We traveled 4700 miles through 16 states in search of Bob Dylan, which is another way of saying we were seeking a deeper appreciation of his genius, of how he developed as an artist from earliest days, and what manner of man he was and is. That his music has had a profound and continuing impact on us and so many others we already knew. His music did more than serve as the soundtrack of our lives or reflect back to us what we were feeling. It helped to shape our sensibility, as well as that of our culture and the times we lived through.
To this end, we spent 18 days playing his music and reading articles as we traveled around the country to places associated with him, with various the songs he wrote or with the music that influenced him. And so we went north to Minnesota and south to Mississippi, and to many points in between. Many strangers smiled when we told them what we were up to and quite a few turned out to be Dylan fans, whether at the Free Style Realty office in Woodstock, NY or in the Hot Rocks Grille in Ashtabula, OH.
So what did we learn, and would we have done just as well if we had stayed at home, reading and listening to CDs?
We don’t think so. We certainly wouldn’t have had the crazy adventures and chance meetings that were not only fun, but also helpful in illuminating our quarry, Bob Dylan.
Here are a few last words from Bill:
“There are Bob Dylan songs that I love. Many songs. But I never had the chance to “see” them arrayed on the vast canvass that our country provides. It was as if I had long been mesmerized by a few details in a Picasso painting, and only now had the opportunity to stand back and see it in its entirety. So many styles. So many different melodies. So many varied poetic and lyrical languages. The magnitude! The extent! This work came from the artistic vision of a genius whose creative forces slowly gathered within him as he grew up in Hibbing–both because of his life in the town and despite it. He had the good fortune to come of age as a teenager “in the nick of time,” just as R&B and Rock (and later the Beats and Folkies) began to crack the crust of a stultifying conformist culture. Part of his gift is that he had the ability to absorb our diverse musical traditions like a sponge. He would also have several eureka moments of epiphany, among them hearing Buddy Holly and Elvis, meeting Woody Guthrie, listening to Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny,” and reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. He emerges as a hardworking man who determinedly lives in the present, consistently rejecting commercial definition and following his artistic vision whatever the cost. Of course, this is nothing less than what is required of all true artistss. And he isn’t finished yet.”
Here are Larry’s thoughts:
“Bob Dylan’s music and life, is like an ocean, vast, with many currents, colors & waves. His body of work continues to change, shift and influence the rest of the world, sometimes stormy, sometimes restless, sometimes calm, like the ocean. Our Dylan journey exposed me to many roots of Dylan’s music that I had not paid close attention to. Especially seeing his birth town of Duluth and hometown of Hibbing provided an experiential richness that provides a base for the many moods of his songs. Traveling around the U.S.A. “in search of Bob” led us to many places of the 60’s, and Bob’s voice echoed everywhere. From 1963, when I first heard Peter, Paul & Mary singing “Blowing in the Wind,” and soon after got my first Dylan album, “The Times They Are A-Changin’, until now, I have been amazed by the power and precision of his words. Why do these words and emotions persist over almost 50 years? And why does music that hits our brains in teenage years stay with us, maybe more strongly than any other? These are still questions to be answered. I found that Bob’s voice and words about social justice still ring out to many people around the globe, and his poetry continues to reach me like no other.”
Some of you may say, as one of Bill’s colleagues did, thinking she was paying a compliment, that we were kind of like groupies chasing a favorite band. She had done that herself once. Is that what all we are, two aging groupies with too much time on our hands? OK, partly, we’ll give you the aging part…. But we’d hasten to add we were searching for meaning, in this case regarding one of our greatest poets. (Those who have named him Walt Whitman’s successor as our new national bard aren’t far off, in our view). We were exploring the nature and source of his genius. And yes, we were also searching for those vibrations that might help us make, in Ginsberg’s words, “the ancient heavenly connection.”
We didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing lyrics or speculating what this or that image might mean. Here Whitman’s thought was helpful: “The meaning of my words, nothing. The drift of them, everything.”
But what would Bob have made of our efforts? Don’t jump to conclusions and think he would simply have dismissed our cross-country ramble as just silly celebrity chasing. In fact, he was once asked if it bothered him that people were making pilgrimages to Hibbing and snooping around. Historian Douglas Brinkley had this exchange with him in a Rolling Stone interview: “I asked Dylan if he minds people visiting Hibbing or Duluth or Minneapolis searching for the root of his talent?” “Not at all,” he surprisingly says. “That town where I grew up hasn’t really changed that much, so whatever was in the air before is probably still there. I go through there once in a while coming down from Canada. I’ll stop there and wander around.”
Moreover, Dylan’s response is not surprising given the fact that he seems drawn to exactly the kind of historical time-traveling what we were engaged in. It turns out that while on tour, he has taken the time to visit the homes or hometowns of John Lennon, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Bruce Springsteen. In some cases, he has felt the need to wear a disguise so he could be alone with his thoughts.
One of his experiences stands out. While in Ontario, he decided he needed to see the boyhood home of Neil Young. In short order, two old guys appeared milling about on the house’s lawn, which the owner thought was somewhere between suspicious and bizarre. When queried by the owner about what he wanted, Dylan identified himself and politely asked if he could look around inside. He particularly wanted to see the window that the young Canadian musician looked out of when he was strumming his guitar.
Bob, as we looked out of your own window at 116 West 4th in Greenwich Village, we felt we caught a glimpse of a kindred soul. We are still struggling to understand, however, whether the deluge that almost washed us off the highway on our way back to Boston, a mere day after we had crossed the mystical threshold into your old apartment, presaged the kind of apocalyptic destruction wreaked on those who had dared to open the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Gosh, what’s next?