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60 reasons to be ... tangled up in Bob

A look at the legendary refrains of Dylan, on the occasion of his 60th birthday

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Deflecting full credit for his magnificent body of work, Bob Dylan once said he didn't really write all those songs, he just pulled them out of the air. And to that one can only say, well, that was some pretty rarefied air.

By Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette

Whether or not those words were just blowin' in the wind, when it comes to songwriters, there's Bob Dylan and there's everyone else.

With a career that has ranged from his head-turning 1962 debut to the Oscar he won this year, Dylan is the case of the artist who surpasses his idol -- Woody Guthrie -- as well as his imitators. As John Mellencamp recently told USA Today, talking to Dylan about how he created "Blonde on Blonde" was like "asking a baseball player how to hit a home run. It's just so natural to him."

And looking back at his life, one finds an artist who is not only brilliant but endlessly fascinating. Simply compare his life to any other rock star of his era. Mick Jagger, for instance, puts out another Rolling Stones record and then tours. And repeats the cycle.

In Dylan, you have an enigma who is constantly reinventing himself: the folk singer, the poet, the rock 'n' roller, the voice of a generation, the reclusive family man, the born-again Christian, the orthodox Jew, the washed-up star, the revived star, the tireless troubadour, the elder statesman.

It goes on and on, creating a vast panorama for the Bobcats -- as his fans call themselves -- to ponder and discuss. Pinpointing the latest Dylan irony, Alex Ross recently noted in The New Yorker, "He is historical enough to be the subject of university seminars, yet he wanders the land to play to beery crowds."

More Dylan:

A special Bob Dylan resource page

The 10 essential Dylan discs

Personal myths elude Dylan biographer


Today, Dylan turns 60 and has decided to celebrate without much fanfare. But that doesn't mean we have to let it go by quietly. On the occasion, here are the 60 reasons to be Tangled Up in Bob:

1. For starters, as Rolling Stone states it, he invented an "entirely new language for popular music."

2. Despite his rock 'n' roll upbringing, he found something mythical in the American folk tales of Woody Guthrie. Then he had the guts to leave his native Minnesota, venture to New York to find his stricken hero and befriend him.

3. In the Guthrie tradition, Dylan's machine killed fascists and stepped up for people like Hattie Carroll, George Jackson and Rubin Carter.

4. He dropped a bomb on the military-industrial complex with "Masters of War" in the early '60s and then pulled out the song again during the Gulf War in 1991 (even if you couldn't understand a word he was singing on the Grammys -- but we love him for that, too).

5. To the consternation of activists, while he filled his songs with trenchant political and social commentary, he never took up a cause and never got onto the stump for anyone.

6. Why no Dylan on "The Ed Sullivan Show"? In rehearsals, they said no to "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." Dylan walked.

7. Dylan galvanized a generation with "The Times They Are A-Changin' " and threw down the gauntlet with "He not busy being born is busy dying."

8. Dylan took, as David Bowie would describe it, "a voice like sand and glue" and turned it into something beautiful.

9. Like the joker and the thief, he's managed to confound our expectations at every turn. "There is nothing so stable," he once said, "as change."

10. His reason for writing songs: "I wanted just a song to sing, and there came a point where I couldn't sing anything. I had to write what I wanted to sing 'cause what I wanted to sing, nobody else was writing."

11. Those wonderfully imaginative song titles: "Obviously Five Believers," "Queen Jane Approximately," "Positively 4th Street," etc., etc.

12. He's the ultimate source of cover material: great (Byrds, Hendrix, Grateful Dead), so-so (Peter, Paul & Mary, Guns 'N Roses) and whoa! (Sebastian Cabot and William Shatner).

13. Turning the Beatles on to marijuana. True or not, it's a great story.

14. The D.A. Pennebaker clip for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" created a groundwork for music video.

15. He twisted our notion of time with "My Back Pages": "But I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now."

16. Radio hits have to be three minutes long? Not after the six glorious minutes of "Like a Rolling Stone."

17. Those other epic story songs -- "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Desolation Row," "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," "Changing of the Guards" -- that only he can do.

18. "Blonde on Blonde." Deepest, richest, zaniest, greatest album of all time?

19. Name is on the most famous bootleg ever: "Live at Royal Albert Hall."

20. Never easy with the media, Dylan can shred an interviewer, like the poor soul from Time magazine in "Don't Look Back": "If I want to find out anything, I'm not gonna read Time magazine, I'm not gonna read Newsweek, I'm not gonna read any of these magazines," he railed at him. "Because they have got too much to lose by printing the truth."

21. Dylan has challenged the establishment in so many ways (and so ungrammatically): "Ain't nobody can say anything honest in the United States. Every place you look is cluttered with phonies and lies" (1963).

