Dylan & me

A music critic spent the summer riding his bike around Sacramento, obsessing about the magic in the music of one Robert Zimmerman. He was searching for inspiration. Did he find any?

Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, will air September 26 and 27 at 9 p.m. on KVIE Channel 6 as part of the American Masters series. Check www.kvie.org for more information.

There was a time when the canon of recorded popular music was a knowable thing, and anyone who had decided to write critically about music was expected to be well-versed in the oeuvre of one Robert Zimmerman. It was like Geometry 101 is for aspiring engineers. And even fans of the more serious style of teen music that became known as “rock”—as opposed to the trifling “rock ’n’ roll”—had to have a decent working knowledge of the music of Bob Dylan, as Zimmerman later renamed himself.

While Dylan’s music was ever-present in the 1960s, I spent a good part of that decade pedaling a bicycle around the suburban Stockton neighborhood where I grew up, typically schlepping a fishing pole, bait, tackle and a transistor radio, too immersed in the music of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and Motown to bother with that guy with the atonal singing voice and the wheezy harmonica. Sure, I knew who Dylan was, because his versions of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively Fourth Street” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” got played on the radio, as did artists who covered Dylan songs, like Peter, Paul and Mary (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) or the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”). And I remember the older brothers and sisters of friends spinning Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece Blonde on Blonde. But The Monkees was more my speed at that point.

Dylan’s music was too deep to appeal to me as a kid, and I didn’t get into him until a couple of years later; my first teen stoner pal had a copy of John Wesley Harding, the stripped-down album Dylan released in 1967 after he wrecked his motorcycle and underwent a long period of convalescence. We listened to it a lot—that and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which contained an incendiary cover version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

By high school, I’d discovered the Mothers of Invention, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, among others, and Dylan just wasn’t visceral enough to compete with those guys. And anyway, the people who were seriously into Dylan tended to be way too obsessive; they were an earlier iteration of the indie-rock snob who corners you at a party and knows way more than you do about Icelandic neo-progressive-rock bands and doesn’t mind letting you know that at every opportunity. They were the kind of people who would dissect the minutiae of Dylan’s lyrics and not let you get a word in edgewise and would talk about some guy who got arrested while going through Dylan’s garbage like it was something to aspire to.

Then, punk rock and post-punk and hip-hop came along, and the Ramones made more sense, so I got immersed in that. By the time I got a job at Tower Records’ now-defunct music magazine, Pulse! (where I worked for 16 years before the four years and change I spent as arts editor at SN&R), and began writing about music professionally, I had read plenty of train-spotting reviews of new Dylan records by the usual suspects—Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times and Robert Christgau of the Village Voice—to find out that, yes, Bob Dylan was indeed back, and this time he meant business. And I’d listen to whatever album they were raving about and either laugh at how badly their Kool-Aid-fueled insights were out of sync with what was coming out of the speakers or agree that ol’ Bob had indeed come up with something pretty good that time.

Still, whatever I’d thought of Dylan’s own records during this period, it was impossible to overlook his impact on popular music. Dylan changed everything. The Beatles, for example, began making music that was much richer and more interesting after they discovered Dylan, as did many other artists. Lyrics got more complex and nuanced, for one thing, and became something other than syllables for a singer to mouth. Everybody’s game got elevated.

As for what followed in Dylan’s wake, there were the obvious figures, like Bruce Springsteen, whose grandiose organ- and guitar-driven sound was lifted directly from Dylan’s mid-’60s electric period. In fact, it would be hard to find a singer-songwriter who wasn’t touched by Dylan. The entire country-rock and Americana movements owe their sonic language to Dylan and the guys who backed him up, who later became known as the Band. And you wouldn’t have the Velvet Underground without Dylan, and without the Velvet Underground you wouldn’t have the entire DIY (do it yourself) stream in indie rock. In country music, Dylan’s influence turned up in the songs of Jimmy Webb, Kris Kristofferson and, later, Rodney Crowell; their songs possessed a deeper psychological dimension than the two-fisted drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs that had been Nashville’s métier before Dylan arrived. And even such towering country songwriters as Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were affected by Dylan.

All this I knew.

But there was much I didn’t know. I didn’t have a map in my head of how Bob Dylan progressed from the green, Woody Guthrie imitator on his first, self-titled album in 1962 to the assured poetic giant of Blonde on Blonde in 1966. It was time to plot out the map, to rediscover Dylan, to make some sense of his iconic stature.

I figured what I had to do was ingest a massive amount of Dylan via headphones while riding around on my bike in Sacramento. I’d either grow to hate his music or else finally develop a much deeper grasp of why so many people believe he’s a figure on a par with Elvis and the Beatles. Or even greater—a modern-day prophet, a magus. I figured along the way I’d also come to understand why young artists like Sacramento’s Jackie Greene have fallen under Dylan’s spell. And the funny thing is I had no idea at the time that a Martin Scorsese film, No Direction Home, was about to be released on DVD, with the attendant publicity campaign, and that a pair of new Dylan albums soon would be appearing at Starbucks.

Bob Dylan circa </i>Highway 61 Revisited<i>, 1965: Electric guitar plus amplifier equals a lot of unhappy folk-music purists.

Must have been something in the air.

American River bike trail revisited
Why Dylan’s music began calling out to me this past summer I don’t know; from conversations around town, it seemed to be calling quite a few other people, too.

Perhaps it was the ongoing war in Iraq, and the protest led by Cindy Sheehan near President Bush’s vacation compound in Crawford, Texas, which triggered nostalgia for some good old-fashioned protest songs. Perhaps it was a collective unconscious need for some music to inspire people out of that battered-wife-syndrome torpor caused by five years of George W. Bush and his fluffers in an ascendant right-wing media. Or maybe it was simply a craving for real depth in music, after too many years of watching former Mouseketeers and dancers get foisted into major media figures.

Or perhaps it was time for Dylan, in the grand scheme of things, to re-emerge.

I’d begun commuting to work via bicycle in the spring, from my home near Town & Country Village to an office in Point West, near Arden Fair. In the process, I rediscovered the American River Parkway bike trail, which I could access near Cal Expo to ride into town or use for exercise at lunch. (I’d seen an ad for “Bike Commute Week” on the side of a city bus, and I signed up for that promotion on a Web site and ended up riding 500 miles in May.) Not long after, I started ripping songs onto an MP3 player to enhance those rides.

The beauty of personal digital-music players, the best known of which is Apple’s iPod, is that they allow the listener to form a new, more intimate relationship with music. It’s one thing to listen to music casually, but when you can move about during the day with songs funneled directly into your head, you can really get immersed in what an artist is communicating. It’s a perfect medium for internalizing the music of someone with real depth, like Bob Dylan.

Which is exactly what I did, starting with Bob Dylan. That debut album, released in March 1962, really doesn’t give much foreshadowing of the gravity of what would follow; it had one standout original, “Song to Woody,” and a lot of reworked old folk and blues tracks and hoot-night jeremiads, the most memorable of which was “House of the Rising Sun,” later a hit for the Animals. Dylan was still deeply under the spell of Guthrie. The record is, however, a good indication of what Dylan and his fellow solo performers were playing in the small clubs around lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

This makes the leap from that album to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963, all the more startling. The first time I cued up that album before embarking on a bike ride, the opening track, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” stopped me cold, at a red light next to a Ford dealership on Madison Avenue in Foothill Farms. I was midway through the song, and I had to start it over. Freewheelin’ was rich with Dylan’s growing confidence as a songwriter: Timely, topical songs like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” alternated with bittersweet songs of goodbye like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” whose melody cruised along over an elegant finger-picked guitar pattern straight out of Mississippi John Hurt. It was unavoidable that there was a tremendous musical intelligence at work here, one that had absorbed a cornucopia of American music forms and influences, from country, Anglo-Celtic and hillbilly folk, and rural and urban blues to rock ’n’ roll. But, like images in a kaleidoscope, the sounds were breaking apart and recombining into something altogether new. And even though the music consisted of just Dylan’s reedy voice over his acoustic guitar, with his wheezy campfire harmonica bursts as punctuation, it was far more substantial and riveting than nearly everything that preceded it.

Riding around Sacramento while listening to nothing but Dylan for the entire month of August led to some odd little synchronicities: One day after work, while I was riding north on Heritage Lane toward the entrance to Arden Fair, two massive obsidian-black and chrome SUVs with Nevada plates—a Ford Excursion and a Hummer H2—hung a U-turn and nearly ran me off the road, right when “Masters of War” kicked in.

Another time, I had rounded the northwest corner sidewalk of Capitol Park and had turned south on 10th Street toward the west face of the Capitol building; there was shouting. Upon my arrival, there were several angry men hollering about Jesus into bullhorns, trying to whip a sparse crowd into taking some kind of religious action, just as “With God on Our Side” started playing. And another time, I was wheeling through the 21st Avenue gate of St. Mary’s Cemetery to look for the grave of the onetime Midtown habitué and jazz drummer Bobby Burns, when I noticed the lyrics of the song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Bringing It All Back Home were right on topic: “My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards.”

