I was eleven when I first saw him. Okay, I didn’t see Bob Dylan-I heard him from my gyrating post between love handles of expired hippies at the Minnesota State Fair. I was too short to catch a glimpse of anything meaningful, even a wisp of the unruly hair that defied the trends of any decade so far. The concert wasn’t my first aural glimpse of Mr Zimmerman-I’d protested “The Man in the Lawn Got Cold” (The Man in the Long Black Coat) in our red Dodge Caravan enough times to really know the voice that no one can like, but that so many can love. I grew up on Bob Dylan. He was the unknowing companion of my single, titanium mother.
I played the hating Dylan game for years, but imperceptibly he drew me in. I couldn’t deny any more how his poetry spoke to a basic part of the soul that you can’t define or corrupt with political correctness. I became a fan. Chambray (for that’s what I called her because high school girls must necessarily mock their mothers) and I saw Bob again around 15 times over a period of a few years. He played a fantastic acoustic solo for Tangled up in Blue at the supposedly haunted Eagle’s Ballroom in Milwaukee. I swayed to it again in Sioux Falls, Fargo, Madison, Des Moines, Iowa City, Madison, Milwaukee and Duluth. I never quite did get untangled.
We called Paul Simon Al, Kenny Wayne Shepherd bobbed his long blond locks up and down, The Jayhawks played under blue lights and Ani DiFranco sported drawn-on facial hair. They all opened for Bob and tweaked the composition of the crowd. The joints passed freely between generations as the lights came up for dancing during Rainy Day Women. We commented on his mustache, his twinkling eyes and his awful sequin-trimmed pants. Eventually I got on stage and kissed him on the cheek; I think it was in Mankato, Minnesota. Chambray ordered a bootleg VHS of the concert from the primitive internet so she could repeatedly watch me jump off the stage into a crowd of equal parts old ladies and frat boys.
When I was working in a mailroom in college, I requested Bob from the campus radio station and they played Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright. It was the first time I heard it; it’s still one of my favorite songs of all time. Later that year, Chambray took me to a Dylan exhibition at the Weisman gallery in Minneapolis. There, tucked into a tiny listening booth I discovered To Ramona, and made myself cry. Bob’s manic harmonica took me through breakups (You’ll go your way and I’ll go Mine), and his sharp words reminded me how best to insult someone: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes; you’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
Jimi Hendrix, Axl Rose and Jerry Garcia may have covered him, but some of the best Bob Dylan covers are by Bob Dylan himself. I remember witnessing my first open protest during the 1991 Grammy Awards. Chambray was hooting and slapping her knees with laughter as Bob accepted a lifetime achievement award during one of the Bush Iraq invasions. He was playing “Masters of War” in his completely incomprehensible way so the bow-tied crowd could clap as he mocked them (for his credit, I think Jack Nicholson got it).
Chambray told anti-smoking parables with the Nashville Skyline album – “Listen to the richness of his voice without the cigarettes,” and domestic animal advice through Bob’s life experiences: “Don’t get a rabbit. Bob ended up with histoplasmosis and couldn’t play the harmonica for a year.” She feels eternally guilty for slipping by the bouncers at First Avenue for a Wallflowers concert, just to see what Bob’s son, Jakob Dylan, looked like. Instructions in the event of her death read, “Please play any Bob Dylan song at my funeral except for Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
I’m now 36 and just brought my 8 year-old son to his first Bob concert. It was in Saarbrucken, Germany. It was wonderful to see the bored annoyance my son radiated; I realized I’d come full circle. I don’t think he’ll have time to see Bob in the ruins of a roman amphitheater in Sicily as Mount Etna erupts in the background like I did with Chambray. He won’t see Mr Dylan in Amnéville, France, with his spouse snoozing in the stands next to him as calls his mother on another continent to play her Mr Tambourine Man. But maybe we’ll catch Bob a few more times on his never ending tour, with Chambray.