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Saturday, May 21, 2011

....Of Me And Mr. Dylan - 'Born In Time'

She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”

I guess I discovered Dylan at the most opportune time possible. I was 17, just finishing high school and preparing to join Medical School. This involved, among other things, moving from Jhelum - a modestly big city - to Rawalpindi - a proper 'big city'. Rawalpindi had, in my opinion, the greatest record store in all of Pakistan - Sadaf CD's - a place that was tragically destroyed in an unfortunate fire in 2008. It was at Sadaf that I bought my first Dylan record, the only one they stocked - The Essential Bob Dylan. In hindsight, it was lucky for me that a compilation album was my first Dylan record, because in these two CD's, I got to hear a pretty good sampling of Dylan's career from 1962 to the end of the nineties. So that I was blown away by the beauty of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" one instant, and laughing bemusedly at "Quinn The Eskimo" the next. The drunken hilarity of "Rainy Day Women #12 And #35" was followed by the evangelical earnestness of "Gotta Serve Somebody".

Over the course of two hours and two CD's, I tried to digest - or at least swallow - four decades of Dylan, from Blowin' In The Wind to Things Have Changed. The album was on constant rotation on my discman for two weeks, to the point where I literally wore out the discs. I was entranced by the lyrics - not understanding them but nevertheless being moved - , the melody and Bob's singing style. The selections were all from studio albums, so there was a minimum of Bob's infamous live performance mumble-drawl-growl-yelp on display, but still, the voice was something new for me. As I've written somewhere earlier, English music for most of my childhood began and ended with John -Sweet 'n Melodious- Denver, followed by a brief infatuation with boy-bands. Dylan was my first experience of a ,howshallIputit, an unusual voice. It was a voice that for lesser artists would have been a liability, but Bob's delivery, his phrasing turned it into almost a distinct musical instrument. It was later, when I discovered Tom Waits and Neil Young, that I realized that Bob wasn't the only genius blessed with a distinctive voice.

Two weeks after I had bought my first record, I was back in the record store, scouring their shelves for something, anything by Dylan. They had only one other Dylan album - Love And Theft. I wasn't sure if latter-day Dylan would be to my liking or not, but a Dylan record was a Dylan record. I bought it, brought it to my dorm room and popped it on the discman. I was in for a shock, unless I was too addled by my new found admiration for Dylan or latter-day Dylan was just as absolutely amazing- if not more - as the Dylan of the mid-sixties. The voice was clearly shot, but man was he rocking! In one album, he was crooning - in Bye And Bye and Moonlight, belting out the blues in Lonesome Day Blues and Honest With Me, and weaving lyrical magic - in Mississippi and Floater(Too Much To Ask). Here was the brilliant tongue-in-cheek wit of Leopard Skin Piil-Box Hat and Bob Dylan's 115th Dream all over again in lyrics like

Romeo, he said to Juliet, “You got a poor complexion
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!”
Juliet said back to Romeo, “Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much”

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?”
She says, “I gave it to you, you drank it”

That's when I discovered 'my' Dylan. To me, he was not a protest singer, a folkie or a folk-rocker, a relic of the sixties or the seventies. My Dylan was a current, relevant artist who was very much a part of the present and not a relic of the past. Over time, thanks to a friend gifting me the complete Dylan discography - to this day, the greatest gift I've ever recieved - , I'd spend months at a time exploring the various eras of Dylan's career, but overwhelmingly, the Dylan I related to was modern Dylan. As I wrote to a friend around this time four years ago :

"It's Bob Dylan's birthday today, the 66th,and I'm sittin here listening to the Basement Tapes,thinking of writing a post 'bout the grand old man... The seventh Harry Potter book,finally time for closure to childhood.Dunno why,but it feels like I've been part of something while reading 'em. I mean,I wasn't there when the Beatles were there,or when The Catcher In The Rye came out,or when the Lord Of The Rings was published,or when whatever happened. That part of our collective conscience has been passed down to us through others older than us.
        But this has been going on in front of me,In my own lifetime,and I've taken part in it in a way.I mean,I'll be able to tell my children one day,(highly unlikely)as they pore at my dog-eared copies of the Potter books,"Yeah laddie,I was there when these came out,and I read each one of 'em hot off the presses !!"
          That's the case with Dylan as well.His work from the '60s,'70s and '80s,although magnificent,is not that personal.But Modern Bob,that's my personal Dylan.He's all the more personal 'coz he's doing it all in front of my own eyes. When he says, 'The future for me is already a thing of the past", you can almost feel yourself nodding and saying, 'I get what you're saying,man.'. I hope I got the meaning across....."

 It was after Love And Theft that I initiated myself into the cult of the Bobsessives. Expecting Rain became my internet home-page, I eagerly read the set-lists and reviews after each Dylan concert and started counting down to the new album that was going to be released, "Modern Times". I remember pre-ordering the album and walking a mile to the record store to get it the day it arrived. It was just half a minute into the first track that I discovered that 'my' Dylan was at it again,

"I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee"

As Bob turns seventy, I thank the fates that he's still at it. Still touring, still releasing albums and still keepin' on at what he does best,  reinventing popular music, not tied down by half a century of creative output; living up to the challenge he so confidently threw in the brilliant Spirit On The Water :

You think I'm over the hill,
You think I'm past my prime?
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time!!

All lyrics  Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music

 In the next installment, I write about Uncle Bob and his extended family..


  1. Had a great time going through your recollections.
    Just a question: How did you actually come about to truly understand Dylan, his words specially.

  2. Loved this because I could picture every moment. Ironicall enough my first Dylan album was also 'essential collection' and my first musical foray was Denver...then again, that might have had to do with the fact that I grew up in Arkansas.
    Will get started on my own Dylan post, definitely before May 24.