My father gave me a CD player that holds 51 CDs. Talk about meeting my entertainment needs! My house is never lacking for music these days. But like every other of life's gifts comes corresponding dilemmas. The initial inevitable question was what 51 artists to include and what CD of the chosen artist's catalog should I include? Having sorted through my many CDs I finally arrived at 51 that covered most everything I really like to hear in a regular rotation.
But an even more basic question posed itself to me. Should I go with the 51 different artists or should I merely select 51 Bob Dylan CDs to stock the player with? Since I listen to Dylan's music on a total more than the other artists' music combined this seemed a viable option. For awhile against my heart's true wish I went with the 51 different voices. Admittedly it was quite a kick hearing Billie Holiday sing right before L7 following Emmylou Harris. But it wasn't right. So I selected my 51 Dylan CDs and Mr. Max and I have ever since quite enjoyed the result.
Recently a friend of mine disappointed me by telling me she wasn't listening to the Dylan CDs I gave her because they were "too depressing " for her right now. For the first time someone I firmly and faithfully thought "got it" didn't seem to get it anymore. Sure Dylan's music can be sad, can be brooding and introspective but I dare anyone to find a song of his that is depressing. The sheer artistry, the ever unique inscrutable charisma is nothing other than forever uplifting.
Not that I always thought so. The first time Dylan came into my consciousness was when a couple of my friends and I went to a revival showing of George Harrison's Concert for Bangla Desh. It was right in the middle of my best friend's and I Beatle crazy phase where we had to buy every Beatle's related item, go to every Beatle's related show. (He even got tickets to Beatlemania but I drew the line on that one.) Dylan's appearance in the movie was less than impressive to the three of us. One of my friends (the one less than aware of people around him) laughed throughout Bob's songs and made my other friend and I nervous what with some obvious Bob fanatics glaring at us. I knew the man had the greatest respect from critics who called him a poet, and I instinctively knew there was something deeper about "Blowin' In the Wind" than my favorite song at the time, "Mandy," but so what? The man's voice was, as my friend was demonstrating, silly.
The next time I really paid any attention to Dylan was while watching the video of the making to We Are The World. The whole project seemed to me, a naive but cynical high school student, to be about a bunch of rich rock stars trying to relieve their social conscious by doing their part to eradicate the problem of starving African children. Among all the sickening sincerity ("everyone checked their egos at the door...") stood a man who looked very lost. Dylan looked so uncomfortable that my eyes were drawn to him every time they showed him. I said to myself, "That would be me if I was there!" He was so out of place, so awkward that Stevie Wonder even had to coach him on how to sing his one line. Subsequently his appearance at the end of Live Aid which was equally as difficult struck me to be about the only genuine moment of that entire day's event. Standing in between Keith Richards and Ron Wood, Bob was having a difficult time hearing his own voice. The three men performed their three song set so bizarrely it was almost if all three were playing different songs.
I picked up a copy of Infidels and was impressed by the lyrics. The voice was starting to grow on me. When Empire Burlesque was released it quickly became one of my favorite LPs. "You're the one I've been waiting for. You're the one that's got the key. But I can't figure out whether I'm too good for you, or you're too good for me..." With the release of the boxset Biograph I was hooked. I listened to the five LPs over and over and was astounded by the greatness of nearly all the 53 songs. What absolutely stunned me was that two of what I thought were the best songs I had ever heard, "Abandoned Love" and "Caribbean Wind" were songs that up to that point had been unreleased because Dylan hadn't thought them worthy enough in comparison with his released product.
Listening to Dylan I was discovering an entirely different language and thus an entirely different way of viewing life. Some of his greatest writing comes when his lyrics don't convey a crystal clear image. The images change depending on where you are at in your own life. His music is the still voice from the heart, that mystical place that differs for us all yet is at the essence of universal feelings and thoughts. The words by themselves aren't even the best conveyor of his message. The power of the music, Bob's unique ear and style of conveying that "thin mercurial sound" is unlike any other. Even as his voice becomes even more limited with age he continues to prove being a great singer has little to do with having a great voice. It's quite the feat to say something better for millions than they can say for themselves.