Some of my earliest childhood memories were set to the soundtrack of the crack and pop of vinyl on the record player in my parent’s living room. There were tapes too, but our household was one of records. Played loudly through the speakers that seemed so huge, they might as well have been suspended from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden. Dancing, singing, spinning in circles in the living room to the music that was so infused in my blood from such a young age that it seemed like part of me. Part of my family. Learning early that I could only dance so hard otherwise those wonderful sounds that escaped from those huge speakers would “skip”.
Nowadays, my own home is also filled with music all the time. I find myself still dancing, only now I have a child of my own, a son, who I delight in infusing with the music that means so much to me. Ours comes mostly out of my iPod or computer speakers. I look at my son…and I realize that while he knows what a record is (I still have them), he doesn’t know like I did what it was like to dance and have to be careful not to skip the record. He and I dance all over the place, bump into furniture, fall down in a fit of giggles, and the music doesn’t miss a beat.
I also look at those speakers my dad had, long blown out by blasted industrial and heavy metal by my brother and I in our teens while our parents were at work, and I realize how small they are now. But in those memories, they were monstrous. In my defense, I was kinda small.
There was a lot of folk and electric folk music in our house. My mom had a thing for Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Seekers, Simon and Garfunkel, and others of the late sixties and early seventies folk scene. My dad was into an eclectic mix of Moby Grape (he played “Omaha” over and over), Janis Joplin, Benny Goodman’s live album, with heavy doses of The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, The Doors, and other masters. Then he would dip into the metal stylings of Judas Priest…he had Live Aid on VHS that he recorded off TV and loved their performance with the in sync headbanging of the guitars and bass. He also loved Ozzy and Black Sabbath. It is because of my dad that I love Led Zeppelin. It is because of my mom that I love Billy Joel. There was George Thorogood. There was John Denver. The Fugs. The Cars. Our home was well rounded.
One of the most common family visitors who entered through our turntable and came out through those speakers was the amazing Robert Zimmerman…better known to most as Bob Dylan. My father was and remains one of the biggest Bob Dylan fans I have ever met…though I like to think these days I am not far behind him. Some of my earliest memories are of that voice that didn’t sound like anyone else, that harmonica that screamed through the speakers, piano, guitar, and how it all blended together and made me feel warm. Even now, I listen to the sounds of Dylan and it takes me to that living room. When I didn’t know what it was to worry about anything more than whether or not I would get yelled at for not cleaning my room like I was asked to do, if I had school tomorrow, and brushing the knots from my thin blonde hair after I shook around the room.
Hearing “Like A Rolling Stone” break in with Al Kooper’s organ playing is one of my all time favorite sounds in the entire world. An amazing song from start to finish, there has been much debate as to the inspiration for this 1965 classic and it’s lyrics. Everything from Edie Sedgwick and the Andy Warhol scene of the day to it being simply about Dylan’s self conflicts at the time. No one knows but Bob, and if you have seen any of the few, you know he is hardly specific about anything at all in his interviews. It’s been covered by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Green Day.
It’s surprising to note that prior to the success of this song, a Bob Dylan who had grown exhausted of the public’s perceptions of him had debated quitting the music business. I am sure I am not alone thanking whoever was responsible that he didn’t. To me, it’s the sounds of youth. It’s an amazing creation that was thought strange at the time by those big cigar toting record execs for it’s length, at over six minutes. Frank Zappa was quoted as saying it was the song that made him want to quit the music business saying, “…if this wins and does what it’s supposed to do, I don’t need to do anything else…”
To me, it’s been poetry. A blanket when I was cold. Strength when I felt weak.
As I grew older and began writing myself, my appreciation for Bob Dylan took on a whole new light. I found myself engulfed in the way he strung words together making poems, stories, non-fiction accounts of times before I joined this human population. I saw an interview not long ago where Bob was asked if he could write songs like those from earlier in his career…some of those he is known best for…again if asked. He said no…that he did it when it was time to write them. He can’t remember how he wrote them. They were just there. I think he is right to say that songwriting sometimes just comes, and when it comes, you make it come to life. If it’s gone, you sometimes can’t get it back. It’s not just songs. It’s writing. It’s art. I find it in my own writing…and I am hardly Bob Dylan.
