The Mighty Bob Dylan Still Reigning Supreme
Note: For readers who prefer me to keep it hyper-local here on the Block Association blog, please indulge me today. It's a New York story, with traces of the Upper West Side. But it's a special occasion.
Losing Philip Roth is a body blow. I haven't processed his death yet, but I mention it because of the joy his writing has given me. Sentences that go on at the length of mini-novellas. Laugh-out-loud humor impregnating even the darkest of novels. Stories so imaginative, prophetic, true.
The magnetism of his narrative voice and sheer force of his imagination was singular.
And yet, as he'd announced and then enacted the halt of his writing career, I'd grown used to the idea that he was done producing and had chosen the Upper West Side as his home away from his Connecticut home. Over the last couple of years, there were many sightings of Roth near the American Museum of Natural History (he lived at 130 West 79th Street). And at 85, I thought hopefully, he still had a long time here with us. That comforted me.
When the Nobel brouhaha erupted recently, suspending the literature award this year, I thought: 'Philip hang in there old chap, 2019 is yours.'
Sort of like a Bizarro universe version of the Lance Armstrong Tour de France "victories" which now all have asterisks and blanks where his name once appeared, I propose that we ink in Roth for the 2018 Nobel-that-cannot-be and be done with it. Like swearing in Merrick Garland at the next possible chance. Because it's the right thing to do.
Not me. But it smarts that Roth's chances are now done.
Philip Roth and Bob Dylan are filed in the very same drawer of my brain right beside each other. Send me to a desert island and that's who I am taking. Just me and my American boys.
Their work provides a roadmap for our society. Rosetta stones decoding what it was to be American-born in the 30s and 40s. Creative consciences for when we'd veered off course. Commenters on hypocrisies peddled by politicians. And unabashed patriots whose Americanism defines them.
They are also wordsmiths unlike any others, Kilauea-like in productivity.
And so onto Bob who turns 77 today. I felt in the mood to celebrate him rightly.
I'm not asking you to like his voice. But it deserves a second listen. I'm not asking you to understand why he's not surrendered his personal life to the relentless tabloid consumer. But it merits respect and contemplation in an Instagram world, where Kardashians rule. I'm not asking you to sweep aside his 1960s self in favor of his post-Time Out of Mind full-bodied smoothness. But you could consider it. Nor would I insist you revisit the wrongly-reviled Gospel era. His born-again phase has already been born again with critics exalting it. If you live long enough, you see everything. And "Trouble No More" has been at long last deemed worth the trouble.
Bob Dylan contains multitudes, but he couldn't be what he is without his epic rise during his New York years.
Marguerite Yourcenar wrote that "the true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself." What makes Bob one of us is that his true birthplace is New York City.
This I know.
At his post-9-11 concert at Madison Square Garden, we -- all 19,000 of us -- were broken, shellshocked sleepwalkers. No matter which song Dylan chose the night of November 19, 2001, he found a way to comment on what the city had just been through, how we felt about NYC, how senseless the attack was, how we mourned the victims. His lyrics are that encompassing. But the songwriter also chose his setlist carefully. "Waiting for the Light to Shine," "Lonesome Day Blues," "Searching for a Soldier's Grave," and finally "Things Have Changed." There were lines like the following pouring out of those songs, resonating against the 9-11 backdrop:
"Folk lose their possessions, the folks are leaving town." "I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin'." "If the bible is right, the world will explode." "Some things are too hot to touch, the human mind can only stand so much." "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke."
With Ground Zero still smoldering and the spate of anthrax attacks fresh on everyone's mind, things were quite raw. And that night at the Garden, it was his references to our hometown and Dylan's own demeanor that were tenderest. With Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton alongside him and the rest of one great Dylan touring band, he launched into "Tom Thumb's Blues" with its "I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough" earning a collective roar. And then nearing the end of his performance, in acknowledgment of the roomful of pain, Dylan pronounced: 'No one needs to tell me how I feel about New York City.'
This provoked a catharsis because Dylan had just made it very personal, a rare glimpse of the flesh and bones behind the song and dance man. There are other wonderful memories of that night, but I'll keep it about New York for now. And New York Town's 77 year-old son.
In his honor on this day, I give you below Bob Dylan in a New York state of mind.
(Email subscribers: you'll have to click on the blog post title to see the videos on our site).
Happy Birthday from New York Town.