Fact: Nobody my age (mid-twenties) was around when [lastfm]Bob Dylan[/lastfm] was in his prime. Not when he performed “When the Ship Comes In” with [lastfm]Joan Baez[/lastfm] at the March on Washington before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech. Not when he was a folk icon who shocked the world famously by playing an electric guitar at a folk festival, was booed off the stage, and would not return to the festival for nearly four decades. We weren’t there. We couldn’t know what it was like.
People who were there for Dylan from the beginning don’t often speak of these times (if they do, the story is brief and concrete) when recalling the 11-time Grammy winner. Instead they describe–extensively–a man whose mysterious shifts in identity and ambiguous behavior allowed them to relate on an almost metaphysical level. Like the time they spent figuring themselves out was personified by the great musician.
Todd Haynes, director of Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, said of Dylan, “The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was … Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity.” Haynes was born in the 60s, but those lines sum up pretty well what fans of Dylan thought of him as a person.
It’s always the idiosyncrasies that people recall. Memory filters out all but what it doesn’t understand. It picks at you. You don’t notice.
For the younger group of Dylan fans, our only true context is what we’ve seen for the last 15 years or so, the rest is lived vicariously through books, movies, countless articles and essays, and of course, his music itself. There’s so much about Dylan, writing this article almost feels superfluous, which brings me to my point: the largely negative reaction to Bob Dylan’s performance at last week’s Bumbershoot raises the question, has Dylan’s chameleon-like identity lost its ability to translate to the lives of others? And if so, why?
After the concert, a friend of mine–same age as me–who attended wrote on Facebook that the folk legend “disappointed an entire generation. Time to retire, Bob.” Pretty harsh. Several other young people have described the show to me as “awful,” or some other similarly negative adjective.
Comedian Marc Maron, 46, at a different event at Bumbershoot, remarked “I love the fact that [Dylan] is just being who he is now as opposed to trying to be who he was,” and humorously observed that he “literally made this weird choice to die on stage.” Another comic at Bumbershoot, Jimmy Pardo, 44, added, “That’s not even Dylan. I think Henson put together a muppet.”
The comedians were riffing more on Dylan’s age and gruffer voice, though Maron claimed to hold his reduced vocal style sentimental. These opinions, wry as they may be, reflect a kind of reverence: that they recall Dylan at various stages, at ages where they could appreciate him.
It’s that kind of sentiment and appreciation that people in their 20s lack, and the result is watching an old guy “die on stage,” and instead of recognizing how the sum of his parts led not just him but all of us to that moment, we call for him to retire.
Granted, I don’t speak for everyone. Nor do I think people my age are incapable of a deeper understanding of Dylan. Among the minority, Seattle P-I writer Amy Rolph wonders if young people can connect the dots:
I’d always assumed there were others like me out there, 20-somethings who’d come to like Dylan by retracing the influences of newer bands and artists … But as I stood in line to see Dylan on the Bumbershoot mainstage Saturday, I started to doubt that assumption: Maybe a Dylan concert really is no country for young women.
If that’s the case, now the question becomes, is it really Dylan who has lost his touch, or is it my generation’s inability to grasp it? Or am I missing the point? Maybe Dylan isn’t going through an identity crisis. Maybe his Bumbershoot performance should be perceived as self-acceptance of who he is: a faded star whose passion was always regarding the message, not just the performance. No matter how it sounds, the message is the same.
Have times really changed? No. Just the man, and the ears into which his words fall.
No wonder we don’t get it: you can’t forget something you don’t know.