My Life with Bob Dylan

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“And here I am in 2016, sitting next to Sally in this neighborhood arena in Forest Hills, surrounded by people of mostly my generation, all in various states of raw awe, all with their own personal inner relationships with this enigmatic genius that have filled their lives like mine. And I’m listening to his music of NOW! It is a surprise, as I knew it would be, but in ways I could never imagine.”—By Jerry Zimmerman

Squibs & Blurbs

By Jerry Zimmerman

Dylan, early.

Dylan, early.

Jerry Zimmerman

TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—8/1/2016—The evening is cool and cloudy, finally dry after a short outburst. The small open stadium is alive and packed, intimate and personal. The stage is simple, outlines of instruments in the darkness with random pinpricks of reflected light.

We are all holding our breath.

Suddenly, a murmur, then a sea-swell of noise, a rushing roar as everyone stands and cheers at the same time.

There he is.

A small, slightly awkward figure in a black bolero suit, formal white stripes down each leg reflecting small drops of spotlights. His hat is achingly beautiful, Spanish and classical with a wide, straight brim—a flamenco dancer’s proud statement. I immediately want one.

He struts as if about to fall, tip-toeing and shuffling, an indescribable movement caught between injury and power. His arms move confidently, lightly fluttering up, first one hand defiantly on his right hip, then both hands wide out to measure time and space.

He looks like a drunken matador, finally ready for the bull. He sidles up to the microphone. He grabs it by its throat. He looks away.

He relents and brings his face close. 

He begins to sing.

It is Bob Dylan.

This is the first time I’m seeing him live and I am just totally knocked out.

I’ve been listening to Dylan’s music for 50 (yes, I said 50) years. I first heard of him from my college friend Bill Vollers, a fellow art student at Syracuse University. In 1966, Bill dragged me to his dorm room to play an album he had just bought (most likely “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) and desperately wanted me to hear. I listened and left his room thinking “Whaaat? What was with that raspy voice, what was he singing about?”

A couple of listens later, I was hooked. There was magic there, a mysterious pull on my head and my body. The strange lyrical stories meshed with my 19-year-old collegiate proto-nihilistic musings, the music made my body twitch—it was addictive.

Since those antediluvian days, different periods of my life have been devoted to listening to different types of music from all types of people and all types of places. I have discovered and enjoyed everything from Captain Beefheart to Mozart to Sade to rural mountain country to rap to hip hop to punk to soul to rhythm and blues to jazz and much more—a select feast sampling all the wonders of music available on the planet.

Yet I keep returning to Dylan.

And Dylan never stands still. He constantly charges along, changing genres, mixing styles, hooking up with new musicians, surprising all expectations, and defying all labels, no explanations given nor needed.

Not that all his music seems instantly wonderful. Much, if not most, of his new music seems a strange veer, an odd path, vilified by many critics and sometimes by large swaths of his ardent fans. I, too, am often gravely disappointed listening to the “new” Dylan. And I have learned not to panic but, rather, to slowly immerse myself in the latest “that-doesn’t-sound-like-Dylan” offering.

Just as in 1966, more listening brings a greater depth of understanding about what he is doing and what I am hearing. The eventual result: flat-out amazement at how wonderful his new stuff is! How does he do that?

Perhaps one answer is that as we grew up together, we matured together, his searching and discoveries in music matching my searches and discoveries in life. Songs that are harder to fathom on first blush, more nuanced and unknown, have a greater depth and reveal greater riches as time goes on. Many newer songs become my favorite “classics.”

Through the years, at a party, just hanging with friends, working in my studio, doing the dishes, driving my kids in the car, paying bills—more likely than not, I am listening to Dylan. 

But not as background music. Dylan has always been my constant companion, his lyrics speaking of questions and connections and his music making my blood race up and down, like hot, jumpy lava. I’m still addicted.

Dylan, late.

Dylan, late.

And here I am in 2016, sitting next to Sally in this neighborhood arena in Forest Hills, surrounded by people of mostly my generation, all in various states of raw awe, all with their own personal inner relationships with this enigmatic genius that have filled their lives like mine. And I’m listening to his music of NOW! It is a surprise, as I knew it would be, but in ways I could never imagine.

His voice is so scratchy as to be radio static; his band is so tight as to be taut. A few old classics re-worked into versions you would hear in a dream; some ballads, once sung by Sinatra, dissonant at first and then charming, like pebbles covered in silk; and the new music, filled with Spanish and country and blues and honky-tonk, as if aliens from Jupiter had sent their best musicians to play Earth’s music in their own language. It is sublime . . . .

When I first heard Bob Dylan’s music at the dawn of the hippie generation, what he had to say and how he said it was revolutionary and visionary—he appeared on the scene fully formed as the Poet-Compatriot to my generation. As we have aged along with him, he still speaks to and for a lot of us, the beautiful iconography of his imagery always enthralling, even as his subject matter has continually evolved from protest to adulthood, to love, desire, and loss . . . and now to hints of joy.

His language created our language, a way to sing along and keep connected with our own Sixties community as we all traipsed out into the maze of life.

It is here in Queens, 50 years down the road with Dylan, that I discover something new, something that was always there, something so large as to be hard to see clearly.

Listening to him in person, I am overwhelmed by the realization that Bob Dylan just loves to sing, that he just loves to play the piano and harmonica, that he simply just LOVES TO MAKE MUSIC.

This is why I keep coming back, why I’m always thrilled to hear a song for the two-hundredth time. 

His writing is genius, his language is devastating. Yet to me, it is his music that speaks the loudest and resounds the deepest. I feel the love, the beat, the pure joy of Bob Dylan making music.

To be with him while he does it, to be in that space with him? Still? Wow, wow, wow.

There are several lyrics Dylan has written over the years that my good friends and I have shared as touchstones in our lives, remarkable snippets of language that encapsulate whole swaths of experiences that we share and honor.

My favorite: “Nothing is revealed.”

Tonight, Dylan’s performance has revealed something.

The “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands” has finally smiled. The “mystery trend” has lifted.

It’s the music, Man.

Image Credits: Dylan, early: Minneapolis Star Tribune/Zuma Press/Corbis; Dylan, late, by William Claxton.

About Jerry Zimmerman

Jerry Zimmerman was born and bred in Pennsylvania, artified and expanded at the Syracuse School of Art, citified and globalized in New York City . . . and is now mesmerized and budo-ized in lovely Teaneck, New Jersey. In love with art and artists, color, line, form, fun, and Dada, Jerry is a looong-time freelance illustrator, an art teacher in New York’s finest art schools, and a full-time Aikido Sensei in his own martial arts school. With his feet probably and it-is-to-be-hoped on the ground, and his head possibly and oft-times in the wind, he is amused by the images he finds floating through his mind and hands. Author Photo: David Zimand

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