It was 1972. My cool uncle and his girlfriend allowed me to tag along when they saw the documentary film of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.
I was going on 13, and realized while enjoying the film of the Concert for Bangladesh that no matter how famous George was or regardless of how great all of his friends were (and that benefit concert was pumped by Ringo, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and others), the peak moment was when Bob Dylan took the stage.
By that time, it’d been a decade since Dylan first played in Greenwich Village and step by mythic step, ascended from clubs to Columbia Records to Carnegie Hall in less time than most kids spend in high school. His legend was already established.
I was startled. Now: Check out the Concert for Bangladesh. You’ll be startled too.
It opens with Ravi Shankar’s glorious set. Then George Harrison and his all-star ensemble rock the rafters of Madison Square Garden with a playlist to die for. They encapsulate the sound and styles of the era. Tons of mojo. When Leon Russell is unleashed for a two-song medley (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Youngblood”), he and the band not only blow the roof off, they sum up the history of rock ‘n’ roll circa 1959-1969. However, after that mayhem, Bob Dylan steals the whole show.
I didn’t know he’d been mostly off the scene for years, after a 1966 motorcycle accident. I missed that memo. But I knew he still made albums. And I also knew that every time I studied the credits on other albums, I’d see “B. Dylan” there.
Here’s how: Like millions of others, I had the soundtrack to the 1969 film Easy Rider. And like so many younger guys, I thought my favorite song was “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. Soon enough, on Side 2 of that LP, it was a song called “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that commanded my attention. That song was sung by Roger McGuinn, who’d made his name with The Byrds.
But when I looked closer, I saw that the song was written by “B. Dylan.” That’s when I began to really connect the dots. The Byrds had covered a wide range of Bob Dylan songs, making him as much of a household name as Peter, Paul and Mary. The more I scoured album labels—everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Joan Baez—the more I realized that “B. Dylan” had created a one-man songbook.
Back to the Concert for Bangladesh. The most remarkable thing, to me, at that film screening in 1972, was after all the powerhouse rock performances it was Bob Dylan’s quiet set (acoustic guitar; harmonica riffs) seducing the audience.
Although he was accompanied by George Harrison (guitar), Leon Russell (on bass) and Ringo Starr (tambourine), it was Dylan and his words that transformed Madison Square Garden into the equivalent of a Greenwich Village club for 20,000 rapt audience members. Still, I heard he was considered “no longer relevant.”
That’s all I heard throughout most of the 1970s. Time after time. The cliché was entrenched. Dylan was past. He belonged to the Sixties. His best work was blah-blah-blah and always between 1963 and 1966. Except for Blood on the Tracks. But even after mid-1970s triumphs like that, or the album Desire, the refrain was endless: “He can’t sing,” everyone told me. Some added: “And besides, aren’t the Sixties over?”
Fast-forward: Now it’s 1982 and I’ve transferred from a small college in Chicago to the big University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In my first American literature class, the professor assigns Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” It’s probably Oates’s most anthologized short story. Yet the students are most curious not about the story, but its cryptic three-word dedication.
Right below the title and before the first paragraph, in italics, it reads: For Bob Dylan. The professor admits that she’s not quite sure why that is. Crafty oddball that I was, I dove deep into all my paraphernalia about Dylan and Americana and the history of the 1960s. Next day, I bring the professor ten Xeroxed pages of anecdotes.
Turns out that way back in 1965, Joyce Carol Oates was moved to write that story after hearing Dylan’s epic recording of a long-form lyric titled “Desolation Row.” Little did Oates know that in October 2016, the Nobel Prize judges would validate her in the “For Bob Dylan” scheme of things. And it’s perfectly fitting and apropos.
Think not? Many think not. Rancor abounds regarding Dylan’s Nobel Prize.
But the annoyed critical experts ought to ask themselves this: Knowing as we all know that Bob Dylan never pandered to the market place, never tailored his talents in pursuit of jukebox hits or whatever was trendy, why did they ignore him?
Because ignore him they did. Willfully. Dismissively. And the savage irony is that some of Dylan’s biggest “fans” are quite similar to his worst critics. They all echo each other with their obtuse clichés about his best work belonging to the Sixties.
Wrong! For those of us who couldn’t catch up with his first half-dozen (or even his first dozen) albums until later in the 1970s and 1980s, I hereby declare that it was never, ever Bob Dylan who was stuck in the 1960s – only his aging hippie fanboys with their gray ponytails (or his most rabid critics) are stuck back in the day.
For those of us who heard 1983’s Infidels with fresh, wide-open ears or for those of us who marveled at the boundary-breaking risks of “Brownsville Girl” (the standout track from 1986’s critically slaughtered album Knocked Out Loaded), one thing has always been clear: Dylan never seeks to replicate his own past versions of anything. Unlike Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones, who have mastered the non-art of stadium shows that recapitulate the master takes of studio albums recorded four and five decades ago, the only thing Bob Dylan wants to do is write and move on.
After a songwriting drought in the 1990s, he wrote his way back with the Grammy-winning Album of the Year: 1997’s Time Out of Mind. A few years later, when he was recruited to write a theme song for the film Wonder Boys, Dylan hit the bull’s-eye again with “Things Have Changed.” Then he published his first volume of autobiography in 2004 (Chronicles), and was rewarded by The New York Times with one of its 10 Best Books of the Year salutes.
Meanwhile, others keep his flame alive. Perennially.
Each time Adele performs “Make You Feel My Love” as an encore, her audience, enthralled and adoring, happen to be hearing words written by “B. Dylan.” Every time a political pundit opines about “Masters of War” or a “Simple Twist of Fate” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’,“ they’re echoing “B. Dylan.”
How about each time gospel choirs sway and sing “I Believe in You” or “Gotta Serve Somebody”? Well, that’s another hoot: Rockers ridiculed Dylan for his Christian music phase between 1979 and 1981 (it’s wrongly said that Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love are Dylan’s weakest albums), but the devotees of the African-American gospel tradition have noted that “B. Dylan” has royally enhanced it.
It’s no accident that on tour in recent years, gospel legend Mavis Staples opened for Bob Dylan and sang his praises in a number of interviews. Just as it’s no accident that in 2016, Simon & Schuster published a 688-page Bob Dylan omnibus titled The Lyrics: 1961 – 2012.
Instead of complaining about his voice or pigeonholing him as a “protest singer” who belongs in a 1960s time capsule, those grousing ought to be reminded: Bob Dylan, as a writer, is a protean and uniquely gifted literary genius.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in October by Heliotrope Books. He is now at work on separate biographical studies of novelists James Jones and Mario Puzo.)