Bob Dylan, a self-help guru?
Since Dylan burst upon the music scene in 1961, critics, pundits and fans alike have celebrated his remarkable skills as a songwriter, poet, vocalist and performer of folk and rock and roll music. While I agree with this assessment, I also believe, nonetheless, that it doesn’t quite do this man justice. He represents so much more to me than his work as an entertainer or his life as a musician and writer.
That’s why I wanted to write this book. I think Dylan can teach people life lessons based on his mysterious genius. He stands for longevity, the quality that we all hope to achieve in our careers. Can you think of anybody in your field who has thrived for fifty-plus years?
Longevity is so crucial to our well being, isn’t it? We all want others — not to mention ourselves — to perceive us as being hip, vital, RELEVANT, despite changes in the office, in the industry, and in the world around us.
We all need to feel that we still belong, despite our records of accomplishments or our long tenures. As we look around, we can reflect on people who at one time may have had more talent or promise than any of us. But life simply derailed them along the way and they receded or vanished from the scene.
I look at Dylan’s list of achievements and I am so impressed by his tenacity. He embodies the lesson of “keep on keepin’ on,” to quote from one of his best and most poignant songs, “Tangled Up in Blue,” the kick-off track on 1975′s gem, “Blood on the Tracks.” The man doesn’t quit working, trying, pushing to make his life interesting and approach self-fulfillment in any number of ways. It’s a rare example of someone who never rests on his laurels. In fact, Bob Dylan seldom acknowledges the dazzle of his own back pages. He is always looking ahead. It’s a useful lesson to all of us.
What’s most impressive of all about Dylan’s legacy is that he has accomplished everything on his own terms. If anything, Dylan’s closely held principles probably held him back at various times, such as when this twenty-one-year-old walked off “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the most popular television program of the day, because the producers wouldn’t let him sing the song he had chosen for his big night. Dylan could have benefited enormously from the supersonic push from an appearance on the Sullivan show. But he refused to compromise.
Throughout his five-decade career, he has demonstrated time and again that he will do what he wants and commercial incentives won’t sway him off course. It’s not always easy to stick to your beliefs when the promise of something great exists. I don’t know how many of us would also refuse to make compromises like Dylan did.
No, we can’t learn from Dylan how to write an anthem like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or sing a classic such as “Like a Rolling Stone.” My purpose is to go beyond the songs and try to understand how Dylan has been able to remain in our consciousness for all of these years.
How much has Dylan been in our lives? Remember, he arrived in Greenwich Village from his native Midwest the same week that John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the nation’s thirty-fifth president.
I view Dylan through yet another prism than music. I consider his lifetime of success and hold him up as a role model. Indeed, Dylan inspires people. We have seen presidents, corporate titans, movie stars, athletes and philanthropists embraced as self-help icons because they supply wisdom and give hope to their supporters. They have a great deal to offer.
I put Dylan in the company of these other high achievers because we can all learn so much from studying his example of success.
Think about it. Not many people in any field can match his longevity. His ability to endure in the entertainment industry, in particular, for five decades astounds me. Dylan has thrived in the most public of professions. He has not been perfect, God knows. He has made some foolish moves and sometimes he didn’t respond automatically to the changes swirling around him. And by insisting on doing things his way all the time, he has appeared to the public to be stubborn and aloof. But after every disappointment and apparent defeat, Dylan has managed to pull himself up off the canvass.
I can respect his grit and tenacity as much as his proclivity for writing and singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Hurricane,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “Jokerman,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Things Have Changed,” “Mississippi,” Working Man’s Blues #2” and so many other gems from his back pages.
I don’t intend to write strictly about Dylan’s musical triumphs. Studying his life, I see him in a bigger picture. And that is what drove me to want to write this book. Yes, Dylan possesses special talents. But his natural ability alone is not what has enabled him to remain so relevant and vital for such a long period of time.
What has kept him in the game is his perseverance, his work ethic, and his passion for doing the work, his competitiveness and his ability to convert defeats into victories. These are also the hallmarks of any successful individual in sports or business or politics or the arts. In other words, Dylan can serve somebody as a role model. You don’t have to be a musical peer of his – though he has very few of those, anyway – to see his value and learn from his example.
And we can learn these lessons by studying Dylan’s career and life arc. It has not been — God knows — a steady, relentless series of utter victories. Anything but. The man has made numerous comebacks, lifting himself off the ground after any number of failures or disappointments when albums didn’t sell well or receive gushing praise in Rolling Stone or the daily newspapers or when concertgoers emerged from one of his shows and shook their heads in confusion. Was that Bob Dylan, the Bob Dylan? I couldn’t understand what he was singing about? I couldn’t understand what he was saying, in the first place. And why didn’t he play “Hurricane!?”
