Saturday, August 23, 2008

Keeping in Touch With My Inner Dylan

I have long been a fan of Bob Dylan -- not just the music, but the man, or better yet, the mystique. Dylan the archetype. Dylan the poet-jokerman-philosopher (and, oh yeah, musician). In his heyday, no could touch his ability to present art with such a mixture of conviction and detachment. The iconic Dylan of the 60’s with the sunglasses, the frizzed up hair and the polka-dot shirt defied the conventional by taking it on directly and without apology. Love him or hate him, you were going to have to make a decision about Dylan the man and the things he confronted you with -- starting with that voice and those jagged harmonica stylings. In his music, in his interviews, in his lifestyle he kept telling us he didn’t care what we thought of him. Our reaction was our own business. Then, he would hit us with another shockwave. It was a scenario perfectly suited for colossal failure --or enduring influence. All or nothing.

Dylan filed regular reports from the edge of the world as he saw it. He did it his way and, at times, with very uneven skill. Nevertheless, a lot of people began to rely upon him to express their feelings for them. Dylan somehow became their chosen prophet -- “the voice of a generation” -- a role which he seemed to both hate and feed. Once his legend was established, the sight of Bob Dylan confidently and carelessly striding out on the cultural tight wire was in itself enough to keep us watching. His refusal to be limited or defined by “what worked” last year kept us guessing about what could possibly come next.

In an era of sappy love songs and bubblegum dance hits, Bob Dylan fearlessly roamed the range of human relationships from one end to the other and told us what he experienced. One minute it was: “Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm’; and the next: “I wish that for just one day you could step inside my shoes, then you’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Who else was taking these kinds of chances with song lyrics? Bobby Darin? Frankie Valie? Herman’s Hermits? Not even The Beatles were this unblinking in their observations. But somehow or another, this skinny anti-hero connected (against all odds) with a mass audience. Think about it: who else but Bob Dylan could perform a mocking, gloating chronicle of the downfall of an over privileged girl called Like a Rolling Stone and actually have it become a radio hit?

Ultimately, what stands out about Bob Dylan is the same thing every unforgettable artist possesses. It is the willingness to take on your world in the courage of your convictions. The sweet spot of any creative gift is to ask no other question but “do I tell it like I really see it?” In the mega-buck world of contemporary entertainment where there is so much at stake, fewer and fewer people seem to grapple with this question. The fawning and calculated impact of the entertainment culture has even, it is sad to say, found a home in the contemporary mainstream evangelical church in ways both obvious and oh so subtle.

In a way, it seems inevitable that Dylan and Jesus should find one another as they did in the late 1970’s. For a brief time, we Christians clapped our hands in delight as the “voice of his generation” voiced biblical convictions about salvation (Saved), the end of the age (Slow Train Coming), and even the tender reassurance of devotion (Every Grain of Sand). But, before long, Dylan’s Christian phase was “over”.-- though not before he had managed to offend everyone from his puzzled fellow believers, to his angry fans, to his ever-vigilant critics. In typical fashion, Dylan did not spend a lot of time explaining himself. But then that never was his style.

These days, even I can’t quite deal with the contemporary Bob Dylan as an artist. His croaky voice is just too hard for me to listen to (imagine that!) and I find the fact that he performs at Indian Gaming Casinos less-than-inspiring. It’s not that I begrudge him his success or his final chances to stand on a stage and do what he does. It’s just that there just doesn’t seem to be much left for Bob Dylan to say that he hasn’t already said. And yet, when I listen to the old music or watch the old videos, something inside rises up within me. It is something challenging, powerful and even a little bit depressing. It is the question: “do I tell it like I really see it?” And because I know the answer is sometimes “no”, I try to keep in touch with my inner Dylan.

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