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How Many Roads

 

Rolling Thunder, electrifying and unforgettable

Bob Dylan - the master, the muse, the poet, the balky, brilliant, prescient "champion of the otherworld" - turns 80 this week.  Unreal. Through 60 years, 40 albums, 600 songs, 4,000 concerts and at least seven diverse careers, writes Charlie Pierce, Bob's been furiously, tenderly "calling America's bluff," telling the tale of this country's "one long murder ballad" while ceaselessly reinventing himself. "He captured the moment and bottled it in words," says Pierce, "and now he seems to be writing from some timeless place of myth and story." Tributes have poured in, many fondly extolling favorite lines, songs, concerts. Well-worn hands down, ours is 1975's electrifying Augusta ME performance of his Rolling Thunder Revue - from Hattie Carroll to Rubin Carter to Ramblin' Jack -  which he created in his frenetic mind's eye after stopping amidst shooting baskets with Roger McGuinn to proclaim, "I want to do something different. Something like a circus." “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder,” a straight-faced Dylan told Martin Scorsese decades later of the exuberant marvel he performed in whiteface because, "When someone's wearing a mask, they're going to tell the truth." “It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born yet.” After a slyly perfect pause, he added, “So what do you want to know?”
 
Over the long, rich, winding years, there were memorable quotes - On Muhammad Ali in 2016: “If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest. In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men” - and comical mishaps - when he was picked up by New Jersey police walking in the pouring rain after suspicious residents reported an "eccentric-looking old man" - and an increasingly guttural voice "of sand and glue" that made its singular way through war, love, faith, politics, history, seasoned blues, regretful aging, big-band nostalgia and hovering existential darkness where "everything is broken.” Still, he remained stunningly elusive - "It ain't me you're looking for, babe" - and the music kept coming. "The greatness lies in the body of work," says Mick Jagger, one of many artists who've covered a range of seminal Dylan songs as broad and deep as the man himself, from "The Times They Are a-Changin'" - "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" - to a gritty "Desolation Row" where "they're painting the passports brown" to the vengeful, spectral, whip-crack "Like A Rolling Stone" to the mournful "One Too Many Mornings" to the blistering "Masters of War": "And I'll watch while you're lowered/Down to your deathbed/And I'll stand over your grave/'Til I'm sure that you're dead."
 
Last year, he released Rough and Rowdy Ways, "a wonder" of literary allusions that moves among Whitman - he stole “I Contain Multitudes” - Poe, Blake, Brecht, Anne Frank; its 17-minute "Murder Most Foul" about JFK's assassination is "so dense that it's overwhelming." Dylan was always bookish and brainy: He's called a library "an arsenal of liberty," he read 1850s newspapers at NYC's Public Library to understand the hatred of the Civil War, and when he (often) performed here in Portland, he was said to spend hours roaming used bookstores. But as he's aged - "Using ideas as my maps" - he's dug deeper, trying to make sense of a world gone wrong. Some argue he's great "because he's 80," that later albums like Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Tempest, exploring "history and legend respected and understood and passed on," are his best. Dylan would relish that. "I like to stay a part of stuff that don’t change,” he once wrote. "You know, like Shakespeare." When he won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, he cited musical heroes like Buddy Holly - "He was the archetype. Everything I wasn't and wanted to be" - and Leadbelly: "The darkness was illuminated." But he mostly talked about books - Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Odyssey. Odysseus, he notes, is "on that long journey home. He's cursed to wander." En route, unlike Achilles in a bleak underworld, he endures, observes, sometimes celebrates "his struggles of life." Dylan writes, "That's what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living." He ends with Homer: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.” After all this time - It's Alright, Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding) - he has yet to stop "for to take my rest." Thanks, Bob, for all of it.

 

It's not dark yet

 

Waiting to receive Medal of Freedom from Obama

 

Hard Rain at Rolling Thunder

 

 

 

Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet, Further columnist

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, thinning the carrots, hauling too much water, experiencing true if ragged community, and writing. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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