I never worry about such matters. Dylan, to me, is a constantly evolving artist, not a mere singer or guitarist. He presents a piece to the puzzle with every new album or gig. It is an ongoing journey. He is going on it and he wants to invite us all to join him. That’s the fun of it. Yes, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Bono, Mick Jagger and others will deliver solid entertainment for two hours at every performance — and we love and revere them for their durability, talent and sheer consistency. But Dylan goes for something else entirely. He wants to be enigmatic. He is teaching us, too, that what matters is being taken seriously, on your own terms.
Bob Dylan has meant a lot to me over the years. As a fan, I appreciate his versatility and marvel at his longevity and his vision as a folkie, a pop star, a country crooner, a gospel singer and a bluesman.
As a journalist who tries to make sense out of the world, I can also recognize a person who has an extraordinary commitment to what he is doing. Dylan is a millionaire many times over but he isn’t all about making money. He is that rarity who lives his life on his own terms. For my two cents, that kind of success alone is as admirable as any of his musical accomplishments.
Dylan has long demonstrated resilience. He has found the strength of purpose to mount comebacks and prove to skeptics that he can bend with the changing times. He proved his mettle after falling into a steep decline throughout the 1980s. By his own admission in “Chronicles, Volume One, his engrossing, well received 2004 memoir, Dylan had lost his muse. Further, he seemed to be out of step with the video-crazed music industry and the “Morning in America”-oriented country.
But tellingly, he set out to show the public that he still belonged. His strategy of touring constantly around the world beginning in 1988, for example, worked brilliantly. His decision to launch what the media came to call “The Never Ending Tour” demonstrated Dylan’s business acumen, as he tapped a new and fertile market for himself. New fans discovered him and reveled anew in the same qualities that a previous generation of fans had appreciated.
The idea for this book grew out of a pretty good source: Dylan himself. In his highly entertaining 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One,” Dylan wrote extensively about what critics and fans have written off as his fallow period, the 1980s. Dylan himself doesn’t shy away from the outside criticism and actually proves to be his own harshest critic in the book.
To see Dylan today, it’s hard to imagine that he went through a decade-long slump. He is riding high now. His albums sell well. He has the clout and the chops to play about one hundred shows a year around the world. He is beloved by a generation of fans that wasn’t even born yet when in the mid-Seventies, he was polishing off “Blood on the Tracks,” often hailed as his best album.
Dylan explained in “Chronicles” that he set out on a deliberate and thoughtful course of action to regain his relevance in our lives. This idea intrigued me – that this brilliant musician – had the wherewithal to craft on such an ambitious and ultimately successful strategy for his comeback.
I listen to Dylan’s music all the time on my iPhone. As with The Beatles’ best stuff, I marvel at how much I am picking up, even after I’ve listened to the same tune for the hundredth time. I can shake my head in wonderment at the wild, driving harmonica solo in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” or the soulful singing of a very wise man in “Workingman’s Blues # 2.” I can smile at the silly knock-knock joke in “Po’ Boy” or the fury of the narrator in “Masters of War.”
Bob Dylan has few peers when it comes to evoking a mood. He can make an audience listen to him in a respectful silence as he tells the story of Hattie Carroll or Willie McTell or Hollis Brown. or he can prompt people of all ages to jump out of their seats and dance to “Maggie’s Farm” or “Tombstone Blues” or “Jolene” or “All Along the Watchtower.”
A few words about the title of this book: “Forget About Today” is a phrase from Dylan’s gem, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (which, coincidentally or not, is also my favorite Dylan song of all). It represents a concept that he has lived and it stands as the cornerstone of his longevity.
He has proven the value of forging ahead and not letting success or failure overwhelm him. You will read in the ensuing chapters how Dylan has done this.
It’s my hope that you will embrace the kinds of life lessons that Dylan has carried out for himself. It’s tricky writing about such a powerful presence – and one who is still going strong. Oh sure, critics carp that Dylan’s voice is too raspy and rough these days. Some suggest that maybe he should leave the road.
If he took the time to read this stuff, he’d probably shake his head. Maybe he’d laugh at the irony that the naysayers are saying today what people wrote fifty years ago: Bob Dylan can’t sing. Dylan is getting the last laugh on all of his detractors because he continues to do what he wants. That lesson in itself is pretty powerful.
In case you were wondering, Dylan did not talk with me for this project. I was asked to submit a formal interview request by email and did so. Through his representative, he politely declined the invitation. I couldn’t feel too badly about the rejection. Dylan seldom grants interviews to authors and usually talks publicly when it serves his needs, upon the arrival of a new album. Most entertainment people have the same game plan.
Nor did I seek his approval to write this book. The opinions expressed on these pages are all mine. I don’t want to present to the world yet another Dylan biography. Likewise, my mission is not to reveal the identity of “Mr. Jones” or offer the millionth theory on the subject.
I hoped to write something more thoughtful and original. Dylan has inspired me, and my guess is that he has inspired you as well.