Rolling Thunder Revue was the next thing. I can see it, however, looking back on Dylan behavior. The concert tour I saw was evidently the end of a certain way of seeing/hearing his music, time to change it, wrapping up a cycle. Winston Watson told of a time Dylan's song Like A Rolling Stone was on the set list. Watson was looking forward to playing it, because he loved it. When Dylan played it, he made it entirely different from the way Watson knew it. At the concert I saw, he sang his standards in a new way, inhibiting sing-alongs. A sing-along Bob Dylan concert would be offal. It would be too much like I imagine singing in a multi-thousand seat mega-church must be. I personally prefer church singing with less than fifty. And at music shows, I prefer an audience of less than fifty. I'd far rather hear Skeeter and the Skidmarks with an audience of twenty than Dylan with an audience of twenty thousand. So that's what I do.
An artist as satisfying as Bob Dylan makes me want to know about his life, and at the same time, not know about it. I'm not interested in connecting a particular album with a divorce or a motorcycle wreck, or anything like that. They may be pertinent to an academic examination of the songs, but has no bearing for me. I prefer to like a work of art for itself, not necessarily its context, unless the context is a part of it. If a work of art inspired by a given moment or event in somebody's life cannot be understood without the explanation of biography or critical pontification, it's not art. I like it when I read, say, a poem by Louise Gluck, AVERNO, and then read a brief note telling context, it being an Italian island with a volcano known to be the place where souls enter and leave the earth. That set off a ping in my head that was enlightening. Sometimes translators of Chinese poets will preface a poem with a short note of place, time and circumstance. I can read Gluck's poem with the same thrill I get hearing Dylan sing Mr Tambourine Man. A lot of people liked to think that a drug song, because it has the word trip in it. That was in the first years of white people discovering marijuana, etc., and attributing all forms of creativity to drugs. It was a cool time for fashion, also another quantum leap in American anti-intellectualism. The equal of the Reagan Revolution in that regard.
The Sixties in retrospect as seen on tv was all about peace and wow and free-style dancing, following the Dead, tie-dye tshirts, long hair, thrift store clothes, Janis, Jimi, Led Zeppelin. It was a renascence in rock. At first, the cool people rocked. The cool ones being the drop-outs, the ones that hung out all the time throwing frisbees, scoring, speaking a new dictionary of slang to be learned, like groovy and wow. The verb to score acquired multiple meanings in that time. Hippies were prejudiced too. People without long hair didn't even figure. If you were a hippie and cut your hair you were no longer a hippie. Reading was confined to Hesse, Tolkein, Brautigan, Vonnegut. Richard Brautigan was a hip Rod McKuen as a poet. Rod McKuen on recreational drugs. Jim Morrison of the Doors published a book of poems that became holy script. In my personal estimation it more aptly rhymed with script. It was a time when knowledge lost its vigor and its appeal. Yet in rock, some of the lyrics coming on were good poetry. Dylan's songs, Mick Jagger's, Lou Reed's, Lennon and McCartney's were good poetry. In music there was Santana, the band that suddenly became known in the film of Woodstock. Their Soul Sacrifice was unforgettable. Joplin singing Big Mama Thornton. And all the time Bob Dylan is out there by himself, the one who changed rock & roll to rock, and wrote songs nobody else could come near. Heir to Woody Guthrie. He was like what Chilean poets of the time said of Pablo Neruda, always out there ahead of the other poets.
I sometimes wonder how college might have retarded Bob Dylan. I'm so glad he focused his mind to writing songs and performing them instead of joining the corporate climb. Had he majored in accounting, he'd be a good CEO by now. And probably making less than he is making as somebody with thirty-some best-selling albums behind him, all of them still paying royalties. When it comes to wealth, he has it. The wealth does not own him, except he's the CEO of his own wealth. In my adult lifetime I have seen the career of a young bad-boy American Rimbaud folksinger under Pete Seeger's umbrella, who left the folk scene at the end of that cycle, start up a new sound called Rock and transferred his stardom from Greenwich Village to the entire earth. Not many people go to the top of their career possibilities early and stay there all the way along. Harold Pinter did. Bertolt Brecht did. Can't overlook Frank Sinatra. Like Winston Watson said, everybody in the world wants to see Bob Dylan. I've thought of Dylan as America's Pablo Neruda in that light, that he stayed out ahead of his peers. Watson described being in a room with several people, Dylan among them. He said everybody is sucking up to Dylan. Bob Dylan seems to me an Elvis who went his own way and the world went with him.