A guy just paid a visit whose name happens to be on the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential figures of the 20th century. There it is—alongside Einstein, Ghandi, King, Churchill, Picasso, and John Paul II. Anyone out there currently raising their eyebrows I beg you, read no further.
Then again, I can’t say I blame you. It is not easy to see beyond such pathetic clichés as “Voice of a Generation,” “Rock Poet,” or “Living legend. But Bob Dylan is more than these things just as he is more than the nineteen year-old ragamuffin who scribbled early versions of Blowing in the Wind on a coffee house napkin.
Dylan is and always has been the heir to an American tradition represented by the likes Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. Principle one: Life is art and the road is its metaphor. Principle two: the working man is a religious symbol representing our struggle for love in a world both absurd and insane. Dylan is our generation’s incarnation of the great North American saga. Quixote meets the far west. The moral? It is not only possible to “Knock on Heaven’s Door;” it is our obligation.
DYLAN’S LIFE, even more than his marvelous songs, reminds us we, too, can live a mythic life. But he has also gone the extra mile: demonstrating that we need to avoid the trap of believing our myth is the other person’s savior.
Neither Shakespeare, nor Cervantes, nor Twain, nor Whitman lived in the schadenfreude age. They had no internet bloggers to deal with, no unauthorized biographies, no celebrity journalism, and no 24/7 news coverage feeding them steady doses of Brittany Spears slash Paris Hilton slash O.J. Simpson.
If these are the Modern Times we live in, then Dylan’s music is the immunization.
And suddenly there He was, standing before me and nine thousand others in the Santiago Arena.
Dylan is a taciturn presence on stage. He rarely looks ahead. In two hours he may not say as much as hello or goodnight. He is simply no longer interested in being anybody’s guru.
Not so many years ago, Dylan seemed viscerally uncomfortable with the idea that his songs “meant something to people.” When his audience would slip into a trance, he would retreat inside of himself, becoming more distant and elusive. At 66, he seems increasingly at peace with his place in the universe. When the audience gets that blissful look on their face, he lets out a devilish smile and dances a two-step.
He played various classics Tuesday night, but, true to form, each had been completely rewritten. Blowing in the Wind was now a funk blues ballad, sweet and delicious. Masters of War took on an air of reggae and grunge. Just Like a Woman was long, tender, and playful. Like A Rolling Stone bounced with the ecstatic electricity of a New Orleans style rag.
But my favorite moment, by far, was the striking interpretation of Workingman’s Blues #2, a ballad off the new album universally acclaimed as an instant classic.
I have seen Dylan seven times. But this was one of those rare moments when I was completely in the present, sucking in the master craftsman “at work” before my eyes. I was pinching myself. I thought: “In hundreds of years people will talk about this man in the same light as Twain or Whitman. And I, little Todd Temkin, am watching him work.”
Dylan, of course, would have nothing of it. He rolled off the last lyrics of the song,
Now I'm down on my luck and I'm black and blue Gonna give you another chance I'm all alone and I'm expecting you To lead me off into a cheerful dance I got a brand new suit and a brand new wife I can live on rice and beans Some people never worked a day in their life Don't know what work even means
The hall was as still as 9,000 can be. This wasn’t another pathetic old rock star mindlessly belting off a song he had sung a zillion times. It was a real artist, at the height of his powers. We were in awe of what was playing out before us. Then, grinning from ear to ear, he raised his head from the keyboard and winked. Maybe he does know how great he is, after all? Maybe he doesn’t care? Maybe.