Forever YoungReflections on Bob Dylan at 80
Heidi Siegmund Cuda celebrates the proto-punk’s protest songs as epic short stories painting a history of radical anti-war, anti-establishment America
Driving through Monument Valley, Navajo country, big wind blowing coral-coloured sand across the highway. Bob Dylan is 80, and that means something.
In the dust, I can picture him walking down the road, hobo style, guitar on back, a mournful harmonica mingling with the fluted sound of wind. Forever young, protesting things worth protesting, lyrics inspired by poets, living and dead, good enough to earn him a Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Five hundred songs, toil and blood, chronicling an imperfect country’s history, with the pen of a poet, and the soul of an outlaw. He chose his mentors as wisely as his words. He was influenced by blues’ legends and folk heroes like Woody Guthrie, who protested ‘Old Man Trump’ before it was cool.
Dylan’s protest songs could have been written yesterday. Consider the lyrics of ‘Hurricane’: “If you’re black, you might as well not show up on the street, ‘less you want to draw the heat.” Or the song that forced a showdown with the Ed Sullivan show, ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’, about a paranoid conservative group still infecting America 60 years later.
Bob Dylan was proto-punk, he didn’t have to be able to sing to be a star. When you’re a literary genius, you get a pass. Besides, that signature gravelly rasp he exhales into microphones is as comforting as baseball and apple pie, easing listeners to surrender to the imagery of his epic short stories, which are slyly filled with anti-war, anti-establishment references.
So how does a boy from Minnesota, a complete unknown, become America’s voice of freedom, transcending and defining generations? I suppose it starts with the fact that he picked up books and read them.
The college drop-out read Keroauc and Ginsberg, Rimbaud and Shakespeare. He listened to black spirituals, and turned to Homer for guidance, a philosopher pirate, collecting a booty of words.
Although he began his career as a folk darling, his desire to plug in resulted in being hissed off stages globally, leading to a hopped up misanthrope phase.
It all worked out, eventually. After an eight-year hiatus from touring instigated by a motorcycle accident, he returned to the stage and never stopped, working with pals like George Harrison and Johnny Cash, and forming the English-American super-group, Traveling Wilburys.
Thirty-nine albums, not all good, but who grades artists on an average? He wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. The 2020 album, ‘Murder Most Foul’, with its 17-minute tribute to the murder of John F. Kennedy, proved the elder statesmen of rock is still untouchable when it comes to the epic form.
Who knows how Dylan survived the music industry, a business which Hunter S. Thompson called “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs”.
Although his original manager took 25% of his earnings, Dylan had the last laugh, selling his entire catalogue last year to Universal Music for an undisclosed sum, leaving him more time to paint.
As I watch the sun rise between the two twin monuments in Navajo country, I think about how Bob Dylan stood in this same spot, painting what he saw with the kind of commanding detail he infuses in his songs.
As a coral-coloured sandstorm whips up around the monuments, I reflect on Dylan’s lyrics: “How many years can a mountain exist, before it is washed to the sea… and how many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?”
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Heidi Siegmund Cuda is an Emmy-award winning investigative reporter and veteran music writer, who authored the first book of rap with Ice T, as well as books on 2Pac, Sublime, and the Vans Warped Tour