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He not busy bein' born is busy dyin'

Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Every day, I toil under two very large, framed posters of Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. Many deadlines have come and gone without a whisper from the Muse that inspired so much of their best work, dashing my theory of creative osmosis to smithereens once again.

It's easy to believe that merely staring at Miles' lips, pursed sublimely on the tip of a trumpet that shines like silver in Herman Leonard's gorgeous 1948 black and white photograph would be enough to short-circuit the writer's block that inevitably strikes during the hours this column is taking shape.

The Dylan poster is a black and white advertisement for D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," a much revered documentary about the rock troubadour's 1965 tour of England. Dylan's face, enlarged and abstracted into a partial pointillist graphic equal parts shadow and light, benefits from the same cool persona that illuminates images of our greatest artists in their peripatetic youth.

Even the cigarette dangling from Dylan's lips provides an interesting visual counterpoint to the trumpet Miles cradles with long, elegant fingers. The posters capture both men at points of maximum artistic production, when the world seemed to reel under the weight of their protean sensibilities.

It seems fitting that the birthdays of two men who've meant so much to me are also two days apart. Dylan turns 60 on Thursday followed by what would've been Miles' 75th birthday on Saturday. Both men recorded their best work for Columbia Records.

Because Dylan is still living, I find myself thinking about him these days, revisiting his albums with fresh ears and marveling at how most of those records continue to hold up decades later.

It seems like only yesterday, though it was the summer of '77, that a painter friend played Dylan's eponymous 1961 album for me on a slow, summer afternoon. I liked it, but it wasn't anything special.

The fact that Dylan was Jewish, had a cherubic face and looked a lot like a buddy from high school startled me more than his singing did. At 20, he sounded like an old black guy singing for change in the neighborhood.

Later, my friend played a Dylan bootleg labeled "Royal Albert Hall 1966." The sound that reverberated at full volume around his loft astonished me, collapsing time and space as it rolled along.

A chill ran down my spine when I heard Dylan's snarling confrontation with a man in the audience who screamed "Judas." The venomous lyrics that followed made the way he sang "Like a Rolling Stone" the most electrifying performance I'd ever heard. It was an arcane world I was being initiated into and I hadn't smoked a single joint.

Several months ago, Dylan won an Oscar for "Things Have Changed," an original song from the "Wonder Boys" soundtrack. Sporting a mustache that made him look like Clark Gable morphing into Vincent Price, Dylan radiated a vital otherworldliness while performing the song via a satellite hookup from Australia.

It was more proof that the acclaim that has shadowed him since 1997's "Time Out of Mind" is deserved. As a wizened, world-weary chronicler of mortality's foolishness, he's never sounded better. Perhaps the fact that I'm not getting any younger has deepened my appreciation for his world view, haunted as it is by ghosts and many earthly regrets.

Turning 60 without losing a scintilla of artistic integrity also says something about the tenacity of a great artist. Our culture fixates on those who've died before their time, rewarding them with superlatives that may or may not have been earned over a lifetime. Dylan's relevance is rooted in a body of work that continues to breathe and mature along with him. Dying would cut his promise short.

Dylan has had plenty of opportunities to leave us, but has decided to hang in there to defy the odds as a living artist rather than a dead icon. That's why a line he tossed off 36 years ago finally makes sense to me: "He not busy bein' born is busy dyin'." Amen and happy 60th birthday, Bob Dylan.

Tony Norman's e-mail address is: tnorman@post-gazette.com.

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