Oh, Bob Dylan. Where to begin? The great artistic love of my life, my musical paramour. My cohort. The guide to all of those heart-wrenching songs I’d cleanly tear out of me with such regularity, with such ease, under the counsel of those implicit directives. My companion ever since I stumbled upon him on that fateful July day in Israel.
Bob Dylan discovering a cavity, circa 1966.
I remember it well. It was the summer of 2004. I was in Israel for six weeks on Mach Hach Ba’Aretz, which was in essence a continuation of the urgent Zionism the B’nei Akiva youth movement stressed in their summer camp in Pennsylvania, the main difference being that this one was on the actual land they’d extol with such ferocity. It was only about a week into the trip and I was already miserable. My so-called friends who I’d been relying upon to get me through the summer’s social milieu had turned out to be cliquish and exclusive and merely served to nicely highlight and underline my already crippling insecurities.
I’d spent much of that year familiarizing myself with the music of the Beatles. Familiarity led to interest. Interest led to fascination. Fascination led to fixation. Fixation led to obsession. Obsession led to a compulsive existence that for three years framed my world around the dates of 1963-1970 (the years the band was active on a large scale) and December 8, 1980. That frosty December night was in my mind was the most significant date in history, the one that rose above all others. The date that lent meaning to every other one. Whenever someone would speak of an event or mention a date from the late twentieth century, I’d always measure it up by whether it occured before or after the murder of John Lennon. If someone brought up a great song they’d heard from an album released in 1978 I would think, wow, just imagine, that song was around while John Lennon walked the earth. To have been alive on the same rotating orb, the same dusty locus, while it held the great clairvoyant, the insurmountable champion of the human heart, mind, and soul, was beyond me and would continually leave me winded. I doled out much respect to my parents for having been in their mid twenties-thirties during Lennon’s last years.
I had lugged a huge black case with over 30 CD’s along with me to Israel. I’d downloaded all the songs individually and then compiled them into full albums. Rolling Stone’s recent list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” was my consultant. I had Pet Sounds, Are You Experienced?, Astral Weeks, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Wish You Were Here, and of course Rubber Soul and Revolver. There was also an album I took to be a throwaway, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. But on a sleepy afternoon on the bus, I put away A Hard Day’s Night and slipped Dylan into my cracked blue Sony discman.
The first few songs were acoustic and lethargic, and I skipped through them, yawning. Nothing special here. I remember thinking the opening lyric to “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” was “Oh, Ephraim, my widow, leave at your own chosen speed.” I wasn’t impressed. To then discover the 3 minutes and 7 seconds that comprised a little ditty called “I Want You”—to be flung into it without any warning or preparation or way of orienting myself for the discovery that was about to bonk me on the head and utterly devastate me? Damn. My feet left the ground upon first listen. I was floating above myself on the bus as it wove through the Judean Hills. All around us the decimated desert scenery, the parched fields in shades of camel and gray and occasional emerald, seemed meaningless. Religion seemed meaningless. Israel was a joke. Truth? You wanted truth? I thought, directing my flush of self-righteous urgency towards my obviously naive peers around me clamoring for some sort of spiritual high in their token Israel experience. Put on these headphones. That’ll ring more true than any amount of swaying and shuckling at the Western Wall will bring you.
“I Want You.” The way I first heard it, then. The song that rose above the others I’d ingrained in my psyche with such persistence over months of repetitive musical immersion, the one song that could come along and dislodge tunes such as “See Emily Play,” “Dandelion,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Stand By Me” as the songs I’d knighted, selecting them sit in the upper echelons of musical royalty on a throne I’d reserved for them, those I thought of as “the untouchables.” To have this little pipsqueak (I’d seen the photos of him sporting the unflattering and clearly unhip Woody Guthrie cap he favored at the beginning of the Sixties and had subsequently dismissed him as a hopeless rube), to have this bozo come along, with his gruff voice and overlong songs with lyrics bursting at the seams, overflowing with syllables jostling to escape the truncated clause he’d force them into, was an epiphany. What could he possibly have to offer? It was all so clear all of a sudden.
I’m not going to say I escaped the loneliness of that summer into the music of Dylan. That just wouldn’t be true. I never even really got past that one song. But oh god how I wore the crap out of the 3:07 of the eighth track on that CD. I bought Blonde on Blonde back in New York and spent a while getting into the man’s muse and music. It was immersion by degrees for me, a love affair based on the delicate dance of melody and lyric that blossomed slowly into something large and grand and life-defining in the way that only youth can allow for.
The following poem was inspired by that first listen.
I want you.
waltzing wheezing rollicking rolling
tumbling along falling down mad laughing
all the joy in the world the bouncing bumbling bus
the cats across the roof mad in love scream into the drainpipes they sit in
and I sit in the wings shy jealous a little bit afraid
I hear strains I sing along to the wind whipping down fresh over my face
I feel the need the want the trust I see things here I’ve never before
colors break their way into valleys over oceans mined lost hidden
the cracked bells and washed-out horns blow into my face with scorn
me the music and
the sounds and
three minutes up bells and
they don’t stop they just roll up and down on and on and on