- 23 May 21
It was Bob Dylan himself who said “I contain multitudes.” As long-time students of the greatest songwriter of the modern era will know, that is a vital key to understanding the marvellous inscrutability of so much of the work he has sired, in a long and enormously industrious life – so far.
“Back in 1941
I got shot from gattling gun…”
— Bob Dylan, draft for ‘Dope Fiend Robber’, 1961
On May 24, 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. World War II continued outside the United States of America, with the Battle of the Denmark Strait beginning on that day. At home, much of America was more concerned with Joe Louis having retained his world heavyweight boxing title the night before.
That would change when little Bobby was just over six months old, and Japan attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii. When the brash and confident twenty-year-old singer-songwriter who had renamed himself Bob Dylan wrote the lines above, was he only talking about a soldier wounded in very early action in 1941 while “fighting for Uncle Sam,” – or was he, perhaps, thinking also of the explosion of his own arrival into this world? It’s Bob Dylan, and the answer is — always — going to be both.
“Both/and” is a critical way of talking about writers and artists who contain multitudes. It’s often applied to James Joyce, a favourite writer of Dylan’s, who never uses a word or phrase that means one thing if he can find a word or phrase that means two.
Think of the beginning of Joyce’s short story ‘Araby’, in Dubliners (1914): “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” Joyce could have called it a dead-end street, a cul-de-sac, but chooses “blind” — in a story focused on eyes, vision, window blinds, and the blindness of a boy in the grip of first love. Dylan similarly loves to have it both ways, and more.
DREAMS OF IRON AND STEEL
A boy from a port town on Lake Superior, the biggest of the Great Lakes, those inland seas, Dylan moved with his family to inland Minnesota and Hibbing, farther north and in the Mesabi Iron Range, when he was six.
The mountain mining town where he and his little brother David were raised was more rural, grittier, terribly cold in the winter. The “frostbitten North Country, a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn’t faze me,” as he put it in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, remains Dylan’s home country.
He left it behind when he was nineteen for New York City, also his home for years in the days of his first success and then as a young father, and for a life on the road all over the world — but Minnesota is a touchstone for Dylan.
As he told Bill Flanagan in a 2017 interview, “Up north the weather is more extreme — frostbite in the winter, mosquito-ridden in the summer, no air conditioning when I grew up, steam heat in the winter and you had to wear a lot of clothes when you went outdoors.”
Bringing it all back home matters: in Minnesota Dylan first listened to blues, folk music, and rock and roll on the radio; in Minnesota he learned to play the piano and guitar, wrote his first songs, and performed with high school friends. Both/and: he left it, and he returns to it when he wants or needs to — to finish the intensely personal album Blood On The Tracks, to spend time on a hundred-acre farm he has there, to feel where, and what, inspired him first.
Dylan’s early days as a student of folk music and American history, a constant reader and writer, a swift success as a performer of others’ songs in Greenwich Village’s coffeehouses and, soon, larger and larger halls, are part of music, and popular culture, legend.
Even as a very young man, at 22 and 23, Dylan basked on no laurels. Lionised as the new leader of the folk movement and prince of the protest song, he put his acoustic Gibson with the tangle of string-ends sprouting from its head aside, and picked up a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster. Touted as quintessentially American for his Woody Guthrie influence, Midwestern roots, and bohemian New York lifestyle, Dylan embarked for Europe and the South Pacific to perform.
Hailed as a solo performer and chased as a teen idol by girls, Dylan began to perform with a band — soon to be The Band — and married young. He and his wife Sara, who had a daughter when she married him, soon had a family of five children, and Dylan has consistently and passionately guarded his private life with them, and their half-sister born of Dylan’s second marriage.
Pigeonholed as a singer-songwriter, Dylan began making movies, appearing in, and directing and producing them. The Jewish-born rock star became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s, and celebrated his religion in new songs and in concerts, during which he also preached sometimes. Dubbed a recluse and written off by music critics in the 1980s, in 1988 Dylan began circling the earth in a series of tours that were, until 2020, never-ending.