Then, one late afternoon, I was riding down some backstreets off Watt Avenue in Arden Arcade east of the Del Paso Country Club, checking out the “We Support President Bush and Our Troops” lawn signs, American flags and SUVs with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers to the tune of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Bob Dylan typing one of his back pages, 1964: “A self-ordained professor’s tongue, too serious to fool …”

The moment was weirdly poignant.

From changing times to Desolation Row
Whatever desire for a serious dose of protest music I’d hankered for was satisfied by Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, released in February 1964. He seemed to reach his topical peak here. The title track, along with such songs as “With God on Our Side,” threatened to cement Dylan’s role as a protest singer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and those are excellent songs—anthems even—but it would have been easy for Dylan to fall into a prison of other people’s expectations at that point. But the album also had “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” two lovely songs that seemed to point toward a richer artistic future.

His next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, came out six months later, in August. It’s the last of his purely acoustic albums, and it’s a strange one; Dylan sounds like he was backpedaling hard from the “crown prince of protest” label with this collection of much more oblique tunes. “Chimes of Freedom” might have fit on his previous album, but “My Back Pages” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” represented a much more nuanced direction, like the songwriter was morphing from Upton Sinclair into Marcel Proust.

Dylan’s two albums from 1965 would define not only his future sound, but also the sonic language of an entire stream of rock music. Bringing It All Back Home, released in March, opened with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” an adrenaline burst of Chuck Berry-like machine-gun verbal fire that employed surreal word-images as bullets. Hearing Dylan with a band was revelatory; softer songs, like “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” hinted at grandeur to come, while harder, blues-based ones like “Outlaw Blues” and the raucous “Maggie’s Farm” gave a taste of what would piss off hard-core folkies and garner Dylan a whole new audience. The final four songs, which included “Mr. Tambourine Man,” represented Dylan’s last solo acoustic recordings of the period.

His next album, Highway 61 Revisited, released at the end of August, opened with “Like a Rolling Stone.” Writer Greil Marcus wrote an entire book about that one song, and it has been hailed as the greatest rock song ever. There’s little anyone can add to what’s already been written about it. The rest of Highway 61 contained a stellar collection of songs, some of which pointed toward Dylan’s later Nashville fascination, like “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Other songs reinvented the blues, like “From a Buick 6.” The album also contained two remarkable tracks: “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a caustic, descending blues built on Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul,” and the closing track, a vivid 11-minute novella titled “Desolation Row.”

As rich as the first four all-acoustic records were, it was the latter two Dylan albums that I kept returning to while pedaling around town and on the bike trail; their now-classic rock sound combined well with the late-summer wheat and olive tones of the foliage around the American River.

By this point, I had a much more concrete idea of how Dylan blew into New York chasing the spirit of Woody Guthrie, got transformed by what he found and became the leading figure in American folk music before he alienated folk traditionalists by merging their music with rock, so I figured I was ready for Blonde on Blonde. Recorded in Nashville and released in May 1966, that expansive double album deepened the sound of Highway 61 Revisited, expressing that sound more loosely and fluidly like a jazz album while filling in the shading on Dylan’s new, more complex songs. From the barroom opener “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” to the gorgeous, album-side-long closer, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” putatively a love-struck ode to Joan Baez, Dylan hit the mark via lovely ballads like “Just Like a Woman,” gutsy blues like “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and now-classic tunes like “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” Once I’d ripped Blonde on Blonde to my player, it was pretty much all I listened to for days. It’s that captivating.

Sweet somewhere bound
My summer obsession with Dylan led me, for obvious reasons, to seek out 24-year-old singer-songwriter Jackie Greene, whose music is indelibly stamped with the imprimatur of Bob—as much or more than any other young artist out there.

“I think, as like a songwriter, it’s almost impossible to not get sucked into Bob Dylan,” Greene told me. Over the summer, he has been recording his fourth album and debut for Universal Music’s Verve Forecast label, tentatively titled The Radio Myth, with producer Steve Berlin.

Greene says he got into Dylan by following a thread: Classic-rock bands like the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin led to the blues, and Greene heard Dylan and recognized the blues form there, too, plus something more. “I was sort of into the lyrical part of songwriting, and I thought, ‘This guy’s totally amazing. Everybody’s right.’”

It was “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that did the trick. “I thought, ‘Jesus, this is totally weird,’” Greene recalls. “It was a blues song, but I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. It didn’t matter, though. ‘This is great, man! Gimme another hit.’ And from there, I fell in love with just about everything he ever did.”

The Bard of Hibbing, early on: “Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song.”

