Tuesday, May 24, 2011

To Bobby, Who Is 70

When I discovered Bob Dylan, he was already 40. He was in his born-again Christian phase then, eliciting puzzled stares and critical jeers. But that's not where I started. The Dylan I discovered - and fell for with a thud that rattles my brain to this day - was a 24-year-old genius who was twice my tender age and seemed a hundred years beyond anything I had ever heard.

The first Dylan album I ever bought was Bringing It All Back Home. Once I started listening, I couldn't stop. I picked apart his words, which frankly I understood only half the time. I got lost in his voice - and learned that the difference between those who love Dylan and those who don't is that the former know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can sing. I marveled - like who knows how many others before me and after me - that his music even managed to exist in a world that sounded so slick and shiny compared to what he was laying down.

As I collected his records, I fell deeper and deeper under his spell. I listened compulsively, obsessively, hungrily, until I heard him in my sleep and saw him in my mirror. There were times when I wanted to know Dylan, and times when I wanted to be Dylan. But most of all, I wanted to write like Dylan. I never could, but I made it my young life's ambition.

For a very long time I churned out poetry and song lyrics in an earnest Dylan wannabe style. The mimicry was never intentional, but his music rang so loudly in my ears that it echoed naturally in everything I wrote. Out of that echo I eventually fashioned my own voice, which is the gift Dylan has given to so many writers and singers during his career. No one ever became great by standing in his shadow; but a lot of us learned our craft by working our way free of it.

And today the brilliant young man is 70 years old, an elder statesman of American music. His magic is undimmed, his influence unmatched. He is the funniest songwriter I have ever heard, the finest storyteller in popular music, the wisest poet with a harmonica's whine for accompaniment. I hope Bob Dylan lives forever, becoming more wizened and wicked every year until he outlives us all. He deserves it.

And now, to show you how humble and inferior is any attempt to copy the Bob, here's a poem I wrote when I was 16 or so. I was deeply into Another Side of Bob Dylan at the time, and it shows. It's derivative and a bit pretentious, just as I was at that age. But even now I like this bit of verse, because it's not just inspired by Dylan, but about him.  Feel free to laugh at it; it's my humble tribute to Mr. Zimmerman on the occasion of his eighth decade.

Happy Birthday, Bobby, if I may be so familiar. It's just that you seem like a friend of mine.

Poet's Song

Your rhyming can't hurt me, you poet,
Desert me with words that disguise your escape.
The violence you choose
Just amounts to a musical rape.
It's haunting, believe me,
But you only deceive me
With lyrical snarls of red tape.
Your words lead me nowhere,
You're not here to show where
The other paths are I can take.

Impressions can't dull me
Nor images lull me,
But still you pretend to relate.
Your battering rhythms
Dissolve into schisms of hate.
They scream you're a poet,
You already know it,
Maliciously guarding your fate.
You think that I'm crying,
But I know you're lying
About all the worlds you create.

You taunt me with lines
That I've heard many times,
But you can't destroy me with words.
I watch your lips move
To a symphony you've never heard.
Perhaps in a lifetime
You'll think of the life I've been livin'
And your vision will blur,
Remember my sorrow
And vow that tomorrow
You'll help me and try not to hurt.

(Hint: For my inspiration, try singing it to "To Ramona.")
c1984, Chrome Horse Ltd. Music

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