A Personal Statement About Bob Dylan

Photograph courtesy of Bloomberg L.P.

Bob Dylan does not just speak truth, he lives truth. Truth in all its strangeness and wonder flows through him as it has flowed through the mystics in every age. I see in the above picture a haunted visionary whose understanding goes deep. From his inspired voice and poetry I hear a man who has gone past the limitations common to most people. His inner life is bountiful and rich. He has made his own choices all along, and I respect him so much for that. In a world that teaches conformity, Dylan instead has gone his own way. His many phases and his baffling personality point to a nearly-infinite human being. There is something godlike in his constant evolution and capacity to surprise, to bewilder. If truth is strange, he is the perfect messenger to bring it to a blind world. I respect those who are strange, because I am strange. In Bob Dylan I see what the full flowering of humanity looks like.

I have listened to his music for many years, and still I feel like a novice taking his first tentative steps in the musical universe Dylan has made. His catalogue is enormous, but each album should be appreciated as its own world to explore. Just when I think I have some kind of grasp on the man, again I shake my head in bafflement at his slippery persona and majestic songs.

He has the ability to critique society while remaining human and vulnerable. If you listen to his early song “Masters of War,” he can come across as self-righteous, but even then, his heart comes through as loudly as his anger in lyrics crying out for justice. In “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” William Zanzinger, because of his privilege and family connections, essentially gets away with murder — receiving only a six-month sentence for his crime — and I come away angry and sad, wishing for a better world yet oddly comforted by Dylan’s aching voice even as he describes such tragedy.

When I listen to his interviews from the 1960s, I’m amazed at his wit and humor. To earnest-minded reporters who try to keep him in an easy category — like protest singer — he responds with sharp irony. I admire the mystique he creates around himself, and I get the sense he does it not for its own sake, but because he holds within himself a precious truth that he does not wish to share with those unprepared to understand it.

At the height of his coolness and counter-culture cachet, he released John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. This after his masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, which after countless listens still remains beautifully unknowable to me. On the album Bob is at his most unapproachable, and musically he reached the peak of what he started in Bringing it All Back Home. When people think of Bob, they likely think of the man from this period: cooler than ice and hip to the scene. With John Wesley Harding he seems to go back to basics like a prophet from an earlier century. Nashville Skyline is just different from what I expected, not that I was disappointed. But I really confronted a side of Dylan I was not yet comfortable with. But his music demands that we stop being so comfortable.

In a plastic world, I see in Dylan an old tree that stands rooted in something deeper and more real. When my heart aches because of the falseness I witness, the ready antidote is any of his glorious albums (though some speak more gloriously than others). It is then that I am reminded of the beauty which lives with such startling vibrancy in this man. He points to a life that is fully human, where sadness and anger are not to be shunned, but rather exist along the full spectrum of our condition. I have learned so much about what it means to live courageously from his music and his example. I will break, and then continue on. I will cry, and then find meaning past despair. I will listen to the songs of this prophet and poet, flawed man and sensitive interpreter of life’s mysteries, and I will know that at least one other person walks the same lonely path with the same broken heart and walks on some more.

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