“Gentlemen,” he said, “I don’t need your organization. I’ve shined your shoes. I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards, but Eden is burning. Either get ready for elimination, or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.”
What About Bob? was the title of a film that nearly saved my life. It was the summer of 1991 and T and I were living in Schenectady, NY with our young daughter, and T was pregnant with our first son. Our apartment was not air conditioned, and the temperature that day had climbed to ridiculous levels. We looked in the paper (no web in those days!) and found a theater nearby. As it turned out, it was showing What About Bob? but it could have been showing anything. The point was the air conditioning.
We got to the theater, and it was packed, but there were two blessedly cool seats (K sat on our laps, dozing). It was lovely and cool, and the movie wasn’t half bad, and by the time we got out the temperature had dropped to the low 80’s, if I remember right.
But post is not about that movie.
I’m currently reading a book titled The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, about the obsession that many folks seem to have with Bob Dylan. So I wanted to talk about Bob for a moment here.
I didn’t hear Dylan much when I was young. I was into pop–so I heard The Eagles, and America, and Elton John. Then, my second quarter at the University of Minnesota, I got a job working repairing equipment in the language lab. Among other things, I was given a standard cassette to use as a diagnostic. One side had Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon on it; the other side was Bob Dylan’s New Morning.
In a sense, I blame that tape for turning me into an aspiring hippie. Dylan evoked Minnesota (my home state as well as his) on “Went to See the Gypsy,” my (lack of) romantic life on “Sign on the Window,” and my fear of graduation and the future (“Day of the Locust”). A few months later, I picked up a copy of the The Songs of Bob Dylan from 1966-1975. I still have my copy (slip-covered and spiral bound) and used it to learn all sorts of things about playing guitar.
And so when Dylan played the St. Paul Civic Center on Halloween, 1978, I was there, with my friend and fellow Dylan fan, Otto. It was a great performance, Dylan playing his heart out (though his reworked, reggae version of Don’t Think Twice pissed off a few people, as did the fact that the show started very late. OK, so it wasn’t Don’t Think Twice–the set list doesn’t show it as having been played, so that must be a conflation of my memory of that concert with listening to Live at Budokan, which memorialized that tour but which came out the following April). The stage was set at one end of the oval-shaped arena, and it was full, so the folks in the bad seats couldn’t see much, but I remember that Dylan regularly walked through the curtain and played to those folks. Just to those folks.
So I bought and/or taped older Dylan records; I got (and got) Street Legal (in spite of the fact that critics hated it). And, as a Christian at the time, I got Slow Train and Saved. (Did the last stanza of “Changing of the Guards” [starting with “and cruel death surrenders…”]) prefigure his conversion?)
And I hated those last two albums. And so, for a time, I quit listening.
Dylan had, by the mid-70s, eschewed his protest-singer categorization. But his songs were still full of striving and pain and challenge to the status quo (listen to “Changing of the Guard” from Street Legal, or “Were Are You Tonight” [“It felt out of play/my foot in his face/but he should’ve stayed where his money was green”]).
With Slow Train,all of that changed; the challenge was still there, but it was coated in a layer of smug. Dylan was no longer The Outsider. He was a member of a troop of outsiders. And the ironic thing was that that troop wasn’t really even outside; it just thought of itself as outside.
When Saved came out, I seem to recall (I haven’t heard it in years) it was simply smug. The challenge was gone.
I stopped listening to Dylan for years, save for the old stuff. Then came Oh Mercy! and it felt like he was back.
Sometime during the last decade, I saw Dylan do a really awful concert in La Crosse, WI. We were both thirty years old, but the years had (I thought) been kinder to me than to Bob. And then he came out with Tempest. What do I know?
But the change that the evangelical discs wrought has stayed with me, and been a subtext to my relationship with Dylan.
If adopting a religion leads you to throw away that which was best in you–which in Dylan’s case was, I think, the fire and stick-it-to-the-man and obstinacy, even if it was personal rather than “movement” in nature–is adopting that religion a good thing?