22. Couple that with his formidable talent for misdirection: "I do know what my songs are about," he told Playboy in a classic 1966 interview. "Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five; and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12."

23. He knew he'd be crucified for it, but he plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

24. That wild tangle of hair and style to spare: from the Guthrie work shirts to Carnaby Street suits to the Jewish Cowboy look on Rolling Thunder to his current cool western wear.

25. And that scowl. Could you stare it down?

26. Protest songs to love songs to breakup songs, he tells it like it is: "Yes, I wish that for just one time/ you could stand inside my shoes/ you'd know what a drag it is to see you" ("Positively 4th Street").

27. "Visions of Johanna": One of the most stunning pieces of pop ever made.

28. Pop-song poetry unheard-of, like this: "The cracked bells and washed-out horns/ blow into my face with scorn/ But it's not that way, I wasn't born to lose you" ("I Want You").

29. And this: "I-I-I wish I could write you a melody so plain/ that could hold you dear lady from going insane/ that could ease you and cool you/ and cease the pain/ of your useless and pointless knowledge" ("Tombstone Blues").

30. And this: "Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial/ voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while/ but Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues/ you can tell by the way she smiles" ("Visions of Johanna").

31. The otherworldly sense of phrasing to make all those lyrics possible.

32. His immaculate imperfection and spontaneous recording style: hurriedly writing songs in the back studio while the band plays cards; letting guitarist Al Kooper crash a session and then asking him to play an organ riff for "Like a Rolling Stone"; picking up salsa violinist Scarlet Rivera ("Hurricane") on the street 'cause he liked how she looked carrying her case.

33. Dylan could have had anyone behind him. He chose the quirky Hawks as his Band.

34. His other choices of collaborators: Tom Wilson, George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Allen Ginsberg, Mick Taylor, the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead, etc., etc.

35. The subterranean wonder of "The Basement Tapes": "You promised to love me, but what do I know/ You're always spillin' juice on me like you got someplace to go" ("Odds and Ends").

36. Going country -- at the height of psychedelia!

37. When his marriage with Sara hit the rocks, he emptied his soul on a series of records -- "Planet Waves," "Blood on the Tracks," "Desire" and "Street Legal" -- that are comfort to anyone facing a similar ordeal.

38. And yet, let the tabloids be damned. Dylan's private life stays private.

39. Rolling Thunder Revue revived the ancient art of touring like gypsies.

40. In the midst of making masterpieces, he also created the world's greatest batch of outtakes -- "She's Your Lover Now," "Series of Dreams," "Blind Willie McTell," et al. -- which are later dropped like manna.

41. He's done some pretty bad stuff, too, to save us all the trouble of worshipping him as a god.

42. That restless spirit: "Hibbing's a good town. I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 15 1/2, 17 and 18. I been caught and brought back all but once ..." (1963)

43. "Money doesn't talk, it swears," he sang in 1965. And, though he's made a bundle, he's never seemed all that enamored of it.

44. Of course, his influence on just about anyone who decided to write a song after about 1964. "[Bob] showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further," said Paul McCartney.

45. His unlikely influence on hip-hop. Pioneering rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy told USA Today: "He taught me to go against the grain."

46. The lovable curmudgeon: his last-second refusal to be filmed during "The Last Waltz" concert.

47. The lovable curmudgeon, part II: "The world don't need any more songs. They've got enough," he said in 1991. "They've got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain't gonna suffer for it."

48. OK, his womanizing ways are hardly commendable, but his children swear he's been a good father.

49. Going Christian -- knowing it would outrage his fan base.

50. The offhand comment during his wacky Live Aid set -- that maybe they should give some of the money to the farmers -- that inspired Farm Aid.

51. Lucky -- the funniest Traveling Wilbury.

52. His mesmerizing performances at the Stanley, the Civic Arena, the I.C. Light Amphitheatre and -- were you there? -- Conneaut Lake Park.

53. "Goin' back to Pittsburgh/Count up to 30" ("Lo and Behold")

54. His triumphant "Time Out of Mind," as fresh a record as can be made about being jaded.

55. The way he caught a sideways glance of Soy Bomb, coolly raised an eyebrow and plowed right on at the 1998 Grammys.

56. "Things Have Changed" and his Oscar night performance of it.

57. The Never-Ending Tour, with a rough-and-tumble cast that can be sublime one night and ragged the next.

58. The way Dylan treats his songs as living creations, changing words, melodies and arrangements.

59. Need a rousing finish? Pick one: "I Shall Be Released," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Forever Young."

60. True to his word, he's always been busy being born.

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