Bob Dylan changed my life at sixteen when I listened to Blowin’ In The Wind for the first time.
I hate that sentence above. It’s true, but I hate it, because it has been true for so many other people. That now-iconic refrain “Yes, and how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?/Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?” has spoken to so many sixteen-year-olds over the decades and all over the world, and suddenly they could see what was right in front of their eyes, the truth and the injustice of our world revealed by a young man desperately singing about his country’s unjust war half a century ago. It made something click in their minds – this too is music, aisa bhi hota hain.
I hate it. Like all lovers, I am jealous – I want my own piece of Dylan, and share it with no one. I wish I could say the first time I heard him was one of those brilliant songs of his that no one really knows – like Tomorrow is a Long Time (“If today was not an endless highway/ If tonight was not a crooked trail/ If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time/ Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all”) or Love Minus Zero (“People carry roses/And make promises by the hours/My love she laughs like the flowers/Valentines can’t buy her”) or Visions of Johanna (“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial/Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while/But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues/You can tell by the way she smiles“) – but unfortunately, I can’t, because you can listen to Dylan for the first time only once. This is the man who has crooned and rasped and prophesized into my ears when there seemed to be no end to the loneliness, the one voice that made sense when nothing else did, the guiding pole star when I didn’t know what to do – what would Dylan do? Like all jealous lovers, I don’t call him what everyone else does – in my mind, he is always Zimmy. Zimmy the poet, Zimmy the rebel, Zimmy the barnstorming rocker, Zimmy the friend. I have very little to say about Bob Dylan the icon, and I have no interest in reciting a litany of his many accomplishments – go read the Hindu or HuffPost if that’s what you’re looking for. This here is for my Zimmy.
It is easy enough to admire the man – protest singer and the voice of a counter-cultural generation in the 1960s, one of the most acclaimed songwriters of all time, trophy cabinet stuffed to bits with Grammys, Oscars and now even the Nobel – and yet he is prickly, elusive and almost impossible to understand. Part of that is that there have been so many Dylans – the Woody Guthrie disciple and purveyor of folk Americana, the electric rocker, the confessional singer-songwriter, the country balladeer, the gospel spiritualist, coming back full circle to his versions of old-school bluesy, folky but muscular ruminations on life, love and all that jazz – his longevity on the Western pop-music scene over five decades and counting has few parallels and could work only because he didn’t remain the same person through all of it. Unlike, say, the Rolling Stones who still act like they’re twenty-five, Dylan grew older very much in the public eye, and his discography bears testament to his growth and changes over the years. There’s the bold experimentation with folk and rock in the prime of his youth on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, there is the bruising meditation on his failed marriage on Blood on the Tracks, there is the flirtation with religion and gospel on Slow Train Coming, there is the early 2000s renaissance where he seemed to have recovered a certain raison d’etre, a joie de vivre for his craft on albums like Love and Theft and Modern Times, and there is now the often reflective but vibrant and bloody late-career masterpieces like Together Through Life and Tempest, albums on which his vocal delivery, always raspy and growl-y to simulate the traditions of the world-weary American troubadour, reaches its epitome in the naturally raspy and growl-y voice of an ex-alcoholic and chainsmoking old man. And yet his singing was never about accessibility or easy beauty. As Rolling Stone noted when they named him the 7th greatest singer in Western popular music, “When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.” And through all these years, that has been the one constant – no matter the genre, no matter the lyrical theme, when Zimmy sings, you believe him.
But the best thing about this malleability, the existence of so many different Bob Dylans, is that he always has a song for wherever I am in my life.
Through the years of teenage rebellion, I loved his taunting the conservatism of the old order on Ballad of a Thin Man, “You’ve been with the professors/And they’ve all liked your looks/With great lawyers you have/Discussed lepers and crooks/You’ve been through all of/F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books/You’re very well read/It’s well known./But something is happening here/And you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?” Of course!
I’ve made many women listen to Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, “With your silhouette when the sunlight dims/Into your eyes where the moonlight swims/And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns/Who among them would try to impress you?“, and if they didn’t like it, I’d quickly lose interest. If they didn’t get this, they wouldn’t get me.
In a contemplative mood, remembering the people who weren’t in my life anymore, I’ve listened to If You See Her, Say Hello on an endless loop, “I see a lot of people as I make the rounds/And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town/And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off/Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting soft.”
And when I want to leave it all behind and just run away, there is always Mr. Tambourine Man to sing me a song, “Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind/Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves/The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach/Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow/Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
And when I listened to Zimmy croon “Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit/When we meet again/Introduced as friends/Please don’t let on that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world” on Just Like a Woman for the first time, I thought it was striking imagery, but I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it till I was broken up with for the first time, and then it all made sense to me, and the song became a friend I’d always need. It’s a beautiful thing, to grow up with someone’s music, and to have it change with you – the words don’t mean the same thing at twenty-two as they did at sixteen, and I imagine there’ll be changes more to come when I am thirty or forty. And that in itself is the mesmerising, vital power of art – to be whatever we need it to be, to comfort and give us solace in our moments of deep despair, and to give us strength when we are in doubt. But I know that throughout it all, no matter how old I am, Dylan’s words will continue have resonance for me. And for a moment, just for a moment, I don’t mind all that much sharing him with the rest of the world.