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As Long as We Remember...

April 15, 2009

Bob Dylan: An Appreciation

Michael Kurtianyk

I’m not sure when I first heard Bob Dylan. My guess would be at home on the radio hearing “Blowin in the Wind,” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” Growing up, my musical tastes veered toward what today would be called “Classic Rock” or “AOR (“Album-Oriented Rock”).


The song that changed things for me was my first hearing of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” Whenever that song came on the radio, I took out my air guitar and played it in the claw hammer style of its lead singer and guitarist, Mark Knopfler.


I am a completist when it comes to my favorite bands (REM, U2, among others). I have to have everything from that artist in order to complete my collection. This includes B-Sides (which don’t exist anymore!), imports, bootlegs, etc. So, when I heard that Mark Knopfler played guitar on Dylan’s Slow Train Coming album, I had to get that cassette (which isn’t made anymore!).


That album came out in August of 1979, and, though the guitars on that album still sound fresh today, I didn’t have much use for the lyrics. Slow Train Coming was Bob Dylan’s first album since becoming a born-again Christian. The song “Gotta Serve Somebody” won a Grammy award; but I wasn’t at a place in my life where I could appreciate the lyrics. They were too…preachy; too evangelical. I listened to that album recently and have developed a deeper appreciation for its lyrics.


It wasn’t until the 1983 release of Infidels that made me truly appreciate Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Produced by Mark Knopfler (being the completist that I am), this album was the one that made me want to get everything by Bob Dylan. The profundity of the lyrics on that album, coupled with the guitar playing of Mark Knopfler, made for an album that, at the time, took over my cassette deck (which aren’t made anymore!). To this day, I can sing along to every song; and I still know all of the words.


Someone asked me once how I developed an ear for understanding Mr. Dylan when he sings? My only response: For someone who is tone deaf, he sounds great to me! His voice has indeed changed during the years – from the young folk singer to today’s gravelly-voiced poet, he has delivered his poetic lines in a myriad of ways.


I have had the good fortune of seeing him perform twice: once in Syracuse, NY, and the other was here in Frederick in August of 2006. That was a great show. I was up front in the standing room only general admission section. Mr. Dylan wore a black cowboy outfit and everyone else in the band wore white. He played some of my favorite songs that night: “Positively 4th Street,” “Summer Days,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and for his final song, “All Along the Watchtower.”


Bob Dylan created many personas through the years. In the early 1960s, he started as a folk artist, then protest singer, turned electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, and then turned to country music by the end of the decade – all in less than 10 years. In a recent interview, Mr. Dylan said that he’s not sure what his audience likes, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter:


Some people preferred my first period songs. Some, the second. Some, the Christian period. Some, the post Colombian. Some, the Pre-Raphaelite. Some people prefer my songs from the nineties. I see that my audience now doesn’t particular care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up.


Dylan’s trilogy of albums since 1997 (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times) have placed him in the upper echelon of artist creating music today. Among his contemporaries (he’ll be 68 this May), he is seemingly peerless. Who else is rocking and producing at his pace and his level of quality so consistently?


Furthering the point, Mr. Dylan’s 33rd studio album (Together Through Life) will be released later this month. The two songs I’ve heard from the album so far reflect a darkly romantic view of the world. Musically, with its hints of accordion and a more New Orleans-type sound than his previous three albums, which to me favored a more New York sound.


Being a completist, I can’t wait for Bob Dylan’s’ new album.


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