Bob Dylan turns 80 today. That number seems both simultaneously too old and too young for an ageless trickster figure like Dylan. There will be plenty of articles written and published about him, some looking forward, some looking back, but all of them trying once again to understand the quicksilver myth of the most American of enigmatic musical poets.
Dylan has been on my mind since I read Steve Hyden’s epic post ranking all of Dylan’s albums. I can’t even imagine attempting such a thing. Dylan has 39 full albums, each with its own personality, soul, and charisma. While reading it, I began to dwell on a couple of things. The first being that I have a lot of albums I need to get around to listening to soon, and the second being that it was a movie and one song that truly got me fully into Dylan.
Growing up, Dylan was a presence in my musical landscape, although truthfully not as big as he probably should have been. My parents were both Dylan fans, although their time in Greenwich Village would come a few years after Dylan’s. We would hear the occasional song but nothing in our regular rotation. I was mostly aware of the early classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’.” “Mr. Tambourine Man” was another early favorite, although I sometimes wonder if it was because younger me mixed it up with “Mr. Bojangles,” of which we often listened to the Neil Diamond cover. Truthfully, I still get the two songs mixed up.
Beyond a few songs, however, I had no idea the length and breadth of Dylan’s catalog. Before too long, my brother would get a copy of Dylan’s 1967 greatest hits album. From that, I remember listening to “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”, as well as “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” fairly often. Eventually, my brother gave me his copy of this as I was more taken with it than he was, but at the time, I was mostly into Ska, Punk, and Alternative, so it would largely collect dust.
It wasn’t long after this that I would first hear the song that would eventually open up Dylan fully to me, although it would be years before I realized it was, in fact, Bob Dylan performing it.
On a whim, during my freshman year in college, I went to see a movie that was playing at the on-campus theater at Boston University. This was the fall of 1993, and the film was Dazed and Confused. Some day I’ll write about the film and the life-changing experience it truly was, but for here, I’ll just say that the first 25 seconds of this clip is my single favorite moment in film. In it, the characters of Mitch, Pink, and Wooderson walk into the Rec center as Bob Dylan sings, “Here comes the story of Hurricane…” The song continues to play in the background for about two minutes, but it’s those first thirty seconds that blew me away. They still do, for that matter. I’ve watched that clip a half dozen times as I write this.
At the time, I was a broke college student, but I still went back and saw the movie four more times before it left the theater. It would be a long while before I saw it again, but it never really left me, nor did that little piece of song.
Fast forward a few years. Over the intervening years, I’ve gotten a bit more of a Dylan education, but truthfully not a ton. He’s still there, lurking in the background. The movie Hurricane came and went, and I never really put two and two together, having never seen the film. Eventually, I would be working at a Borders Books and Music, manning the music desk. Each month we would get a box of promos to play in the store that we could take home. If they had language, we couldn’t get away with playing in the store; the music desk folk could keep them. We got a promotional copy of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series V5, The Rolling Thunder Revue. At the time, myself and the music manager, Dan, were both Dylan fans, but he only liked the very early stuff while I was more enamored with songs from a bit later, so he let me take the copy.
It’s funny how random little moments can change your life. I got home with my freebie Dylan disc, put it on, and realized that what I thought of as Bob Dylan’s music was at best a raindrop in an ocean. I would call myself a Dylan fan because I liked “Positively 4th Street” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” but I honestly had no idea. The version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and the image of Allen Ginsburg stomping and dancing along to it as detailed in the liner notes would have been enough to get me into Dylan full time, but then I put on the second disc.
The seventh song on the second disc is an 8-minute long live version of Hurricane that begins with a plea from Dylan to help get Rubin Carter out of jail. I remember having an almost physical reaction to hearing the song and putting two and two together with Dazed and Confused. This was followed by feeling dumb at never putting two and two together before and then listening to the song maybe five more times in a row. The next day at work, I bought “The Essential Bob Dylan,” followed by the Royal Albert Hall show volume of the Bootleg series, and then I would truly dive into the albums. It wouldn’t be long before I heard “Blond on Blond,” “Blood on the Tracks,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” in full for the first time, and that was it for me; I was a full-blown Dylan guy.
Whenever I hear Hurricane now, I still get that same thrill of seeing those characters walk into the rec center for the first time and all those young man’s emotions that went with it. It’s the story of a tragedy and an abomination of justice, but for me, it’s also the sound of standing tall, the unbreakable bonds formed in youth, and of becoming. It is a mighty song, and for me, it was the song that truly opened me up to our gruff-voiced patron saint of American music.