“He’s a modern-day prophet,” I am told matter-of-factly. Like I should have known already when I walked into the room with my stupid questions. When I ask the question “So, what do you guys think of Bob Dylan?” I can usually expect such a response.
Bob Dylan—singer-songwriter, author, poet, screenwriter, guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, and harmonica player—was born Robert Allen Zimmerman. When asked about the name change by Rebecca Leung on CBS News, he responded: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
As one of the uninducted members of the “cult of Dylan,” I just shake my head at the inanity of his comment. He barely knew his father who died of polio when he was really young. And his mother never (as far as I could see) did too much to screw him up.
I don’t understand the prophet. At first there were many who agreed with me. Many called him “Hammond’s Folly,” after the producer who refused to fire him after his disastrous first album.
“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” That’s from “Blowin’ in the Wind” on Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky, and how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” With “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Oxford Town,” Dylan became a tuneful symbol for the Civil Rights Movement. He sang at the August 28, 1963 “March on Washington.”
When his third album, The Times They are A-Changing, came out, Dylan had become an archetype for anti-disestablishmentarianism. That must be the reason he’s a prophet. He fought the man—always a popular choice with the “kids.” Dylan’s title anti-war song from Times, and the snarky “with guns in their hands, and God on their side” (“With God on Our Side”), provided easy fuel for youthful frustration.
“I’m not the one you want, babe, I’m not the one you need.” In his book No Direction Home, Robert Shelton says these lyrics aren’t just about a girl. Shelton interprets the song as “Dylan’s rejection of the audience’s demands.” Did Dylan want to be a prophet?
I don’t know why, but I’ve always resisted the Dylan-o-philia. Yet when I hear “Chimes of Freedom,” it’s hard to not feel something:
“Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail,
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder,
That the clinging of the, church bells blew far into the breeze,
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder.”
So despite my resistance, I hear in my throat a subtle, involuntary hum. An inward “wow.” And a gulp.
I’ve never really followed the prophet. But to find that this passionate poet, this giant of musical influence, is fading into obscurity among modern youth, is appalling. How could this brilliant writer, musician—perhaps, prophet—be forgotten?
The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.