For Dylan’s 70th birthday

Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. No one, I imagine, outside of my wife and immediate family has had a greater impact on my life.

My first exposure to Bob Dylan’s music was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in first-grade music class in 1976 or ’77. I remember knowing, even at that young age, who Dylan was—that he was a popular and important singer. (The mid-’70s were his commercial peak, so his name was out there a lot.) The song spoke to me in a way that “Froggy Went a-Courtin'” and “Erie Canal” and whatever else we were singing didn’t. I remember it made me feel sad, which probably for the first time in my life also made me feel good. Isn’t that the nature of great art?

But I didn’t catch up with Dylan again until around 1981. One of our low-powered UHF stations showed re-runs of Saturday Night Live. I saw Dylan’s controversial 1979 appearance—his only one to date—in which he performed three songs from his then-new gospel album Slow Train Coming. As a good Baptist boy, I appreciated that he was singing songs about Jesus—and it was kind of weird and cool that he was doing it so far away from the friendly confines of church—but I honestly couldn’t get past his voice. I thought he was nothing less than the worst singer I had ever heard. So raw, so unpolished, so unsuitable for network TV.

The irony was that within four years, I would come to regard him as the best singer I’d ever heard, an opinion I maintain to this day. And, no, I’m not talking about his voice at this very moment. Between the 22 years of non-stop touring and who-knows-how-many-cigarettes, there isn’t much of it left. But he is 70 years old, for heaven’s sake! He has nothing to prove. Besides, even now—I’m thinking of last year’s performance of “The Times They Are A-Changin” at the White House—his voice, which often gets lost these days in large concert halls, can still summon that old power and authority.

And I’d still rather listen to Dylan croak out a tune than to anyone else sing at their auto-tuned prettiest—which is why his album of Christmas standards from a couple of years ago is my favorite of the genre.

But outsiders have always complained about Dylan’s voice, even when he was in his youthful prime in the mid-’60s, making the greatest records and writing the greatest songs of all time. His voice is an acquired taste, I suppose. Like coffee. Which, come to think of it, I also hated the first time I had it and is now my favorite beverage.

But I don’t abide people who patronizingly tell me that they think he’s a “great songwriter” but they can’t stand his singing. The key to “getting” Dylan is understanding that he is, first and foremost, a great singer. He writes songs that are faithful to his voice, which is why his performances of his songs are usually the definitive ones.

Regardless, what finally sealed my fate when it came to Dylan was getting Dylan’s career-spanning boxed set, Biograph, for Christmas in 1985. The first song from this collection that grabbed me by the throat and shook me was “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It was on Side 2 of the box’s first record—that side devoted to his early protest era. That was it. I was hooked.

What resonated with me about Dylan back then and continues to do so is this: If you remain faithful to your own voice—if you can risk being that authentic and honest—then you have a voice that’s worth hearing. Dylan has remained fearlessly true to his, literally and figuratively.

By doing so, Dylan gave me the courage to find my own voice. Perhaps other people wouldn’t need an artist to do that for them, but for whatever reason—self-confidence was never my strong suit—I did.

One legacy of this is that I have the courage to stand in front of people each week and, well… mostly talk for a living. “Fearing not that I’d become my enemy/ In the instant that I preach,” I guess. 😉

Thank you and God bless you, Bob.

One thought on “For Dylan’s 70th birthday”

Leave a Reply