It all washed over me on one fateful night. And I was reduced to tears.
I had been raised on home grown gospel. Now, I was running as fast as I could in the other direction, steeped in slick pop, tight grooves and clever lyrics, back beats and big guitars, hooks and hooks and more hooks. I appreciated the Randy Newmans and John Hiats of the world and I “got” it. But it wasn’t always my cup of tea.
And though I would never DARE admit it in the company of my peers, I had never really gotten the king of that off-beat mountain …Dylan. I tried to listen to his records but they were bad …really bad. There were guitar clams and variations in tempo and the sonic fidelity just wasn’t up to what I wanted my standard to be.
Then there was the voice …that strange voice that was neither singing nor speaking but doing some atonal variation of the two. There was no range and no dynamic. For someone who aspiring to create the next Toto or Mr Mister, Dylan was antithetical to my musical and lyrical ethos.
Then, one night in my early 20s, I was surfing channels and finding nothing on. Just before I was about to click off the tube and turn in, I stumbled on “Don’t Look Back,” the 1964 documentary about Dylan’s European tour from that same year.
I was transfixed. I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening on the screen. And what was happening on the screen was a man toying with society. He was a trickster, exposing absurdity by being absurd. I saw an artist clearly 4 or 5 steps ahead of his time …by not caring about his time.
Was the joke on him or was it on us? Was he a character or was he real? Was he being ironic or serious about the glasses and the hair …and the voice? Was he sending up rock and roll or was he embracing it? To this day none of us really know.
But in the midst of watching this icon invent himself, I discovered what he was doing with lyric and verse and song. And it fell on me like a ton of bricks. And the artist in me began weeping uncontrollably. He was hitting a bedrock of truth somewhere that hadn’t been hit before. And it was a pivotal moment in my life.
The next day I went out and started buying Dylan records and devouring them. I started reading about him and studying his life. And I started learning.
The genius of Dylan to me, is the fact that he wasn’t actually an anti-war protester or a civil rights leader or any of the things people thought he was. He allowed himself to be co-opted by them and he allowed his music to be their anthems. But if you strip away the specifics of the times, those lyrics could’ve been sung in any time in history and they would’ve still rang true. That’s what makes something timeless and classic. What he was singing in 1964, on that TV screen, was floating into the early 90’s and washing over someone who had not even been born yet when he wrote those songs.
While many of Dylan’s contemporaries are forever locked in the 60’s, Dylan got above the 60’s. And he did it by writing about concepts instead of specifics. He did it by writing from both angles instead of chaining himself to one point of view. He did it by never fearing the complication of humanity, and never trying to oversimplify it.
It was said of Dylan’s songs that the people of the time overlaid their own personal agendas on them and turned them into whatever they wanted them to be. Dylan himself never claimed they were anything other than songs.
I took those lessons from Dylan and applied them to my own artistic journey. And I’ve always been careful to try and stay above the specifics of the moment in my work. Although people think I’m political …I am actually not. I write about concepts …not politics. My political views are informed by human motivation and the human condition …not personalities or people or the expediency of the moment or even morality. When someone says that I am being political, I always smile to myself because I know that THEY are more likely interjecting their own political bias onto my point of view.
Dylan taught me to remain in a place, as an artist, where every person can be criticized or praised; where everyone is wrong and right at the same time; where the answer is never the election of a candidate or the passing of a law, but quite literally …it is blowing in the wind.
When artists endorse candidates and sing at political rallies and get specific about current events in their work, they are diluting their art and their artistic resonance. Art must understand that the current conflict will one day be over; that the sitting president will one day be out of office; that the current, popular thinking on a particular issue, will one day shift. So the work of the artist must be about those things that resonate through time with the human soul …not an agenda of persuasion.
You have to keep an eye on things as they are and recognize that your good guys are bad guys to someone else and your bad guys are good guys to someone else. And although you pull the lever and act on your beliefs as a citizen, your awareness as an artist must transcend those beliefs.
As we approach the current election (that will mercifully, soon be history) I am reminded of a Dylan lyric that captures the paradoxes and contradictions we all wrestle with, and always have, about faith and politics and honor and humanity and fear and love and religion and who is wrong and who is right and why on any given topic. For me, this verse, about possibly the most pivotal moment in human history, sums up so many things in so many ways and yet leaves them open ended at the same time:
In a many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.