NOTE: I began writing this story several months ago, but put it aside. It’s published now in honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I first heard about Bob Dylan in 1963 when a radio disc jockey played Peter, Paul and Mary’s record, Blowin’ in the Wind. I didn’t know what a cover version was in grade school. But I recall the DJ talking about a young protest singer named Bobby Dylan who wrote the song, a name I initially misheard as Bobby Darin. Dylan’s name came up some time later when the station played another Peter, Paul and Mary record, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Though I still hadn’t heard Bob Dylan, I did begin to appreciate folk music thanks to Peter, Paul and Mary.
The March on Washington was all over the news later that summer and while Martin Luther King had a dream, Bob Dylan had a song. I finally saw him in a television news piece singing a few lines of Only a Pawn in Their Game. It began, “A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood…” Whoa! Who the heck is Medgar Evers? I knew about the the man who shot Liberty Valence, but I’d never heard of this guy Evers or the guy who shot him. It would be a few more years before I understood the awful truth behind that song, long after Dylan penned his more topical works.
That fall I entered eighth grade and had other things on my mind like girls, cars, and anything California. Thank you, Beach Boys. All those things important to a young teenager came crashing down in November with the assassination of a beloved U.S. president. The accompanying void was filled by homework and more thoughts of girls, cars and anything California. Until February 1964 when the Beatles changed my world. I wanted an electric guitar. I wanted not only to listen to music, I wanted to play it.
Top forty radio — Motown, the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion bands — filled my musical world through freshman year in high school and starting a band became my new pursuit. The summer of 1965, out of a tinny radio speaker, a new song captured my attention. If any description of “mind blowing” could be more apt, Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds was a perfect fit. The jangling electric guitar, steady beat and obscure lyrics painted enough vivid pictures in my head, to compel me to get their debut album.
I’m a reader. So naturally I read the liner notes on the back of the album sleeve. Bob Dylan’s name was mentioned several times as he’d written four of the album’s twelve songs, including Mr. Tambourine Man. I liked the album, but was especially knocked out by those four Dylan songs that also included Spanish Harlem Incident, All I Really Want To Do and Chimes of Freedom. Thus began my pursuit of more Dylan.
The first Bob Dylan album I bought was his newest release at the time, Bringing It All Back Home. It contained eleven songs, four of them longer than five minutes, including the original Mr. Tambourine Man with more verses than I ever imagined possible. It got even better when I finally heard Dylan on the radio that summer singing a new one, Like a Rolling Stone. I was hooked and Dylan was my drug.
Since that time, I’ve never lost my appreciation for Dylan and his music, even though some of his albums garnered few, if any, critical accolades. I’ve added nearly all of them to my collection, whether in vinyl, compact disc or digital download. In browsing through my Dylan vinyl, I even found two different copies of Great White Wonder, the first authentic bootleg album that I still believe might be worth a few bucks someday. As for Dylan concerts, I’ve only been to three. They were in 1978, 1986 and in 2008. I haven’t attended another for a variety of reasons but I listen to enough music any given day to hear a bundle of Bob quite regularly.
His songs remain a part of my acoustic repertoire, a repertoire I performed in campus coffee houses long ago. Now, I play them for my own enjoyment and to entertain a few friends on occasion. When you read great literature, you can sometimes quote specific lines or even entire passages from memory. When it comes to Dylan, I once was able to recite all the lyrics to most of his pre-1970 catalog. Those memories have faded a bit, but I’ll always recall these, among the first I ever learned and, in my admittedly biased view, of Nobel quality…
“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves. Let me forget about today until tomorrow. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. In that jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.”