Greene and Berlin knocked off recording one night to watch some of the raw footage Martin Scorsese used for his documentary, which enthralled Greene; Dylan was roughly the same age in 1965 as Greene is now.

Greene and his pal Sal Valentino, at 63 a year younger than Dylan, both recorded Dylan covers for Positively 12th & K, a live album recorded downtown at Marilyn’s that Greene’s former label, Dig Music, released a couple of years back. [Disclosure: My current employer, Digital Musicworks International, distributes Dig Music to digital music retailers.] Valentino, whose bands the Beau Brummels and Stoneground both covered Dylan, told me he had even met the man, at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood long ago. “When I first heard him, this guy where I grew up in [San Francisco’s] North Beach made me listen to him,” Valentino recalled. “I didn’t think he could sing.”

Later on, Valentino changed his mind. Now he gets that strange gleam in his eyes that true drinkers of the Bob Kool-Aid get when the subject of Dylan is broached. He’s got a bunch of Dylan CDs in his car to prove it.

I think I may have that Kool-Aid gleam now, too.

No direction home
When I embarked on my summer 2005 Dylan fixation, I didn’t know that Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, released this past Tuesday by Paramount Home Video, and a companion two-CD set from Columbia/Legacy would be coming out. Next Monday and Tuesday, September 26 and 27, the two-part film will be featured on PBS stations, including KVIE Channel 6.

If you’ve read Dylan’s remarkable autobiography from last year, Chronicles, Volume One (Simon & Schuster), you have a thumbnail of the storyline: Young Bobby Zimmerman leaves Hibbing, Minn., for Minneapolis/St. Paul, falls under the spell of Woody Guthrie; maxes out on the folk scene there; hitchhikes to New York; starts playing Greenwich Village folk dives; visits Guthrie—who was dying of Huntington’s chorea—in a New Jersey hospital; takes the torch from Guthrie; and sets the folk-music world on fire. Eventually he stops reworking the hand-me-down songs that everyone else is playing and begins writing his own material. After folk-music establishment labels like Folkways and Vanguard snub him, legendary artist-and-repertoire man and Vanderbilt scion John Hammond sees star potential and signs Dylan to Columbia Records, the most powerful major label in America at the time, in 1961. Dylan becomes a star and then an icon, and then his musical vision takes him to a place that many in his audience cannot understand, and he forsakes that audience for his road ahead.

The film opens with Dylan performing “Like a Rolling Stone” on his 1966 British tour and then juxtaposes performances from that tour—along with the vehement and sometimes rabid reaction of that audience to Dylan’s new direction—with a narrative arc that begins with the music world Dylan stepped into in the late 1950s and then explores how he intersected with it and, ultimately, shaped it and turned it inside out.

The thesis of Scorsese’s two-part film is that Bob Dylan is an American music figure on a par with Elvis Presley, perhaps exceeding him. The filmmaker’s case is buttressed by the appearance of a number of luminaries, whether as footage of music icons to establish a context (like Hank Williams, Johnnie Ray, Webb Pierce, Muddy Waters, Gene Vincent and others who appear in the film’s first hour) or as Dylan’s folk-singing contemporaries from Greenwich Village (names like Dave Van Ronk, Maria Muldaur, Liam Clancy, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez).

For the viewer, No Direction Home achieves a similar effect to what I got from ripping Dylan’s early albums to an MP3 player and riding a bicycle around town: It provides a concise map of Dylan’s evolution as an artist, beginning as an autodidact who soaked up scores of disparate musical influences like a sponge (pedantic note to aspiring young performers: This is what often makes a great artist great), who then found his own voice as a musician before he enlarged the circle beyond the parameters of music by bringing in the worlds of poetry, literature, drama and the visual arts. Along the way, confronted by repeated demands that he compromise his art for political benefit or folk-music authenticity, he retreated into inscrutability and let his art speak for itself.

At this stage in my life, I never figured I’d be a middle-aged hippie, riding around on a bicycle anticipating the coming age of peak oil, listening to 40-year-old music from what I’ve decided is America’s greatest singer-songwriter and hoping to find new inspiration.

Did it work? I think so. At least I play a lot more guitar when I get home.

At this stage in Dylan’s life, he seems to be like a Harry Houdini figure who, in the autumn of his years, is letting everyone in on his portfolio of magic tricks. In Scorsese’s film, in his own book Chronicles, Volume One, and in interviews like the one from last year with Robert Hilburn (reprinted in the September issue of Mojo magazine), Dylan gives a pretty good how-to seminar on tapping into and realizing one’s artistic and magical potential.

Perhaps a few young voices will take him up on it. In this chapter of American life, we need all the prophets and magicians we can get.