Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

May 22, 2011

USA: Perfectly sane people continue to find Bob Dylan compelling

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Sunday Features / May 22, 2011


One of a kind: Bob Dylan at 70

Special to The Japan Times

Bob Dylan, the single most important artist in the history of popular music, will be 70 years old on Tuesday, May 24.

He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in the flinty, scruffy city of Duluth, Minnesota, which teeters on the hills that plummet down to the shores of Lake Superior — a lake so large it has tidal movement. But when he was 6 years old, his parents moved further north and west to the iron-ore town of Hibbing up on the Mesabi Range.

Iron ore built the town, and built the remarkably lavish Hibbing High School that Dylan attended: a school whose concert hall has a hand-plastered, hand-painted ceiling whose crystal chandeliers imported from eastern Europe are lowered three times a year for cleaning, and a stage large enough to accommodate the entire Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.

Bob Dylan in 2006, when his 32nd studio album, "Modern Times," went straight to #1 on the U.S. charts.

This is the hall in which the schoolboy Zimmerman first performed, on piano, with his rock'n'roll group The Golden Chords. He hammered out Little Richard numbers on a 1922 Steinway Grand. And when he was leaving school in 1959, he wrote in his high school yearbook under "Ambition": "To join Little Richard."

But by the time the young Dylan had spent a semester at the University of Minnesota, and then dropped out, Little Richard wasn't really available to be joined, having renounced secular music for gospel.

Meanwhile, the rock'n'roll of that generation of artists — including Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis — was being pushed off America's airwaves by nervous advertisers and replaced by a milksop kind of pop that held no interest for the young man from Hibbing. In any case, by this point he had encountered the prewar blues recordings of Leadbelly, the campaigning songs of Woody Guthrie, acoustic folk guitarists in Dinkytown, the bohemian enclave of Minneapolis-St.Paul, the writing of Jack Kerouac and more besides.

All this made sense to him as, with his usual impeccable timing, he arrived, calling himself "Bob Dylan," in New York City's Greenwich Village at the very beginning of 1961 — a 19-year-old already making up romantic stories about his past — just in time to take part in the most exciting period of the the folk music revival then in full flow. A fearless performer, a charming urchin and a pushy, slippery youth, he soon got attention; an attention he held with the striking, forceful songs he began writing so prolifically.

On stage in Bordeaux, France, in 2010 © COLIN MOORE; on the set of "Masked and Anonymous" (2003). Sony Music Japan International Inc.

"How many years can a mountain exist / Before it's washed to the sea? / Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist / Before they're allowed to be free? / Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn't see? / The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind . . ."

It's hard to feel this now, but back in the early '60s, "Blowin' in the Wind" was a wholly new, exciting song — and in a time of racial struggle and conflict across America, a time too of general repressive restraint, this "protest song" spoke out, articulating what so many young people were feeling.

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© Michael Gray, 2011

Michael Gray is a critic, writer and broadcaster recognized as a world authority on the work of Bob Dylan. He is also an expert on rock'n'roll history and the blues, with a special interest in prewar blues. He grew up on Merseyside, England, and now lives in France. His website is
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