“A poem is a naked person… Some people say that I am a poet”
Now who could have said something as stark or as audacious or as whimsical as that? Perhaps a trapeze artist; perhaps a lone ranger; perhaps the owner of a curio shop. If you’d guessed any of the above three, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. He could make people gasp with his sheer defiance; he walked the lonely road to immortality; his footprints have been archived for posterity as testament to his colossal genius. This quote could literally be used to formally present the poet, the preacher, the philosopher, the troubadour, the protest singer, the rebel, the outlaw, and the unparalleled voice of a generation, who all went by the name of Bob Dylan.
It’s difficult for me to write a piece on Bob Dylan – perhaps the single most important singer/songwriter in the entire history of popular music – without it being suffused with an overcall of praise, hyperboles and clichés. I feel that’s a good thing; after all how many artistes can we think of who have/had the ability to make us blabber and holler till we end up making mountains out of verbose eulogies! It’s also a darn self-reflecting task for me to try and figure out as to when I became an ardent lover of Dylan’s music and what brought this about. My best guess would be sometime around high school and early college years – those glorious years of self-inflicted revolution and crave for something that spoke of my futile attempts at rebelliousness, angst, and that mystical four-lettered word called love. Or perhaps the answer is something as simple as, I’ve always loved music, so it was just a matter of time and maturity that I started loving the songs of Dylan. Born in the year 1941, somewhere in the state of Minnesota, in a country which likes to call itself the United States of America, he wasn’t always Bob Dylan to start with. He was born Robert Zimmerman, but changed his last name during his college days as an homage to an idol of his – the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He was also a huge admirer of the great folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie. And that’s what he decided to become – a common man’s voice, a chronicler of the simple joys and foibles that delineate life, a singer of troubled times. So with a guitar slung around his shoulders, a harmonica stuck to his neck and a large stack of papers and pencils, he took the train to New York City; or more precisely, Greenwich Village – the mecca of folk, rock, poetry and drugs. The rest, as they so aptly say, is history. And magic.
Dylan’s influence on music and popular culture is incalculable. A genius at putting words to paper and a master at showmanship, any talk of folk music or the volatile times of Vietnam War or the polarizing debate over acoustics vis-à-vis electric would be incomplete without a mention of Dylan. He was the single most important factor in inspiring a paradigm shift in the music of Beatles – from peppy love songs that they mostly composed early in their career to songs which were far more deep and complex. He was the source of inspiration to at least two stirring cinematic creations – Martin Scorsese’s terrific documentary No Direction Home , which focussed on Dylan’s revolutionary and wildly controversial shift from, you guessed it, acoustics to electric; and the equally stunning (and I must add, mind-bending) pseudo-biopic I’m Not There , directed by Todd Haynes, that portrayed the various alter-egos that combine to personify the celebrated artiste. It was but befitting his iconic stature and his sublime achievements that he was conferred the life-time achievement award by the Pulitzer.
Every famous musician, despite his great oeuvre, is eventually remembered by a couple of his finest/most popular songs. For Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel it was The Sounds of Silence and Homeward Bound , for Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven and Whole Lotta Love , for the Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever and Hey Jude , and for Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil and Paint it Black . For Dylan the two would undoubtedly have to be Like a Rolling Stone (ranked by the venerated Rolling Stones magazine as the greatest song of all time) and Blowin’ in the Wind (perhaps the finest protest song ever written). Its another matter though that he wrote at least twenty other songs that were nearly equally good, comprising the likes of Mr. Tambourine Man, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Tangled Up In Blue, Ballad of A Thin Man, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (it has been covered by bloody everybody who’s anybody, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Guns n Roses, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), All Along the Watchtower, Don’t Think Twice its All Right et al. His songs have covered a plethora of genres – folk, rock, blues, country; an array of human emotions; a whole arc of tones, ranging from love ballads to political satires; and all this with a nasal twang that is so unique and unconventional as to be instantly recognizable. He is a deeply polarizing personality and a born showman. His short-lived love affair with Joan Baez, a powerful folk singer and protest songwriter in her own right, is legendary; unfortunately for them he became a superstar while she chose to continue being an outsider. His motorcycle accident and subsequent rehabilitation days were so shrouded in mystery that they got transformed into myths and urban legends. His becoming a born again Christian is a favourite with his detractors. But one must understand that without his irreverence, his unabashed braggadocio, his iconoclasm, his free-wheelin’ anti-establishmentarian spirit and his fascinating gift of the gab, the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman couldn’t have ever become a Bobby Dylan, and music would have been the biggest loser for it.
Oscar Wilde once famously stated, “I’ve nothing to declare but my genius”. Only three 20th century legends come to my mind who, too, could have said something as bold with equal nonchalance – Messrs. Picasso, Chaplin and Dylan. Like him or hate him (it’s another matter though that the former group heavily outweighs the latter), no one worth his salt and with a modicum of intellect can deny Dylan’s place in the pantheon of 20th century’s greatest figures.
As for me, I’d like to borrow a line from an ABBA number and say with the deepest of gratitude, reverence and admiration to Mr. Bob Dylan, “Thank you for the music”.