Dylan at 60: The Sound of Protest
By Michael Cunningham

Bob Dylan turns 60 this month [May 2001]. It has been almost 40 years since Joan Baez took him on stage with her at the Newport Folk Festival, where he appalled just about everyone with his stridently unpretty singing voice and his raucous, edgy lyrics.

Bob Dylan was then, at least in theory, a folk singer. But he wasn't interested in wistful melancholy or febrile lament. He sang about poverty and desperation; he sang about love's limitations in a voice hoarse with feeling.

In the 1960s, like millions of other white, middle-class teenagers, I used to jump around in my suburban bedroom, sing-shouting the lyrics to "Positively Fourth Street" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to my poster-covered walls and narrow bed. Bob Dylan and I were (or so it seemed at the time) ticked off about the same things — America's vanity and hypocrisy — and in love with the same things — anarchic freedom, the strange beauty of the underlife, the whole haunted shimmer of a vast and dangerous world.

I was not a particularly bookish child. I loved Bob Dylan back when names like Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Woolf were mere rumors to me. Hearing Bob Dylan sing "Just Like a Woman", on "Blonde on Blonde," I had my first real sense of transport at the hands of a writer.

I had never before heard anything so passionate and peculiar, so utterly itself. I was knocked out not only by the lithe, effortless rhymes, but by his songs' particular combination of ardor and cruelty; by their implied conviction that the yearning for happiness is a deadly serious business, and that seeking it may not leave your life in any shape you recognize as comfortable or kind.

Every adolescent has heroes, and the people we love in our middle age are rarely the ones we loved during puberty. Bob Dylan, however, has stood up for me. When I write fiction, I hope not only to honor the depth and magic of great authors but to approximate, on paper, the jangly exaltation I felt when the needle touched the grooves of "Blonde on Blonde."

Bob Dylan's most durable gift as a writer may be his obdurate, unapologetic intensity. He has never once been even slightly ironic. He has never stood to the side of anything and commented wryly. In a world swamped by irony, he has held fast.

Bob Dylan belongs to a line that includes not only Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, but Flaubert, Woolf, William Gaddis, and even Maria Callas. Like them, Bob Dylan is one of the slightly preposterous and wholly necessary figures who have risked public humiliation by making no secret of their passions; who have courted reputations as fools, romantics and hysterics; who have rambled the highways so that we in our beds could imagine them out there roaming a world so immense and mysterious that the only conceivable thing to do is try to make art of it.

They understood that their strangeness was part of their strength, and that a great artist can seldom expect to come through with his or her dignity intact. I've tried to learn what I can.


Michael Cunningham is author of "The Hours," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.
He contributed this comment to The New York Times.

This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 2001-05-15 CE, p.9.


He [Marqusee] also notes the transcendent nature of his works, constantly reminding the reader of the current relevancy of so many of Dylan's forty-year-old (yes, forty) songs. Unfortunately, what this also means is that the political system that Dylan spent exposing in the Sixties is more entrenched than we thought. It also means that it's up to those of us opposing that system to not make the same mistakes again. — Ron Jacobs: The Politics of Bob Dylan


From Mr Tambourine Man:

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 ...


For the lyrics of Dylan's songs go here.


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