Bob Dylan first entered into the American consciousness over half a century ago. Today, his words and his myth are so wholly woven into the fabric of our society that to write about him is to write autobiography. When I write about him, I am writing about myself.
After all, I must mention the musty, shag-carpeted bedroom in the basement of the smoky, mid-century, ranch-style home on Borland Drive in Sylvania, Ohio—just outside of Toledo—where my father and uncle stayed up late into the night, waiting for Bob Dylan records to crackle across the radio. Or perhaps I should tell of the time my buddy Brett and I stepped out of a basement bar to smoke a cigarette with another buddy who was tending bar; while we were out, one of Dylan’s occasional cowriters grew impatient inside and angrily stormed by us as we returned to the bar; the only other patron at the bar that night told us the old man left because “Sam Shepard doesn’t wait for a drink.” These memories—of specific smells and of lonely nights in lonely, small-town bars—are so powerful, so incredibly visceral, yet they come to me, as easily as a snap of the fingers, when I think of Dylan.
However, it’s not just the myth—the vision of Dylan’s old cocaine cohort stumbling up the tavern’s stone steps and out into the street like a lone and long-forgotten cowboy—but also the text, or the words, with which I have found myself intertwined. It was with Dylan that I first discovered that a text is not static, not fixed, but something that grows and changes as I grow and change. The sixth song on the first side of Dylan’s snarling, spitting Bringing It All Back Home is “On the Road Again,” a song I initially mistook as a silly throwaway. It was not until I lazed away more than a few nights at a residence known in the neighborhood as The Hooligan House—a dank, dilapidated bungalow on a major thoroughfare in Lexington, Kentucky that, I must admit, was more often frequented by the police than by me—that I realized “On the Road Again” was a brilliant and bitter indictment of the fecklessness plaguing bohemianism. The song’s cries of “There’s fist fights in the kitchen/ They’re enough to make me cry” reminded me of the multiple occasions on which I watched in shock and horror and a little bit of interest as the oafish tenants of The Hooligan House divorced themselves of their tattered t-shirts so they could better settle their differences.
I briefly lived half a block from The Hooligan House, sleeping on the attic apartment’s floor because box springs simply could not be forced up the stairs, but I got out after only a few months because the bohemian lifestyle, with its constant parade of strangers—some of them surely without homes of their own, some of them clearly on the run from the law—welcomed because hey, man, we’re all brothers and sisters, did not suit me. My friends didn’t understand how I could move away, and I was equally bemused by their willingness to stay. The feelings engendered by those times are one in the same as those that come when Dylan growls, “You ask why I don’t live here/ Honey, how come you don’t move?”
Of course, if looking at Dylan causes me to look within, I must further comment on Bringing It All Back Home. I do hold Bringing It All Back Home as Dylan’s crowning achievement. Others will point to Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, or “Love and Theft”—all amazing records in their own right—as the pinnacle. However, if I could only take one document of Dylan on a deserted island, I would take the record on which he walked away from folk music, from protest songs, and back home to Hibbing, Minnesota and the blues and early rock & roll records he first heard crackle over airwaves originating deep in the beating heart of America and out the speakers of his bedroom radio. Bringing It All Back Home is Dylan’s return home; it’s his look within.
The record begins unassumingly enough with the strum of an acoustic guitar, but within seconds, a trill electric guitar pierces the proceedings, alerting the listener to the fact that this is not friendly, folkie Dylan. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a paranoid fever dream that flies by in less than two and a half minutes. It warns—with “Look out, kid” serving as the only line repeated in each verse—of a fixed, intrinsically dangerous society governed by thugs, but offers no escape or solution other than to tread lightly. “The man in the coonskin cap…wants eleven dollars bills” when “you only got ten” because that’s the way a shakedown works and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If I had $11, the man by the pigpen would only ask for 12. As Dylan observes, “you’re gonna get hit,” so all one can really do is to try and delay the inevitable by “watch[ing] the parkin’ meters” and by not wearing sandals.
And this is a home for which Dylan is ostensibly homesick. It seems to suggest his days scrapping in New York City, before he slipped into the ennui of his famous folk singer life. He seems excited by those days as though they were a livewire, dangerously and captivatingly spewing sparks. Yet a mere five songs later, he rebukes the counterculture on “On the Road Again.” I would find the two positions difficult to reconcile if I didn’t know it was possible for a person to occupy two contradictory positions simultaneously. We all have multiple homes to which we can return. I understand. I too look back with nostalgia to those days on which I pulled myself off of the attic floor, staggered out to our kitchen littered with drums and half-stack amplifiers and microphones, and picked up an electric guitar to bleat noise out to the denizens bedecked in blue, shuffling along the city streets, making their way to Commonwealth Stadium to watch football.
When I write about Dylan, I always return home. That’s probably how he always envisioned it. He’s the song-and-dance man, the medicine man, the sleight-of-hand man. And providing us with the rhetoric to write about ourselves every time we write about him is his greatest song and dance, his greatest medicine, his greatest illusion.