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At the end of this month poets and friends will gather to celebrate the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman. In 1964 William Shakespeare’s 300th birthday was celebrated around the world. But how often do people annually celebrate birthdays of the living? What is it that propels someone’s stature to such a height that throughout the last third of his life people in multiple global locations have been gathering to celebrate on his birthday?
When you consider his modest roots, Bob Dylan’s achievements defy all the natural explanations. Then again, upon closer inspection you find a hard-working Midwestern work ethic that has been wedded to a massive ambition. Sprinkle in his giftedness as an innovator and what you end up with is a young man so remarkably prolific and influential that in his early twenties serious musicians and critics everywhere had begun to take notice.
Later this month Duluth will again be celebrating another weeklong series of events coinciding with Bob Dylan’s birthday. He will be 78 this year. As a form of introduction, I’d like to share Phil Fitzpatrick’s spotlight on the Bob Dylan Experience. Phil is a lifelong teacher, poet and faithful member of the Bob Dylan Way Committee.
Human Rabbit Hole
By Phil Fitzpatrick
Find some niche in the career of Bob Dylan in which to dwell for a time: that’s my advice. You won’t be disappointed. I did that a few times while preparing an hour-long PowerPoint on Dylan for my fiftieth college reunion. The presentation features reminiscences about the buckskin-jacketed lad who, fifty-three years earlier, had been the warm-up act for the main attraction, Del Shannon, at our freshman spring weekend.
Yeah, I found a few rabbit holes to explore, and the explorations proved satisfying both to me and to my audience. Here are a few of those “holes” for your consideration:
1. References to Duluth in his music and in Chronicles, Volume One. Start with “Something There is About You” from Planet Waves. Dylan’s use of the phrase “the hills of old Duluth” pushed me to take photographs of the view from Skyline Drive down toward Gitchi Gumi, to take a few shots of the railroad yard east of I-35, to snap a few more of “old” buildings in town like the Nor-Shor, the Depot, and the Lift Bridge. I got the definite sense that Duluth is anything but a city Dylan takes no pride in, refuses to talk about or return to, and has no fond memories of.
2. Images in his 2004 autobiography of Duluth’s sounds: the distinctive horns of the thousand-footers (my own favorite is the James L. Barker’s), storm winds and the huge waves crashing against the pier, and locomotives bringing ore down from the Iron Range. There’s a fascinating riff on an opera he witnessed not long after arriving in New York City in 1960, an opera called Pirate Jenny, in which the character Jenny sings a song about a black freighter. Dylan says it immediately took him back to the city of his birth and the sounds of the seaport’s wartime industry.
3. Spoken word clips in which Dylan reveals tangible and intangible access points to his interior life. The best and shortest of these is the acceptance speech at the 1998 Grammy Awards in which he references locking eyes with Buddy Holly during the 1959 Winter Dance Party at The Duluth National Guard Armory just days before Holly was killed in the tragic Iowa cornfield plane crash. Another is the 2004 60 Minutes interview with the late Ed Bradley. A third is a 1985 interview in a trailer in Toronto during the filming of Hearts of Fire. Finally, and just so the early years are represented, check out the 1965 full press interview in San Francisco where Dylan utters the famous line, “Well, I think I’m more of a song-and-dance man, myself.”
Dylan is a human rabbit hole. There are fanzines, websites, blogs, festivals, and radio shows devoted to The Bob Dylan Experience. And it’s probably safe to conclude that he is not aware of any of it. The music world’s most famous recluse just goes about his business, literally, making music and art with no concern for what anyone else has to say about it, least of all the critics.
And speaking of critics
Trivia question: how many books have been written about Bob Dylan? 50? 100? 200? It depends on who you ask and what your criteria are. There are plenty of lists available, and here is mine. Not including Chronicles, Volume One (required reading for anyone remotely interested in Duluth’s Favorite Son), and not including Lyrics, 1962-2012, here are the five (count’em!) books I’d recommend because they are well-written, informative, unique, and well-crafted. In no particular order,
1) A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Life in Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo
2) The Essential Interviews edited by Jonathan Cott
3) Alias by Steve Scobie,
4) Down the Highway by Howard Sounes and
5) Why Bob Dylan Matters by Richard Thomas. Honorable mentions go to Just Like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues: Dylan in Minnesota by Dave Engel, The Old, Weird America; The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus, and The Dead Straight Guide to Bob Dylan by Nigel Williamson.
Of course, there are as many “Top Fives” as there are Dylanologists, or even pretend Dylanologists like me. Just pick one and read it, after you read Chronicles, Volume One. The interview collections are fascinating; somehow, these interviewers manage to get down to a level rarely achieved in the innumerable biographies. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Authentic Dylan is way better than “digested” or “homogenized” or “interpreted” Dylan. But you have to hand it to writers like Robert Shelton, or Clinton Heylin, or Anthony Scaduto, or Ian Bell, or Sean Wilentz, or Christopher Ricks who work their tails off to be both thorough and original about a man whom literally everyone has a take on.
So find a critic to love, a biographer to get lost in, an editor or a collector to devour and then “sell” to your friends. Why? Because he is living history, Midwestern history, national history, world history. I really hope Dylan decides to come out with Chronicles, Volume Two. That would be grand, wouldn’t it? Yes, indeed, it would.
This year’s Duluth Dylan Fest will be celebrated May 18-26 at multiple local venues. A full schedule of events can be found at BobDylanWay.com. Music, art, poetry and more music… and a birthday cake in front of his first home. Click on the sign that reads: Dylan Fest. There will also be some events in Hibbing. Visit HibbingDylanProject.org.