Favorite Musicians: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in Barcelona

Photo by stoned59 used under Creative Commons

I’ll be honest. What I know about the former Robert Zimmerman of Minnesota could fit into a thimble. What I do know of Dylan is his best-known album, Highway 61 Revisited. It’s that album that inspired the first scene of the first draft of Holland Bay, in which a doomed man sits in his car on a frozen lakefront dock listening to the album and reminiscing about a girl he slept with in college while being introduced to Dylan for the first time. As it turns out, his murderer, whom one would think would be into hip-hop, particularly gangsta rap, is also a fan of Bob Dylan.

I thought this made a nice counterpoint. At the end of the original draft, the killer is still walking free and climbing his way to respectability. As he chats with a cop who has no idea he’s the one she wants to send to prison, he enjoys a band in a city park playing “Tombstone Blues.” If you know the song, you can’t help but think of the first verse:

The ghost of Belle Star she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce.

I don’t know if that scene will survive the rewrite, but the character was originally (and still is) trying very hard to sit on the Chamber of Commerce.

I used to make fun of Dylan when I was younger. His politics were farther to the left than mine ever were, and that singing style… I used to think that he couldn’t sing and was more of a poet. Oh, no, kids. If you listen to the Traveling Willburys, Dylan is leading doo-wop harmonies on some tracks, something you’d think Jeff Lynne or George Harrison would be better suited for. It turns out, as I learned when my musical knowledge grew more sophisticated, that this is a stylistic choice. Keith Richards does it. So does Tom Petty. So does Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Richards, in his autobiography, called it “anti-singing.” Like rap, it’s easy to make fun of, but try actually doing it. Yeah, you probably suck at it. That’s why other people get paid a lot to do it. Because you can’t. And if Dylan, et. al., didn’t do it, a lot of rock and roll would sound horrible.

But Dylan was very much the poet of his generation. His chops were earned during the beat era, when guys like Kerouac and Ginsberg could turn prose or poetry into sheer music when spoken aloud, but his philosophy leaped from the Great Depression and the ground-down likes of those you see in the Grapes of Wrath to the post-modern sixties where anything and everything needed to be questioned. And it’s here that Dylan earns his rep. For me, that will always be crystallized in Highway 61 Revisited, and if that were all he ever did, his place in the Rock Hall would be cemented. He is to folk rock what Johnny Cash was to country music and early rock and roll.