erik lundegaard


Tuesday May 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Bob

A few years ago some friends and I were having an online discussion of a song, The Damnwell's “I Will Keep the Bad Thing from You,” and one of my more critical friends thought it unworthy, particularly the refrain “Catch it while you can/ It's the feel-good hit of the summer.” I liked the song, defended it elsewhere, but agreed with that critique. Then he said it was unworthy by comparing it to Bob Dylan and I drew the line. “Dylan's off limits,” I said. “It's like saying some new movie sucks because it isn't 'Citizen Kane.'”

Seriously. Dylan has written our best love songs:

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

--“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” from the album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” 1965

He has written our best political songs:

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

-- “Masters of War,” from the album, “The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan,” 1963

He has written our best story songs:

The hanging judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
The drilling in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
It was known all around that Lily had Jim's ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
No nothing ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts.

-- “Lily, Rose, and the Jack of Hearts,” from the album, “Blood on the Tracks,” 1975

Funny? Yes:

Now, I gotta friend who spends his life
Stabbing my picture with a bowie-knife
Dreams of strangling me with a scarf
When my name comes up he pretends to barf
I've got a million ... friends

--“I Shall Be Free No. 10,” from the album “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” 1964

Insulting? Of course:

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you

-- “Positively 4th Street,” a single, 1965, and on the album “Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits”

Timeless? The times are a' changin' but the wisdom in his songs often felt ancient and eternal:

Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

--“Girl from the North Country,” from the album, “The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan,” 1963

How about spiritual?

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

--“Gotta Serve Somebody,” from the album “Slow Train Coming,” 1979

It's actually better to mix and match categories since most bleed into one another. “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” may be our best political song, as well as a great story song, with a bitter angry humor to its last verse:

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence

--“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” from the album “The Times They Are a Changin',” 1964

I could go on. Sometimes I say that phrase and don't mean it, but I could reproduce great Bob Dylan lyrics all day, on this day, his 70th birthday. Instead I'll just link to his site where you can read the lyrics yourself. I'll link to Loudon Wainwright III's now-20-year-old song, “Talkin' New Bob Dylans,” a humorous take on the difficulty of coming up in his wake. I'll recommend Martin Scorsese's superlative documentary “No Direction Home,” from 2005, which gives a portrait of the artist, and of creativity, that is among the best I've seen. Scorsese reminds us that none of us are nouns, we're all just verbs, we're all moving from one place to another—one sacred place to another, J.D. Salinger would say. It may even suggest that the true problems of the world arise when we dig in and say, “No, this is it. This is the one thing. Only here is where meaning lies.” Dylan didn't do that. Dylan kept going. He's still going.

Posted at 08:34 AM on Tuesday May 24, 2011 in category Music