A man for all seasons

Bob Dylan, the voice of an era, still sings to the everyman

Once, on a sunny morning during a big peace march in Berkeley way back around 1966, a hippie apartment dweller put stereo speakers in the window of his second-story room and blasted Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” down on the heads of those of us who were marching along Telegraph Avenue. Each new group of us trooping by set up a cheer as the familiar notes of that song struck our ears. Though Bob Dylan claimed to be disavowing politics by that time, he was singing our anthem, nonetheless, and his voice and those lyrics heartened all who heard them.

Bob Dylan is looking old and weird these days, but ya gotta love him, especially if you’re one of us who’ve made this long strange trip with him. There’s probably no more important cultural figure of our generation in any genre, no one who has produced more work that pressed an identity into our span of years on this planet.

He may be our only authentic genius, embodying and incorporating the history of America in his voice and in his lyrics—a musicologist, an ethnographer and a self-described song-and-dance man, singing the changes in a rough-hewn voice that takes soundings of everything from Tin Pan Alley to the dust bowl to the Mississippi Delta. Bob Dylan channels all that stuff, and a whole lot more. From the days when his face was plump with baby fat right down to now, when he looks like an undertaker you wouldn’t want to entrust your deceased relatives to at some backstreet funeral home, Bob Dylan has sung the soundtrack to the times that were, always and irresistibly, a changin'.

A few years ago, I overheard my daughter answer a friend’s query as to what she was doing. “Just chillin’ like Bob Dylan,” she said, which was a little catchphrase for a while there, in the way catchphrases come and go.

“What’s up with that?’ I asked, with another of those catchphrases, “Bob Dylan doesn’t seem like any kind of paradigm of chillin'. Look how many songs he’s written, and he’s always on tour.”

“I think it’s just for the rhyme, Dad,” she said with a sigh. Children are always having to explain everything to their terminally out-of-it parents. I’m fairly sure that Bob’s kid, Jakob, has explained plenty to his old man.

For most of us edging into our 60s, Bob Dylan is in all our back pages now, with memories of our lives clinging to almost every one of his albums, even the ones we counted as not so good. Truth to tell, though, a bad Bob Dylan album still had more in it than most of the good ones by lesser lights. Really. Try listening to one of those old Doors albums that followed the first one. Or any of the bird droppings that marked our path along the way, from Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” ("doo-doo-doo-doot") to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (just try listening to that straight all these years further along).

Most everyone over 50 knows Bob Dylan’s real name was Robert Zimmerman, a little Jewish kid from as unlikely a place as Hibbing, Minn.; a nerdy little dweeb who surely spent a lot of time alone in his room soaking up music not all that many others were listening to back then, though he also took in the trendy music being played by his peer group, from the Everly Brothers to Elvis, to Chuck Berry. In fact, the first track on his recent release, Modern Times, has Chuck Berry all over it, and through it, and under it, too.

When Bob Zimmerman transformed himself into Bob Dylan, the “Dylan” was said to have come from Dylan Thomas, a self-destructive, alcoholic Welsh poet (a virtual redundancy, there, I suppose). And now, because Robert Zimmerman took that name, there are millions of Dylans in the world making their way through grade school, high school, college and life itself, so named because many of them were conceived with Bob Dylan singing on the car radio in the front seat, down some lane in the moonlight. Or because their folks met while one of his songs played in the background. Or just because one or both parents admired the man. Dylan is a common male first name now, ranking 546 out of 1219 names for males of all ages in the 1990 U.S. Census. It has only grown more popular since then. The name Dylan ranked 22nd in popularity for males of all ages in a sample of 2000-03 Social Security Administration statistics.

Hard to remember it now, but before Bob Dylan came along, not many singers were writing their own material. The most popular singers were singing songs written by others, but it was Dylan who ushered in the era of the singer-songwriter, though there was, initially, a lot of resistance to his voice, and lots of people who claimed he couldn’t sing a lick. Before Dylan, there were guys known as crooners, with smooth and mellifluous voices that glided over lyrics like soap suds on dish water. Dylan’s voice, by contrast, was like rough shale, and it’s only gotten rougher in the years since he first showed up in Greenwich Village pretending to be all kinds of things he had not yet become.

And the interesting thing is that although he has been shielded by wealth and fame nearly all of his adult life, he still sounds like the working man’s heart of the country, though most working men prefer the more pre-fab products pumped out by formula C&W stations, or the imitative rock ‘n’ roll that offers little that hasn’t been heard before, endlessly.

The number of artists who have covered Bob Dylan songs is huge, and it runs from the sublime (the traditional Irish group Solas singing “Dignity") to the ridiculous (William Shatner, shatting all over “Mr. Tambourine Man"). Pick your favorite Dylan song and it’s sure to have been covered by lots of other people. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” to pick a song at random, has been covered by groups as diverse as The Grateful Dead, Roger Waters, Warren Zevon, Wyclef Jean, the Leningrad Cowboys, Avril Lavigne and Guns N’ Roses. “All Along the Watchtower” has been covered by the Dave Matthews Band, Jimi Hendrix, U2, Taj Mahal, Neil Young, XTC, Indigo Girls, Dave Mason, John Mellencamp, Larry McCray and Paul Weller, among others.

And aside from those famous singers, you can hear “Lay Lady Lay” or “I Shall Be Released” at 10,000 Friday-night honky tonks from Oneonta to Oroville, pumped out by bar bands singing to half-drunk sawdust shufflers hoping to get lucky to the strains of imitation Bob Dylan sung by a guy with a day job selling computer software.

Dylan played a concert at the Sacramento Community Center shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and there were surely many in that audience who were hoping he might say something between songs that would offer us all solace, as he’d done for those of us who marched against the war in Vietnam. But he didn’t. As always, whatever Bob Dylan had to say was in the music. And on his latest album, he sings “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”

In his own strange and quirky way, he always has been.