My reaction the first time I saw Bob Dylan was laughter. My dad was watching a documentary about him on television and I, being about 12 years-old, walked past and saw footage of a Highway 61-era Dylan playing a concert, hair everywhere, nasally vocals at peak power, looking for all the world like a vagrant. He looked so strange I had to laugh.
At the time, I was busy discovering the musical genius of the Beatles who, for all their own idiosyncrasies, were masters of pop melody. Even if the Beatles were odd, Dylan was clearly far more strange. For years, I didn’t take his music seriously.
What did I know; I was just a child.
A few months ago, a far older and more careworn Bob Dylan than the one I first saw playing that 1960s-era concert (he still has unruly hair but somehow it now has more gravitas) gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal that has him back in the news. In it, he comments on his long career, which has had innumerable twists and turns. Interviewer Jeff Slate begins with the charming (and accurate) statement: “In his 81 years, Bob Dylan has seemingly lived 100 lives.”
Over the course of his life, he’s been a chameleon. He began as a baby-faced politically active folk-singer. A few years later he plugged in his instruments and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Then he made a country album with Johnny Cash, painted his face white for the Rolling Thunder Revue, and became the leader of a traveling minstrel show. In the early ‘80s was his evangelical Christian phase.
Currently, he’s playing the role of aged prophet. His life is intentionally mythologized and covered in a fog of stories true and untrue. One friend who spent time with Dylan on tour later claimed that he “made himself up from scratch.”
All along, the one consistency has been the music. The songs, in whatever style or on whatever subject, are full of poetic depth. They still reward repeated listening.
Something about the music
When I was in my late teens, I discovered that I liked his music quite a bit. By then, the rebelliousness of his unkempt look and counter-cultural attitude appealed to me. I delved into his entire musical catalog and listened only to Dylan for months at a time. I traveled to different states to see him play live. I read literary criticism that examined the meaning of his lyrics. If nothing else, the vast diversity of his work is staggering. His different musical phases changed with regularity, as did his appearance and the stories of his background, but the talent was always there. That’s what matters. That’s what I heard. There was something about the music.
The novelist Flannery O’Connor once said, “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.” What she’s saying is that, at a fundamental level, the art we create stands on its own merits. The life and personality of the artist informs the work but, ultimately, the artist and the art are not the same. This is what I realized about Bob Dylan. The whole persona he created was part of the art. It served the art. He disappeared so that his music could take center stage.
Like all human beings, artists live conflicted lives. Caravaggio was allegedly a murderer. Mozart was uncouth. Beethoven had major anger issues. No artist is perfect, but many still manage to make great art. Dylan is one of those enigmatic artist-types whose personal life is hard to pin down. I keep coming back, though, to the beauty of the art itself.
Making art with our lives
If making art beautiful is challenging, making our lives beautiful is even more so. The challenge of it actually spurs creativity, because the greatness of the art is in the friction, that poetic moment when beauty rubs up against our workaday expectations and something sparks.
The beauty of a life is when we take the road less traveled and strive for greatness. Yes, we frequently fall short and end up disappointed in our efforts. The point, though, is that we can have an extremely positive impact on the people around us even if we, ourselves, feel unworthy.
Dylan has described music as a movement of time and space, saying that it, “is of a time but also timeless” In other words, it’s a reality we experience right here and now, but as we experience great art, a door is opened into a transcendent realm, a connection is made between Heaven and earth.
Perhaps all the changes we go through in life are merely reflections of the fullness of what we may one day be when we are drawn into eternity. Perhaps the changes, if we’re self-reflective about them, serve as the movement of a pilgrimage towards a great unveiling, that moment when we finally meet God and are drawn into his universal, divine love.
If Dylan has changed over the years, we too spend a lifetime changing. I shifted from laughing at his hair to absorbing his music with awe. I’ve also been a teenager obsessed with basketball. A depressed existential philosopher. A college student on the verge of abandoning his faith. A convert to Anglicanism. Now I’ve become a convert to Catholicism. A father. A priest.
I’m sure that when you look back on your life, you too have various stages of metamorphosis, each stage building toward the next one. All along, every step of the way, we can create beauty as we make our pilgrim path all the way to the threshold of Heaven.