It is difficult to overstate the contributions of Bob Dylan, but it is also, for similar reasons, difficult to say anything meaningful about him that has not been said. It’s like talking about the weather or something, “You know, I really like it when it’s raining.” Me too, man. Me too. However, if one were to attempt to overstate the contributions made by Bob Dylan you could begin with thinking about the word “prophet.” Fate wears some people like a glove, and Mr. Robert Zimmerman seems a likely candidate. Like Saul on the road to Damascus – “Zap!” – and you’re plugging in at Newport. Anyway, Bob Dylan, like any good record-mover excelled at changing his style to fit the mood of the times, progressing from naive East-village golden folkie, coming down all “blowing in the wind” on people, to Highway 61 Dylan, writing death blues about the apocalypse, reflecting the fear and loathing around Vietnam and the draft, drug paranoia. That is, by anyone’s count a stunning transformation over the course of a five years. What’s more, leading up to his motorcycle crash in 1966, he put out three unbelievable albums over the course of a little more than a single year. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. Three of the most acclaimed and culturally significant records ever made. It’s the kind of achievement that seems superhuman, as if it could only be accomplished through some divine intervention. And it doesn’t hurt that the music was designed to form a mythology out of America, deliberately placing Dylan as the mouthpiece for the old weird gods.
Then, he was done. Just, utterly done. Burned out. There’s film of Dylan before his motorcycle accident, he’s in a car with John Lennon and a few other people. He’s wasted, spouting gibberish about Johnny Cash. Lennon mocks him to his face, Dylan doesn’t notice. Lennon says later that Bob puked on his shoes as well and they had to stop the car and get him cleaned up. It’s sad and strange, a far cry from the Dylan in Bringing It All Back Home, wiry and mystic and intense, if conceited. There are rumours that there was no motorcycle accident, or that there was a minor accident followed by rehab. At any rate, he retreated from being Bob Dylan for the next few years, putting out low-key country albums and waiting for the sixties to fully die off. It must have felt a bit like that scene in Life of Brian where Graham Chapman tells his crowd of followers “You don’t need a messiah! Just go home and learn to think for yourselves!” And they reply back in unison “Yes! We must go home and learn to think for ourselves!” He has written about the time after his accident, staying in upstate New York with his family, and how fans would come creeping out of the woods around the house, looking for him. “These are the people?” being Bob’s reaction.
To quote the man Bono “the lord moves in mysterious ways.” Dylan’s output after Blonde on Blonde (with the exception of a few albums, ie Blood on The Tracks) has been fairly derided as a kind of watery countryfied Bob Dylan-ey, mishmash. But it’s a funny thing with mythology. When someone is deified there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, there is an actual person walking around in that skinsuit who did all those things and made all those albums, and honestly, the weight of it might be just a little depressing. Because who knows where inspiration comes from? It seems clear that the period in which he wrote all those songs ended in a very dark place, and this can make the divine inspiration narrative even more tempting- he’s Icarus; he’s Saul, blinded by the light. At any rate, whoever he is, he’s coming to town. Word has it the new album isn’t half bad either. — JAMES M. DAVIS