The first Bob Dylan songs I heard were Blowin in the Wind and Tambourine Man, I was told it was "english folk song," and soon after that, I heard The times they are a’changin. I was not more than 12 or 13 years old. I had just graduated from the Western Classical and dancehall kind of music that I heard at home to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, just started learning about the civil rights movement and the war protests, and why the Queen never mentioned the IRA, and things at home in the mid-70s were not very dissimilar.
The so-called "romance" of khatam-ing or doing away with “class enemies” had begun to grip the campuses in what we know as the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, and later other states, attracting the brightest of minds who could not be deterred by the brutalities of the government. For the thinking individual, it seemed time to stand up and be counted against the ruthless and indifferent establishment. Dylan, with his unconventional voice, his deliberate sliding towards but not quite up to a note, his unrelenting loquaciously logorrheic lamentations, and of course, his arrogant mastery of the verse, captured the essence of what we, young and impressionable as we were, wanted to grow up to become.
It was much later, when I went to college that I got to read his amazing writing, as well as learn to discriminate between creativity and commercialism, between spontaneity and self-aggrandizing, and was able to go back and re-listen to his work from the early years, and enjoy the sparks of brilliance that he created in his initial releases, which was not to be seen again till Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, to some extent Love and Theft and, in a more middle of the road sense, in the Traveling Wilburys albums.
Dylan as an inspirational leader of the arts against the establishment in the 60s will never fade away, and neither will a lot of his insanity all through his life. He made nearly 30 years of consistently C grade music, without giving a damn to what the critics had to say. Of course, much of the stuff he wrote during this time still made for gripping reading but were musical disasters. As our generation headed toward middle age, the Dylan of folk, folk rock, and protest song was totally forgotten.
He did weird stuff, going electric (unnecessarily like Tull, and equally badly), going christian and then back again, saying sadly funny things in public, doing films, doing utterly insignificant collaborations with other legendary acts like the Dead, going recluse, doing a long series of bootleg releases, and stuff. But through it all, many of his songs remained timeless and haunting. A short list of favorites is difficult to compile but albums are easier, Highway 61 Revisited, The Times They are A’Changin, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Oh Mercy, Love and Theft, Time Out of Mind, Traveling Wilburys 1 and 3.
On a recent weekend, mindlessly surfing through channels, I suddenly stopped at a grainy B&W footage of Joan Baez and Dylan and as a result, quite unexpectedly got to see one half of the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, and got enthused enough to get hold of the whole documentary and re-live the tumultuous early years of his career. More recently, as I got back some of my older music collection, I was amazed (and embarrassed too) to find that I actually had albums like Slow Train Coming and Planet Waves too in my collection.
While he himself went on, after his initial success, to create the archetype of the shocking, posturing, incoherent rocker, his early years were a far cry from that image, and much like popular social movements that start out with a dream of a better world and then degenerate into body politics void of ideology, it is the very fact that that brilliance was fleeting that endears it so.
Now that Sony Legacy is releasing the first eight studio albums in a box set called Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings, one hopes that the contemporary music lover will get to discover the energy and conviction that lay behind his writing and singing. It is incredibly hard to capture what Dylan was and meant to our times. Do leave your thoughts behind in the comments and share your views on this genius.