Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I'm A-Ramblin', I'm A-Writin'

Today Bob Dylan turns 70. Ten years ago, when he turned a mere 60, I remember going into school and informing my teachers, baby boomers all, of it to see how they would react. The words of my German teacher summed up how they all felt. "Ich bin alt," she said.

Bob Dylan turning 70 doesn't really make me feel old. Ok, maybe when I think about how it seems like only yesterday that it was such a big thing that he would be turning 60 I do because that would also mean that it's been 10 years since I've been in high school. But, being a second generation fan, I don't necessarily measure my life by his. He isn't the spokesman of my generation, so to speak. But he certainly has had just as much an influence on my life.

Of course, I haven't always been a Dylan fan. For the first sixteen or so years of my life, he was that guy my mom listened to who sang--if that's what you could call it--that song about getting high (which I later figured out, isn't at all about that--well, not entirely, anyway). But then one day it clicked. I suddenly understood what my mom, and countless others like her, saw in his music.

The lyrics, yes, of course. Bob Dylan is, beyond a doubt, the greatest living songwriter. It is mainly due to Dylan that we can make the claim that popular songs are poetry and teach it in classrooms alongside Frost, Eliot, and the like. And the ability to write a good song is what has made Dylan so popular among other artists.

But songs are not just lyrics. As I once argued in a paper about I'm Not There, lyrics are just words. We understand songs intellectually through them, but our emotional understanding of them comes through the music. The instrumentation, whether the strum of an acoustic guitar or the howl of an electric one, shades in a background that gives us a context by which to interpret the song. And the way the songs are sung allows us not just to know what the words mean, it allows us to feel them. It gives them color. And no one has a more colorful voice than Bob Dylan.

I have no doubt that I would be a completely different person had I never discovered Bob Dylan's music. I probably wouldn't have gone through my horrible 12th grade poetry phase, but on the other hand, I might be content to have a job writing ad copy or something like that. I might never have been interested in probing beneath the surface of a popular text such as a song or a film. And I definitely would be a much different kind of writer than I am today. Dylan's songs may be taught alongside the great poets, but they never try to rival them as works of literature. They are what they are: great songs that draw their influences from a lot of different kinds of sources. And above all, they never compromise. Thanks to Dylan, I'm happy to write well, write cleverly, and write what I want to write.

There's so much more I'd never have done without Dylan. General cultural influence aside, I'd never have thought of listening to Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, or any folk or country singers, really. (Ok, I still don't like country very much.) And there are even rock stars, Neil Young, David Bowie, The Grateful Dead, for example, whom I was never much interested in before I found out how much they were influenced by Dylan (or, at least, tended to play his songs a lot). There are writers, too, I might never have read--Richard Farina, Rimbaud, and, well, all of the Beats, but Ginsburg and Kerouac in particular--and even filmmakers--Pennebaker, Peckinpaw, Scorsese, Haynes--whose works I might not have been very interested in.

On his 70th birthday, there's so much I'd like to thank Bob Dylan for. But, mainly, and most importantly, thanks, Bob, for nearly fifty years of great music. Happy birthday, and

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

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