In my time as a writer and consumer of poetry and songs, I’ve found few artists as polarizing to my fellow lovers of music and literature as Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. From those who simply can’t find their way beyond the nasal vocal delivery to those who speak of him as a kind of prophet, the truth is few artists in popular music have had the kind of cultural impact as Dylan. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said better by many writers over Dylan’s seven-decade career, and this IS NOT a career retrospective – this is, as all things I will present to you in this space, about the craft and the mystery of art, and few have gotten as close to the heart of that mystery as Bob Dylan.
As a young songwriter, hearing Dylan for the first time was like God himself pulling back the curtain of creation and saying, “See, this is how it all works.” I was blown away, terrified, and determined to understand how someone could find themselves in such command of their craft. How the hell did he write like that? These fantastic images that flowed from his pen were like nothing I’d heard before, and they set my imagination on fire. Clearly, he was tapped into the source – there could be no other explanation. Later I’d find out that the source he was tapped into was a tremendous knowledge of folk and blues music, a bit of theft, poetry, and a lot of amphetamine. Still, plenty of artists had enjoyed their share of these and other things, but none of them returned from their trips with a message like this.
So what as artists of the social media age do we have left to learn from Dylan?
First, not to let the opinions of others dictate how you approach your work or determine what success and failure are to you. Is the act of creation enough? Is the act of creation and sharing it with others enough? Or does it need two thousand likes and to fill your inbox with hundreds of followers curious about your skin-care routine? If your answer is the latter – please take some time to rethink your approach.
Second, the bravery to follow one’s muse wherever it leads. Dylan, throughout his career, has been a chameleon. From Woody Guthrie clone, to protest singer, to rock ‘n’ roll cool guy, to a country artist, to evangelical preacher riding a slow train promising fire and brimstone, to bluesman, to doing his best Frank Sinatra impression, nothing has stood between Dylan and his vision. Tastemakers be damned. Carve it into your heart and bravely step into this cynical world to leave a mark that is uniquely yours. Bob would have it no other way.
A couple of years back, I attended a Dylan concert at the Brady Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From the sparse stage set-up to the minimal, warm lighting, the room was ready to recieve the message.
Dylan took the stage with his incredible band and delivered not a single song in its original format. The audience of mostly general music fans were left stunned. What was this? Why is he changing the arrangements? What is he doing? The endings of several songs were met with an uncomfortable silence, followed by almost reluctant applause.
Dylan was showing us the raw truth of his craft. That there on his stage, in his mid-seventies, night after night, he was not there to deliver the hits. No, he had come to conjure spirits, to throw the curve, and call wild audibles all in an attempt to find that elusive moment where creativity, heart, and muse align. He was, in his way, pulling back the curtain and saying, “See, this is how it all works.”
This free verse piece was written around the same time as the bulk of the poems that make up my debut book, The Year that Stole the Light Away. I stumbled onto it this morning, and after seeing it with fresh eyes, I thought it would be nice to give it a home. A piece about the child that lives in us all: I hope you enjoy it.
She remembers me from years ago, but I can’t say the same. She says her mind is troubled.
She tells me her mother ran off with her stepfather. They’re traveling the country in an RV.
She tells me she deserved more when her father died. Now that bastard gets it all!
She leaps from her chair and loudly re-enacts an argument, jabbing her finger into a phantom chest.
Her eyes fill with tears, and at sixty years old, a lost child cries out for her mother.
I hadn’t thought about this free verse poem in a while. Before the pandemic, one of my favorite places to write was a restaurant booth or in a coffeehouse somewhere- surrounded by lives being lived and the hustle of the day. The electric air thick with poetry.
Please, come back.
The Musings of a Future Yelper:
They’ve never been able to maintain a restaurant at this location, and many have tried.
It’s not a bad spot, either. Downtown, right on the avenue, the best bars within walking distance.
I’ve sampled every establishment that attempts to put roots down here. They’ve all been decent enough.
For whatever reason, the people won’t come. Sushi, Burgers, Piano Bar, it makes no difference.
I’ve sampled cuisine from four different countries and sat in the same shitty booth each time.
Outside, the rain falls steadily. It’ll be this way for the next several days, and I’m sad my daughter might not get her last train ride of the season.
Three men enter the restaurant and sit directly in my line of sight.
Above me, a TV plays sports highlights and when they watch, it feels like they’re staring.
Maybe they are? I’ve reached that elusive point in life where it makes no difference.
The burger and fries are too salty— what a shame.
My waitress asks how everything tastes, and I lie to make her feel better. She smiles her crooked smile and fixes her peroxide-blonde hair.
I ask for my ticket and she’s out of sight again. I begin to review my latest poem.
I’m writing about food a lot lately. I’ll be yelping before you know it.
Outside, the rain pours on, gathering into puddles and flowing down the drain.
My feet touch forbidden blacktop about 30 feet from the crosswalk they prefer you use. Behold my only act of rebellion today. My small way of setting fire to the world. Really, I'm just impatient.
The roasted duck soup left a strange taste in my mouth like cruel words. The cold air feels electric and helps to push me forward. Up and down the avenue I go, resisting the pull of each passing bar and warm thoughts of good rye.
Hear me now; I long for nothing. Not for love or understanding. Not for pity or prayer. I have accepted my nature. Born to wander. Born to wonder. Born to sit in the burning room