Eighty years ago this Monday, Robert Zimmerman was born to a middle-class family in a small industrial town in Minnesota in the US . He changed his name, made up stories about being a guitar-toting vagabond and forever altered the course of popular music.
There are so many ways to pay homage to someone who is quite possibly the greatest artist ever, as I, like so many others, believe he is. Someone who has, in an unparalleled career spanning nearly 60 years, released 39 albums, inspired three generations of songwriters and won every conceivable award. I am going to take the personal route, not because my experiences are important but because I want to share the magic he has brought to my life.
The first Dylan song I heard was Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary cover of All Along the Watchtower, which an older friend introduced me to when I was 13. Along with being blown away by Hendrix’s fiery solos, what percolated into my eggshell mind were the opening lines.
“There must be some kinda way out of here, said the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”
I was dumbstruck.
Who are these people?
And what are they doing while the wind howls along the watchtower?
I have some idea now, but the true meaning of the song is still up for debate (I heard the original many years later, and it’s an exquisite, stripped down puzzle that rewards infinite listens).
Years later, like so many of my generation, I swayed heavily to Guns N’ Roses’ version of what is arguably Dylan’s most famous song, Knockin’ on Heavens Door. Written by the man in 1972 for the soundtrack of a Western movie, it’s a moving story about the death of a frontier lawman. Again, the message stuck.
“Mama take this badge from me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s getting dark too dark to see
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
Trawling through another friend’s CD collection, I came upon a double disc jewel called Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, which featured legends like Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed and George Harrisson all paying tribute to this man.
I begged and borrowed it.
On It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding), I heard Dylan’s actual voice for the first time as he sang a raspy, nasally version of the tune that would become one of my favourite Dylan songs. A critic said he sounded like “Donald Duck on weed” but I was hooked.
I knew that what I was hearing was the gravelly, ancient voice of truth. Here was someone who could express every perceptible shade of human emotion in a way that was accessible, yet out of reach, as all true knowledge must be.
From that moment on, I’ve been slowly but steadily picking my way through Dylan’s gloriously sprawling oeuvre, reading the occasional biography (there are several), and watching critics and scholars joust over the true meaning of every word he wrote.
There’s so much to learn from the man. Lines like “he not busy being born is busy dying” from the song above take on a whole new meaning for personal evolution. And often, it’s just the cascade of flashing images that his songs trigger in the inner eye: Mr Tambourine Man is such an example. You see this succession of crystal clear snapshots while hearing his lyrics, and when the song is over that’s all you’re left with. The images, and their subjective meaning for you and you only.
A few years ago, in my effort to spread the word, I hosted a month-long radio show on his music and life that culminated in a tribute concert in Mumbai for his birthday. Rehearsing timeless standards like Blowin in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone with Pradeep Matthews, Uday Benegal, Vitek Goyal, Anushka Jag, Aazin Printer and others, I realised that there’s always a sense of discovery with Dylan’s songs. A hidden meaning here, a subtle yet sly put down there, a new way of interpreting that line you know so well.
The response from the audience was incredible. People of all ages were singing along, enraptured by the glittering phrases once again given life by performance.
So what are we celebrating today?
His piercing insight, prodigious talent, stoic determination to keep on goin’ on – the list is endless. For me, it’s the ability to hone in, laserlike, to the essence of a feeling, and then explode it in every which way possible.
Happy birthday, Bob!
Mukul Deora is a musician and filmmaker. He recently produced The White Tiger. His latest single is out on June 4 under the artist name Muks.