A few years ago, he was picked up by the police in Long Branch, New Jersey, for the crime of walking in the rain, dressed in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt, and peering into the window of a home for sale in a dodgy neighborhood. The news was greeted with a lot of predictable headlines—NO DIRECTION HOME, A COMPLETE UNKNOWN, etc. But here’s the obvious question, asked by a friend of his: “Do you really think that’s the first time that he’s done that? He does a lot of walking no one would expect. He’ll walk through neighborhoods undetected and talk to people on their front porches. It’s the only freedom Bob Dylan has—the freedom to move around mysteriously.”
People say that a lot about Dylan: His privacy is all he has. It’s an odd thing to say. It assumes he’s powerless and needs to be protected. But Bob Dylan has never been powerless. Even when his songs stood up for the powerless, he was always pioneering new ways to use the power of his fame, of which the two-way mirror of his privacy is the ultimate expression. Yes, it’s cool when Ron Delsener says, “I’ve seen Dylan walk down Seventh Avenue in a cowboy hat and nobody recognize him. I’ve seen him eat at a diner and nobody come over to him”—it makes you think that Dylan is out among us, invisible now, with no secrets to conceal, and that at any time we might turn around and see him. But we never do; nobody ever does, even where he lives. What a woman who works the tunnel between the buses and the backstage area at an arena outside of Atlanta remembers about Dylan is not that she saw him; what she remembers is “I was not allowed to look at him.”
He was, of course, on his way to the stage when he passed her averted eyes—on his way to be looked at and listened to. It sounds like a paradox typical of Bob Dylan, worthy of Bob Dylan, but it’s really pretty straightforward as an exercise of star power. The crossed relationship between Bob Dylan and his audience is the most enduring one in all of rock ‘n’ roll, and it keeps going—and will keep going to the last breath—because from the start he laid down a simple and impossible rule:
We don’t go to see Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan goes to see us.
[Picture Via: Like a Rolling Stone]
Via the always nourishing Kottke, check out Studs Terkel’s 1963 interview with Dylan.
Someday, no doubt, when the keepers of the tower officially allow that Bob was one of the two or three greatest American artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Dylanology will be boiled down to a standard three credits, a dry bonepile of jewels and binoculars to squeeze in between the Yeatsology and Whitmanology. You might even be able to major in Dylanology, hand in papers on the interplay between Deuteronomy and Dock Boggs in Bob’s middle period. But for now, even as the Dylan economy grows each day (a mint copy of the rare stereo version of Freewheelin’, which contains four extra songs, goes for $20,000), Dylanology, the semi-sub rosa info jungle of writers, fanzine publishers, collectors, Web page keepers, DAT tapers, song analyzers, old-girlfriend gossips and more, retains a bracing hit of democratic auto-didacticism, a deep-fried aroma of overheated neocortices.
“We are fanatical because we are fanatics,” says the indefatigable Paul Williams, author of more than twenty-five books, whose Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1960-1973, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1974-1986 and the ongoing Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1987-2000 will likely approach an aggregate 1,000 pages before he’s done. Speaking of his Bob “compulsion,” Williams, who is also the former literary executor of Philip K. Dick’s estate, says, “If Shakespeare was in your midst, putting on shows at the Globe Theatre, wouldn’t you feel the need to be there, to write down what happened in them?”
…Rock is full of cults, but nothing — not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis — rivals Dylanology. Back in his dark-sunglasses days, Dylan might have been the coolest, but Dylanology is not about cool. Neither is it a hobby, a fleeting affectation or indolent lord-it-over-you taste-making to get girls, like in High Fidelity. Dylanology is a risk, a gamble, a spiritual declaration, a life choice, and if you don’t believe it, ask those real Weathermen, erstwhile college students who took the drama of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to heart, maybe too much. A year after Rubin Carter addressed the United Nations, several of those forgotten revolutionaries continue to rot in jail, so ask them which way that wind blows. But this is how it is with Dylanology. To be a Bobcat is to acknowledge the presence of the extraordinary in your midst, to open yourself to its workings, to act upon it. In a world of postmod ephemera, this is a solemn bond.
In turns, a real folkie, a real rocker, a real lover, a real father, a real doper, a real shit, a real Christian, a real Jew, a real American from a real small town come to a real big town with real dreams and little false modesty, Dylan, big-tent preacher of millennial concerns both sacred and profane, has never offered less than authenticity to his variegated flock, no matter what peculiar ax they might grind. With Bob, you may feel betrayed, bitterly disappointed, but you never think it’s a hustle. Because he has always been so willing to lay his heart on the line, so are we.
This Sunday gives a reason to troop out to Williamsburg as Classic Album Sundays makes it’s US debut.
[Featured Image via Lucid and Mysterious]
And thanks to Matt B for the link.