Friday, May 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Robert Zimmerman

By Robert Herriman

May 24, 1941 was to me as a teenager and still is for many people the birthday of an American poet. Robert Zimmerman, or as he is more well known, Bob Dylan is one of the icons of modern music history and was one of my favorites for decades.

It started in the mid-70s when I bought Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits. This was actually the third piece of vinyl I ever bought (Elton John's Greatest Hits and KISS Alive were the first two, pretty eclectic for a teenager, huh?). I remember playing "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" on my tabletop turntable in my basement bedroom bellowing "everybody must get stoned" in the most nasal voice I could muster.

As I accumulated more of Dylan's albums, I increasingly became enamored with the lyrics. I thought to myself, "is there any word this guy can't rhyme"? Honestly, Dylan's lyrics were probably the first exposure I had to any type of political thought. Whether it was concerning racial issues (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll) or what had happened in Vietnam (Masters of War), I was in awe of how well he could tell a story. It was akin to reading the newspaper.

Dylan also fascinated me in the enigmatic way he could jump from genre to genre, not for one second worrying about what the critics would say. If it wasn't folk protest songs, he would be cranking out bluesy rockers, dabbling in country with Johnny Cash in "Nashville Skyline" or modern gospel with the Sultan of Swing himself, guitar virtuoso Mark Knopfler in "Slow Train Coming", his ever changing style always intrigued me.

As a teen in many relationships and the bad break-ups that went along with it, "Blood on the Tracks" became a staple of heartbreak, scorn and even bitterness. "Idiot wind, moving every time you move your mouth". In that same basement bedroom, I would listen to these songs over and over trying to figure out the meaning and imagery of the lyrics. I devoured every book written by some self-proclaimed "Dylanologist" attempting to decipher the meaning behind the elusive songwriter's lyrics. I even went through the painstaking task of reading the most incomprehensible book of all time, Dylan's "Tarantula". What a mess that was!

The only time I saw Dylan live was during the Slow Train Coming tour in 1980 at the Loews Theatre in Syracuse. This was a concert tour that was only going to feature songs related to his conversion to Christianity. As I sat in the audience just absolutely thrilled I was about to see Bob Dylan, I took in the repertoire of his born again gospel playlist, I could hear the grumbling and actually some people walking out because they were displeased with the lack of Dylan "classics" being offered. I couldn't help but think how this may compare in a small way to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that I read about where Dylan came out for his second set with an electric band and totally upset the folk purists in the audience.

Dylan is also a survivor. In 1966 he had a serious motorcycle accident in Woodstock, New York and three decades later he survived a life-threatening fungal heart infection called histoplasmosis. Bob Dylan's influence can be heard throughout the decades in the music of songwriters like Lennon, Springsteen and Petty, to name just a few.

Well, Happy 69th birthday Robert Zimmerman, whatever persona you are taking on these days.

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