Recently I attended a Bob Dylan concert at the Beacon Theater in New York, his adopted hometown. It was my third and by far the best. Five shows in a row and every one of them sold out. No Frank Sinatra covers during these shows only a raw energetic performance that ranged from old favorite anthems to gritty forlorn melodies of his later years. I will be the first to tell you the mysterious troubadour did not disappoint.
Dylan, who has been on a never ending tour since July 7 1988, is believe it or not 77 years old and doesn’t look like he’s letting up anytime soon.
More than ever with where our fascist leaning country is at politically, economically and socially we need Dylan. We need a figure that can speak of marginalized voices, that can articulate death and life in the same sentence, someone that can tell the government “you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins” and “I’ll stand over your grave ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead”. Most importantly we need something that Dylan symbolizes but appears to have faded away completely: The American Dream.
Dylan, a middle class Jewish kid from the middle of nowhere Minnesota, became the world’s most popular figure in not only music and popular culture but beyond any category that can be conceptualized. He is the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, (he defines himself as a song and dance man), and first American to win the prize in over two decades. If you have any doubts of the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to choose Dylan just listen to his speech (bob-dylan-nobel-lecture).
Dylan continues to break the barriers of what it means to write a song that digs deep in the listeners psyche and examine the state of the world around them. Instead of his contemporaries at the time, Dylan was singing about racial tension and divide in America with songs like The Death Of Emmett Till, When The Ship Comes In, Oxford Town, and Hurricane, a song about the famous boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was falsely accused and imprisoned for murder and eventually set free. Together with Joan Baez he sang during the opening act of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” during 1963’s March on Washington. Need I even say more?
We have Dylan to thank for bridging a gap between young white suburban college kids and the civil rights movement. We have him to thank for spreading along messages of hope above despair, of listening for answers that blow in areas where we don’t normally pay attention to, to defy the establishment and question all those with authority.
I am well aware that there was a whole generation before Dylan that influenced him and those around him, but Dylan took what Kerouac wrote and Pollock painted and Guthrie experienced and reached an audience well beyond what anyone thought possible in the decades before him and influenced the generation of his time to fight alongside justice, compassion and empathy.
As a writer he puts himself in other people’s shoes widening his perspective on the world. Jeremy Sherman, writer for Psychology Today and professor of rhetoric and language at the university of San Francisco said a first rate capacity for empathy is the ability to hold two opposed positions in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to think for yourself. He calls this “shoe-shifting”, a fundamental skill of extraordinary power caused by the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Dylan explores the idea of timelessness and changing viewpoints to get feelings across that allow the listener to transport their own consciousness. By doing this it opens up their world and allows for a fluid movement of looking at people in a more similar fashion, in short “I” am “you” and “you” are “me”.
With his rhetoric devices and stream of poetic magniloquence he fought against conforming what is arguably as relevant today than when Dylan began; the military industrial complex. America’s war in Afghanistan is now at its 16th year and the longest foreign war in American History. Dylan’s Master of War still echoes through the movements of today, whether it be Occupy or Black Lives Matter, and everything in between. Dylan said of the song ‘a sort of striking out…a feeling of what can you do?”
It’s time we all ask ourselves the same question.