I found anger in his music…in songs like “Masters of War”, off The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I didn’t know about the war of which it is assumed he spoke. I know of what my parents told me of those times. My parents met in college. They graduated high school in 1968 and were married in 1972. They were at a great age for a great time in music, but a terrible time for war. Still, some of those lyrics transcend time. They translate to the life of anyone feeling anger and struggle against someone who attempts to exert control over us, hurting us and those we love. Taking friends so far away. Sometimes they didn’t come back.
In October of 1992, there was a 30th Anniversary concert done for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. I remember my best friend’s parents ordered it on pay-per-view and VHS recorded it for my parents. At the time, having been a HUGE Pearl Jam fan as they were just coming up in the music world, I was excited that Eddie Vedder would be there to perform a Dylan song. His choice was “Masters of War”. I don’t think there could have been anyone more appropriate to best represent the emotion in this song the way Dylan wrote it. I was floored. I still am.
I found love in his music. Songs like “Lay Lady Lay”, off of Nashville Skyline but originally written for the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy. A song that talks about realizing your love, and wanting so much for your love to realize theirs for you. “Why wait any longer for the world to begin? You can have your cake and eat it too. Why wait any longer for the one you love when he’s standing in front of you?”. Are you a romantic? Tell me those words don’t reach right into your soul and stir you like a pot of boiling soup. There is a story there, behind that song, but you don’t need to know what it is to know you can feel that. You have been there. Maybe you are there. Bob was there. And he made that moment sing to us.
Covered by everyone from The Byrds, to Melanie, to Ministry…it’s a song that no matter where you are in time, it will still speak to someone. Some people don’t realize upon first hearing this song that it’s Bob Dylan. This, like many songs on Nashville Skyline, were sung in a lower, smoother tone that Dylan had attributed to having recently quit smoking. There are several legends that revolve around the writing of “Lay Lady Lay”. My favorite is completely unconfirmed but goes as follows:
According to Johnny Cash, Dylan had played the song first in a circle of singer-songwriters that had gathered at Cash’s house outside of Nashville. Cash claims that several other musicians and writers were there sharing their new, unheard songs with one another. Dylan played “Lay Lady Lay”, Shel Silverstein played “A Boy Named Sue” (later made famous by Cash himself), Joni Mitchel played “Both Sides, Now”, Graham Nash played “Marrakesh Express, and Kris Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee”, later made famous by Janis Joplin.
Can you imagine being a fly on the wall in THAT room?!
My love for what Dylan creates…the legends, the sounds, it transcends everything. I danced with my father to “You’re a Big Girl Now” at my wedding. I sing “Forever Young” to my son. I find myself singing verses of “Maggie’s Farm” to my pit bull Maggie when I am cleaning the house, as she follows me around. As I was blasting “Tombstone Blues” on my way to work this morning, I was thinking what it must have been like when his music was new to the radio. My father tells me stories about how much my grandmother hated when he played Dylan on the family record player. Didn’t stop him. He still blasts it on his record player to this very day.
But there are so many legends and stories of his shows at small clubs and coffee houses of the village. His visit to Woody Guthrie at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, just up the street from where I sit right now writing this. How he had a love affair with Joan Baez that brought them to civil rights rallies, and created beautiful and amazing music they both shared…even being so different. How he escaped the public eye with the wife he married in secret and lived quietly in a house in Woodstock to start his family. How so many people got so much of what he said all wrong. His toying with reporters who asked him silly questions. His introducing The Beatles to marijuana, probably assisting in the amazing albums that followed…Rubber Soul…the White Album.
We just passed the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first album. So much of a life lived by such a creative man…who every time I see him, looks like he just wants to go sit somewhere quiet and have a cup of coffee and read the paper. I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to tell him what he has done and continues to do every day as influence and just simply to soundtrack so much of my own life. But he has. And in my own way, I thank you, Bob.