The lines of a lifetime

I came to rock and roll fairly late, as a high schooler, and I came to Bob Dylan’s music slightly later, as a high school junior. I was an avid reader of Rolling Stone magazine, where Dylan’s name was used with the kind of reverence reserved for powerful magic spells, but there’d always been something a  little forbidding about him, and I wasn’t sure where I wanted to start.  But then, while listening to the radio, the deejay played “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” after which he recited the chorus: “And then time will tell/ Just who fell/ and who’s been left behind.” I was at the tail end of a long wallow in unrequited love, and the words acted like a stiff breeze on a foggy morning, clearing away murk and letting me see the beauty of what was around me. It isn’t very often that a song does that for you. You remember things like that.

A month later, Blood on the Tracks came out, marking the start of Dylan’s annus mirabilis — i.e., nineteen hundred and seventy five. It was, and is, strong stuff: a grown man and a powerful artist taking stock of past romances, owning up to his mistakes, and teaching himself to walk tall with heartbreak. There was also a surrealistic Western, a howling jeremiad against celebrity, and a multifaceted narrative in which perspectives constantly shifted and doubled back on themselves. It was a great album to start with, and though I’ve ranged back and forth over the man’s catalogue many times, Blood on the Tracks remains the benchmark for all things Dylan. In fact, the beginning of my days as an obsessive bootleg collector began when I learned there was an earlier version of Blood on the Tracks, which led me to Joaquin Antique and a host of other unauthorized discs.

It’s one thing to say you grew up with an artist, but it’s quite another to realize an artist helped you grow up. I sang “Forever Young” to my children when they were infants. I was listening to “Boots of Spanish Leather” when I topped the first span of the Pulaski Skyway and saw the plume of smoke coming off the World Trade Center, and I was in Madison Square Garden a couple of months later when Dylan spoke about how much New York City meant to him. Not a week goes by that I don’t play one of Dylan’s songs or think about one of his lines.

So now he’s seventy years old. There was the starkly beautiful and haunting early folk music phase, the articulate anger and spiky intelligence of the Highway 61 Revisited phase, the oddball Americana of the Basement Tapes, the forays into country and gospel, the long stretch of confusion and artistic uncertainty, and now the elder statesman phase. Each phase carried a bounty of extraordinary songs. Dylan has always been skeptical of the idea that songs can change anything, but I can’t help thinking this world would be a much different place if his songs hadn’t been there to help illuminate the journey. I can say this much for certain: I would be a different person if I hadn’t had Bob Dylan’s art winding through my life and thoughts.

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