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Like A Complete Unknown

Bob Dylan is Greta Garbo

BY JAMES MOORE

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has never been terribly forthcoming with private thoughts.

For the record, I love Bob Dylan.

The recent 3-1/2 hour PBS “American Masters” epic on Dylan’sfirst six years in the music business, Martin Scorsese’s NoDirection Home, was good viewing. That this self-determined slimster rose from obscurityto mouthpiece of a generation cannot be denied. Anyone who achieves suchiconic celebrityhood is hard not to be fascinated by—especiallyone who, though ever visible, remains largely a mystery.

I have seen Dylan thrice in the past ten years. One was one of the mostexalted concerts I have ever experienced. I actually wrote a tribute songfollowing a concert in Davenport: “Is that light around you shiningfrom above? Is it God’s presence coursing through your gypsy blood?” Itwas the music itself that moved me, not the lyrics per se. Somehow itwas the chord structures themselves, the way melody lines drape over varyingexpanses of simple chord arrangements, combined with that Hank Williams’s “so-lonesome-I-could-cry” moo-cowbellow that nailed me to the cross.

Revisiting the young troubadour’s meteoric rise, as Scorsese presentsit, the way he nimbly conquers the world against the backdrop of the virulent60s, is captivating and positively Gump-like. Dylan, as young crumpledWoody Guthrie-wannabe, seemed to know where he was going even before burstingfrom the confines of a mostly uneventful Minnesotan childhood.

A golden opportunist with a shark’s eye tooth for blood on thetracks, Dylan alchemized whatever was going on around him, turning itinto fodder for his own musical grist mill. Whether it was Woody Guthrie,the folk scene, the civil rights movement, bohemian poetry, or rock’n’roll,like a carrion crow, Dylan fed off current events and people, spinningthem into personal, moving, often anthemic yarns. In the process, Dylanas fearless, self-possessed, charismatic songsmith became a living symbolfor those whose causes he championed, a hip pocket prophet for the boomermasses who piled their hopes and dreams onto his shoulders.

But Dylan’s triple-Gemini nature insured he never lit anywherefor long. The mantle of “spokesman for a generation” probablyseemed silly to such a mercurial psyche as his. He flitted from one thingto another, never looking back, not afraid of alienating fans, keepinghis own counsel, incessantly seeking the truth, or excitement, all thewhile playing his ass off. “I’m just a song and dance man,” heonce told the press, perhaps one of the most revealing things he’sever said.

Like a rolling stone, the coyote minstrel is on the road touring atleast half of every year, something he’s done since 1974 afteran eight-year hiatus following a motorcycle accident. It’s notlike he needs the money. Maybe he actually does get his kicks on Route66—or his fun on Highway 61.

A scrupulous keeper of his own flame, if mainly by default, Dylan hasnever been terribly forthcoming with private thoughts. Even his memoirsreveal very little personal information. Maybe he’s just a privateperson. Maybe he changes so much he doesn’t know who he is. Ormaybe he knows the best marketing strategy—the thing that keepshis mystique alive—comes from being mysterious.

Dylan has always been an enigma wrapped in anomaly. But could it be thatinside the chameleonic stone facade lies the soul of a control freak withheaps of blond on blond ambition? I got a different hit watching thismore-or-less fawning tribute. It’s what isn’t said that strikesme most. Interviewed for the film in the late 90s, Dylan appears uncharacteristicallyrelaxed, even joking a bit here and there, expounding amiably on his earlyyears. He seems downright disarming, an elder statesman comfortable inhis snakeskin.

But key elements of Dylan’s personal drama are either glossed overor simply avoided. There is not a single mention of the role drugs playedin his career. (He is said to have been the one who turned the Beatleson to marijuana.) No mention of either of his wives. There’s a differencebetween personable and personal. As usual, he talks about exactly whathe wants to talk about, reveals exactly what he wants to reveal. Hey,it’s not like he owes anybody explanations. I’m just pointingout that one can be loquacious and evasive at the same time.

Early in his career, Dylan’s penchant for self-mythologizing waslegend, embellishing things along the way. I’m not saying he wasdisingenuous, just Whitmanesque in his pursuit of success. He sought outGuthrie on his deathbed then, mined the connection for all it was worth.The folk-fueled civil rights movement became his carriage, his church,only to be abandoned when his muse led him to rockier pop pastures.

Born with a juggler’s jugular for carpe diem, Dylan has alwayshad a knack for self-promotion—uncanny, unconventional, and brilliant.Sure, he had his finger on the pulse of a generation but he also had theemerging youth market in the palm of his hand.

Dylan is equal parts Barnum-Bailey, Chauncey Gardner, Dylan Thomas, andMarcel Marceau. At the same time, a crazy medicine man wandering the woodshidden behind a constant array of changing masks. But who’s behindthe mask? Perhaps he doesn’t know himself. Or perhaps he knows thereal story isn’t much of a story at all, that inscrutability ismore captivating than any lexis of self-revelation.

Truth is, I don’t have a clue about the jokerman. I have fallenprey to the same disease many Dylan wannabe chroniclers do: Dylanitis.Symptoms include talking out one’s backside and projecting one’sown colors onto a palette filled with so many colors it is essentiallya white slate. Till he offers his own insights on the matter, assuminghe is capable or willing to do so, I guess the answer, my friend, is blowin’ inthe wind.

But here’s my two cents in a nutshell: I believe Dylan’sgreatest creative achievement is not his considerable body of work, impressiveas it is, or his legacy as pop culture icon, or his incredible longevityas a song and dance man.

His greatest feat is the way he pulled himself out of his own hat; how,by the spit of his own brow, he reached such lofty heights without eitherwing melting off. Scrape away the veneer and what’s left is a guymadly in love with the art of musical performance, someone who, for betteror worse, till death do its part, is both master and slave to the creativeprocess itself.

Yeah, it took hard work and timing and incredible talent and ambitionand blind faith and chutzpah and creativity and acumen and tall talesand vision, but when all is said and done, Bobby Zimmerman’s SistineChapel is Bob Dylan.

The fact that his personal life has remained as hidden and off-limitsas the über-reclusive Greta Garbo is just part of his Meister Eckhart-ianunknowable charm.

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