One of the things I credit Bob Dylan for is turning me into a musical expeditionary. Bob's music introduced me to an amazing selection of people and songs and stories that have given me countless hours of joy. This also had the serendipitous effect of steering me away from the cult of the rabid Dylan fans that Ron Rosenbaum has christened Bobdolators. Because a while into my newfound obsession I realized that Dylan, although the brightest star in the sky, wasn't the only one. Over the years, as I've explored more and more of the musical constellation that Dylan inhabits, I've found that he's surrounded by a large and diverse group of brilliant stars, each shining with it's own distinctive and brilliant light.
The first thing that got me exploring was 'Chronicles'. I'd known for a while that Dylan had written an autobiography but I wasn't sure if I could find it somewhere around Rawalpindi. An inquiry to a local bookstore in Islamabad revealed they stocked it, so I rushed there and got a paperback copy. Having read a number of celebrity biographies, I wasn't sure what to expect. But Dylan exceeded whatever expectations I might've or could've had. It is such an absolutely delicious book, and Dylan writes with the same distinctive style that populates his greatest songs. Both concealing and revealing according to the whims of it's author, Chronicles gave an insight more into Dylan's mind than to his life. If he was stingy in proving accurate details in tems of what-where and when, one thing he was generous in was paying tribute to musicians and artists who had inspired him. On and on he went, name checking everyone from Johnny Cash and Elvis to obscure artists like Karen Dalton and Slim Whitman. I knew I had to listen to these folks, these people who had left such an indelible mark on Dylan's life and music. I also realized at once that it was a nearly impossible task considering the sheer number of people Dylan had mentioned (conveniently and painstakingly listed here). But thanks to Chronicles, I discovered such jaw-droppingly magnificent singers like Karen Dalton (“My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”), Johnny Ray, Lord Buckley, Dave Van Ronk and countless others.
It was around the same time that I watched Martin Scorcese's brilliant No Direction Home. To me, it was like the continuation of Chronicles. It was Dylan himself, telling his story with a little help from his friends. He was warm, funny and revealing. The archival footage and the interviews - some of them with people who had since then passed away - were phenominal. But what got me buzzed up were the painfully brief audio and video clips of the artists that had been associated with Dylan in one way or the other. Some of the artists and songs referenced in the film were absolutely breathtaking, and the minute I'd finished watching the film (and watching it a second time immediately after|), I set about trying to find recordings from the artists seen in those clips. Suffice to say that today I can't imagine not having the great Odetta , Muddy Waters , The Clancy Brothers And Tommy Makem or Hank Williams.
Most of the artists and songs that Dylan had introduced me to were people from Dylan's youth or from before his time, direct or indirect influences. It was partly because of my daily scouring of Expecting Rain that I started listening to Dylan's peers and contemporaries. I had only known Neil Young as the guy who sang 'Heart Of Gold', but I decided to give him a listen and I was blown away. Suffice to say that within two weeks, ol' Shakey was my hero and 'On The Beach' was one of my favorite albums (it still is). The first time I heard Tom Waits was one of the most earthshakingest experiences of my life, comparable to the first time I'd heard Dylan.These three -Dylan,Young and Waits- remain my musical Holy Trinity. Later, others joined in. Again, I was introduced to them because of their association with Bob. More often than not, they had the misfortune of being saddled with the title of 'the next Bob Dylan'. People like the amazing Townes van Zandt, Warren Zevon, Jeff Buckley, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty etc. Pretty soon, the Trinity had it's apostles and the church was rockin' down to it's foundations.
The final part of my musical education was again carried out by Dylan himself, in what must count among his greatest creations - your friendly DJ , spinnin' the tracks on arguably the greatest radio show ever - Theme Time Radio Hour. The artist name for TTRH on my iPod is 'Uncle Bob', and I think that's the persona Dylan adapted for the show. Since I couldn't get Sirius sattleite radio here in Pakistan, I religiously downloaded the shows on MP3 every week for two years, and they form a priceless part of what I'm not ashamed to call my 'musical education'. Dylan sang a capella , read recipes, mused on all topics under the sun, got taped messages from Tom Waits, and played music from his (and producer Eddie Gorodetsky's) record collection. In each show, I was gauranteed to find one or two absolutely hair raising performances, from artists as varied as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Clash, Charlie Parker, Elvis Costello and Los Lobos. It was ballsburstingly exciting for me to listen in each week and discover one brilliant artist after the other. Around the same time that a friend gave me the complete, 93 CD 'Blues Collection' that contained most of the more obscure artists Dylan played on his radio show. (Yes, my friends have impeccable taste). Since then' I've spent many a hour, enjoying the sheer brilliance of people like Professor Longhair, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Tampa Red, Wynonie Harris et al.
The debt I owe to Dylan for directly or indirectly introducing me to this absolute musical treasure is enormous. It has provided me (and will continue to provide me) company and companionship in times of happiness, loneliness and sorrow. I can't imagine my life today without having listened to any of the artists mentioned above. On this 24th, when I think about Bob on his 70th birthday, I'll be sure to add another thank-you to a long list, a thank-you to Uncle Bob for introducing me to his 'loyal and much loved companions'.