I don’t know that much about Bob Dylan, except he’s always been there. He’s been hanging around in my brain for almost as long as I can remember. And he’s not a quiet guy. I mean, he goes on and on sometimes. Standing over by the left wall of my skull, smoking and spewing brilliant, insane poetry. Sometimes he has a band with him, but more often he’s alone, with his big hair and his sunglasses. This is a partial catalogue of some of our more memorable times together.
1. I met my ex-husband for the first time, standing in line for “Don’t Look Back” at the Oak Street Cinema in about 1996. Everyone standing around in the classic Minnesota posture: hands stuffed straight-armed into pockets, shoulders hunched, shivering. I looked at all the characters in line; dudes in leather jackets, messy hair, scowls and their breath visible in the cold night air. Dave said he didn’t really like Bob Dylan, despite his similar disposition, he just wanted to see the film. He was a friend of a friend. It was a fantastic film. Dylan was such an asshole, and so beautiful. Joan Baez walking around with that apple like some freaking Goddess. Ubiquitous Robbie Robertson. Afterwards we went and drank Mextaca at a dive bar in St Paul. Much later, we got married.
2. My uncle Billy claims to have met Bob Dylan, in the sixties, in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, everyone was bummed out on Bob, because he was a pain, always bumming smokes and money. My uncle gave him a ride somewhere and told him he was never going to make it, “You’re from the wrong end of the Mississippi to be playing the blues” he said. Allegedly. I want to believe this tale, along with what I knew as a companion story. That my Uncle also met Alex Haley, who told him about plans for writing Roots, and Billy said, “That’s preposterous! You’ll never be able to trace your roots to Africa.” I always hoped he would condemn me to failure so I would be wildly successful.
3. My first was The Greatest Hits album, of-course, because you had to have Rainy Day Women for parties. My older brother and sisters had taken most of the good albums when they moved out and left me with Saved and Slow Train Coming. Hours sitting cross-legged at the turntable and I walked away with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and that was about it. Then Oh Mercy, because it came out when I was in high-school. That had “Most of The Time” on it, which I listened to lying down on my bedroom floor, secretly smoking out the window and wishing someone thought about me most of the time. Which was either an acute understanding, or misunderstanding, of the lyrics. Then Blood on the Tracks (freshman dorms), Desire (duplex, red wine), and then Another Side of Bob Dylan and Hwy 61 Revisited (Mike Knudson’s apartment, after bar time) in college. Then in St Paul, it was Freewheelin Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home. Those were Sarah’s records, and we would listen to them on a huge suitcase record player with surprisingly good sound, while we cooked in the little kitchen with sloped ceilings and filthy checkerboard floor. Now I’m back to Desire and Blood on the Tracks, fittingly I guess.
4. In the dream, I was at a party. Very mod setting, lots of white. A cat came up to me and began to rub against my leg. It seemed lost, so I picked it up. Then another cat started to rub my leg, but to my disgust, it had two heads. Not two side-by-side heads, but one one each end, like a push-me-pull-me. I felt like I had to find someone to take ownership of it – it was mangy and its eyes bulged out and oozed with puss. I tried to attach it to a leash (of-course, which end?) and I was juggling one cat in my arms and trying to wrangle the other (who I did not want to pick up) when along came Bob Dylan, circa 1964. I was speechless, and preoccupied, when he spoke first in his trademark nasal drawl, “I see you have a two headed cat. A two-headed cat bodes well for your future.” The two-headed cat mewled and tugged at the leash and I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. Then I woke up.
5. If anyone knows Kevin who worked at Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books… he has my copy of a Bob Dylan songbook for piano and guitar and I fucking want it back. Oh, and Jerry, I have that paperback biography you loaned me. Sorry. Julie, I still have the Complete Lyrics 1962 – 1985. Thank you, it was a perfect graduation gift.
6. A boyfriend broke up with me using the lyrics to “Don’t Think Twice Its Alright”. He wrote them on a piece of paper and added, “I’ll throw this to your side of the kidney shaped pool”. Wha? I asked my brother if he knew the song, and had a copy. “Yeah, there’s this pretty weird version on Live at Budokan, but you can have it.” The record has scary Bob Dylan on the front, white face make-up and eyeliner. It’s the last song on side one, right after Ballad of a Thin Man, which is a scary song. But then it launches into this reggae beat, with a flute trilling along side the bitterly acerbic lyrics, served up by a merry Bob. I had to admit, the song was apt. “I aint saying, you treated me unkind, you coulda done better, but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted, my precious time, but don’t think twice it’s alright.” Ok, yeah, it was kind of mean, but it was also fucking great, I knew that much. I never felt bad about that break-up, at least he’d given me that song.
7. You should not go see Bob Dylan on acid. Even if Santana is involved. Bad move.
8. I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau when I was in Poland. It is a nearly silent place, except for the crunch of gravel and low murmur of people whispering in collective horror. You read plaques about the empty room in front of you, where hundreds of people were killed, and you want to scream, or shout, and you might cry, but you mostly feel speechless. I wanted to listen to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, because I thought it would make me feel better, but I didn’t have the cassette with me, so I just went to bed feeling sick and exhausted and lucky to be alive. I think of that place when I hear that song, though. You might think a rock song incapable of adequately reflecting the gravity of such a place, or event. But really, what can?
9. I memorized all seven verses to Tangled Up in Blue when I was about 15, riding the Badger Bus to Madison. Play, rewind, play. Over and over. It seemed important that I know it. In college, it was a late-night, pass-the-whiskey, murder-the-guitar favorite. Once the guitarist figured it out, I just had to keep singing it forever. It’s an easy song to sing, and not hard to sing better than Dylan. (sorry, true) Later, I lived on the East Side of Milwaukee for a summer, and I struggled to learn, or decipher, the chords on guitar. Absolute lack of skill did not deter me, nor did the exasperation of my room mates. Later, I had a peak experience accompanied by my friend on guitar, backed up by twin sisters who happened to be the mothers of my friends. I sang in my normal voice, and they, skilled and gifted, lifted my voice with harmonies like folkie angles. It was more than worth it to have learned all those verses.
10. Right now, as I write, I’m listening to Greatest Hits Volume II. I got my heart a tiny bit broken up recently, and I’ve got a dull hangover from disrespecting a bottle of white wine, so I’m gonna listen to Bob for hours. With all the relentless strumming, the shrill harmonica, incessant nasal whine – you’d think I might send him packing. But I’m so grateful he’s here, with all his words, plainspoken or abstruse. Listening to his music comforts me like leaning against a very old, gnarled tree. Scratchy and sometimes uncomfortable, but big enough to support whatever worry I pitch against it. There hasn’t been a heartache in my life that Bob hasn’t helped see me through. Me and him keep on keeping on just fine.