Source: The Saturday Evening Post
Title: Bob Dylan: Rebel king of rock 'n' roll.
Date: 30 July 1996
Summary: Lennon, 1966 tour, The Accident, The Basement Tape sessions, John Wesley Harding, Michael McClure.
Bob Dylan hadn't been seen on the streets of Greenwich Village for more than a year when he happened to walk past an old friend who had become one of his most bitter critics. It was on the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue, one crisp and sunny day in the autumn of 1967, some 13 months after Dylan had been hurt in a motorcycle accident, and the week before the first of his trips to Nashville to record "John Wesley Harding". Dylan was wearing a high-crowned cowboy hat and a wispy beard, and he had been traveling unnoticed until they passed on the street.
"He didn't even recognise you!" one of Dylan's companions gasped.
"He never recognised me before," Dylan answered. "Why should he recognise me now?"
At 27, Dylan has become an American legend, but if people still don't recognize him for who he is, they also refuse to recognize him for what he isn't. Bob Dylan has never sat still long enough to be institutionalized by any image. American may pardon him his crusade against the money-changers, but the country will never understand the fact that he still doesn't have a press agent. Even in his months of seclusion after the motorcycle accident, WABC-TV dedicated a television show to a discussion of what Bob Dylan was really like. When one member of the panel accused Dylan of all but inventing juvenile delinquency, there was only Murray the K to defend him. "Is Bob Dylan every kid's father?" Murray asked.
Dylan came to New York when he was 19, a kid from Hibbing, Minn., who was hung up on Woody Guthrie. He looked so young that Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde's Folk City, at first wouldn't let him work in the club. In the beginning he was one of thousands of kids who had picked up a folk guitar because it was the only weapon left to them in that revolution for a better day that the young, no matter what their age, are always fighting. He started out saying the same things that everyone else in his generation was saying, but within a very short time it became apparent that nobody else could say them as well.
His first stop in New York was to learn about the grifters, the con merchants, the junkies and the bums who live off 42nd Street. It was only natural that he should gravitate to Greenwich Village, where, even in a community of the different, he was always looked upon as someone special. Those were the days when he wore a chamois jacket. Even when he was earning several hundred thousand dollars a year, he still flew to Europe with all his possessions in an eight-pound zippered bag.
That air of specialness, of individuality, carries over into his performing - no one has ever accused Bob Dylan of serving his audiences whipped cream. When he went electric, they booed him at Newport, and at Forest Hills they called him a false apostle. But within four years he had almost singlehandedly changed the shape of popular American music. He had started a civil war in the folk community, rearranged the pop charts, fathered a new generation of poets and helped shape the probability that contemporary music will become the literature of our time. Even the Beatles, after they met Dylan for the first time in 1964, yielded to his influence. "I am in awe of Bob Dylan," John Lennon once said. They've known each other four years now, but "We've never really met," Lennon adds.
With lines like "The sun's not yellow, it's chicken," Dylan has been able to turn street language into contemporary song, "Blowin' in the Wind" became a civil-rights anthem, but Dylan has moved too fast to be categorized, especially as a protest singer. "Protest songs," he said, "were finger-pointing songs." He called his songs "poems," and his poems, songs. The last time an interviewer asked him to categorize himself, he said he was a trapeze artist.
When he was thrown from his motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, N.Y., the nation's pop-music radio stations interrupted their programs to broadcast the news as a bulletin. The reports were brief and incomplete. In London a group of hippie fans printed a memorial poster, leaving blank space to give the time and place of the funeral services. At Fordham a Jesuit priest prepared a lecture entitled "The Ontology of Bob Dylan". Rumors began to pile up like wreaths on a grave. They said he was dead. They said he was disfigured. They said he had lost his voice, his hair, his mind. When a reporter finally succeeded in knocking on his door to ask for an interview, Dylan laughed. "Mainly, what I've been doin' is workin' on gettin' better and makin' better music, which is what my life is all about," he said. "Songs are in my head like they always are."
Dylan's accident occurred just after he had returned from an around-theworld trip. "We played some jobs with Bob where the music was sailing - and he was sailing," says guitarist Jamie Robbie Robertson, one member of the group that accompanied Dylan on the tour. "It turned out to be not just songs. It turned out to be a whole dynamic experience. We did it until we couldn't do it anymore. We went all over the place until finally it was about ready to burst. We were so exhausted that everybody said this was a time of rest. We stopped listening to music for a year. We didn't listen to anything but what you didn't have to listen to, like opera."
Dylan was still convalescing from neck injuries when he summoned Robertson and the rest of the band to Woodstock to help finish a TV movie. After a while the band rented a house, which they nicknamed "Big Pink," located on a mountain top in the nearby west Saugerties. With Dylan they set up a home recording studio in the cellar and began holding private country-dance sessions. "Music From Big Pink", hailed as one of the most significant albums of the year, is the band's contribution to country rock and a claim to it's own identity. As for himself, Dylan gave the songs he wrote at Big Pink to other artists to record. His contribution was to be "John Wesley Harding", recorded in Nashville with bass drums and a steel guitar and Dylan back on acoustical guitar. "There's the music from our house," says Robertson, "and then there's the music from Bob's house. 'John Wesley Harding' is from his house. The two houses sure are different."
"John Wesley Harding" was the first of Dylan's albums to win a gold record right after its release. He has five now, each one a signpost. "John Wesley Harding" pulled out the psychedelic plug and pointed the way toward country music, but it doesn't speak only to today. Poet Michael McClure has called it Dylan's most visionary album. Its songs are the kind that can be sung and played beyond the reach of an electric cord.
From the cowboy lullaby "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" to the mysterious "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", a parable of friendship and temptation, the new Dylan speaks gently. The moral of one of his songs, he recites, is that no man should be where he does not belong, that each man should help his neighbor, that no one should envy his neighbor's lot. The new Dylan tells stories that anyone can understand, in any language, in any era. His cast of characters will be valid at anytime, in any place. There is the poor immigrant who hates his life, but fears his death. There is the wicked messenger who is told to bring good news or none. And there is the lonesome hobo who warns each man to forget petty jealousies, to live by a personal code, to judge only himself and not others, "lest you wind up on the road."