Both/and: multitudinous. Bob Dylan is a novelist — of the wacky Modernist epistolary Tarantula; a record producer — often under the name Jack Frost, perhaps to remind you of that frozen North Country; and most recently a painter, sculptor, and co-developer of a line of high-end whiskey named Heaven’s Door.
Though Dylan began sketching and drawing in the early 1960s, and his tour diaries and notebooks are full of art, from doodles to finished faces and places, he first began to show and sell his paintings and prints in galleries some forty years later. His metal industrial sculptures of gears and wheels, car parts, found objects echo a line he wrote in 1973: “My dreams are made of iron and steel.” The whiskey is good, especially the straight Tennessee bourbon.
THESE DARK DAYS
In 2016, when Dylan was seventy-five, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” At that point, the Laureate could certainly have been expected to rest on his laurels.
Bob Dylan does not do what is expected. He continued serenely on with his tour of the United States after the Nobel was announced, and then began his next leg of concerts in Stockholm, home of the Royal Swedish Academy, the following spring — but did not accept his prize in person, delivering his acceptance speech instead via recording in June 2017. The set list on April 1, 2017 in Stockholm began with the song ‘Things Have Changed’ — a regular opener for Dylan’s shows, but with a difference, now.
Dylan remains hard-working, creating, and militantly un-retired, thank heavens. He surprised us last March, as things were bleak indeed, with the sweeping, historic ballad ‘Murder Most Foul’, and graced us with a fantastic new album of original songs, Rough And Rowdy Ways, last summer. In terrible times, his art was a gift.
As other musicians begin to take to the road again, under careful conditions, Dylan’s fans are hopeful. His longtime band member Tony Garnier announced last week on Instagram that “Live gigs are coming back!” And added that we “will have more if everyone gets vaccinated.” In response, I hoped devoutly to myself that Bob and the band had their jabs long ago, and that venues will soon welcome them and us, all together again at last, even if we must be distanced and masked and anonymous.
Masked and anonymous — it is as if Dylan, who made and starred in a movie of this name in 2003 — foresaw both the safety, and possibilities to explore, that this concept entails. Like W.B. Yeats, Dylan is fond of masks, and the assumed, and lost, identities they can provide. He’s sung of them, he’s worn them in concert, and in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019), he mentioned them notably: “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
These dark days have drawn out new appreciation for truths, and for what matters, in us all. I, for one, will be happy to wear the mask I still wear when I go out anywhere to a Bob show soon, and that is the absolutest truth.
COLOURED BY GRATITUDE
In May 1967, just before his 26th birthday, Bob Dylan was doorstepped at his home in Woodstock, New York by reporter Michael Iachetta. Intent on finding and interviewing Dylan in the wake of his motorcycle accident nine months before, Iachetta traveled to Woodstock and spent hours (in his own somewhat hyperbolic words) “driving up narrow mountain trails, running from watchdogs, getting stuck in the mud and winding up hopelessly lost.”
Finally, he came face to face with an elusive Dylan. When Dylan finally answered the door, he said, with an unreported sigh one can hear, “We can’t just stand here talking,” and invited Iachetta in for coffee.
When asked what he had been doing in his home and with his time for most of the past year, Dylan replied, “What I’ve been doin’ mostly is seein’ only a few close friends, readin’ little ‘bout the outside world, porin’ over books by people you never heard of, thinkin’ about where I’m goin’, and why am I runnin’, and am I mixed up too much, and what am I knowin’, and what am I givin’, and what am I takin’. And mainly what I’ve been doin’ is workin’ on gettin’ better and makin’ better music, which is what my life is all about.”
May his pandemic year, this past year of enforced isolation for us all, have been similar. Looking forward to what Bob Dylan does next, and not being able to predict it, is a part of life for many people. Celebrating his birthday every year, which is done in an increasing number of cities, towns and venues around the world, is always coloured by gratitude.
Expect the outpouring in 2021 to be both festive and appreciative, and anticipating what is to come: “Makin’ better music, which is what my life is all about.”
Pick up your copy of the Bob Dylan special issue of Hot Press in shops now – or order online below: