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Commentary

America lost something in 1963; Bob Dylan is still looking for it

Jeff Simon

I am not to be trusted on the subject of Bob Dylan and I've always known it. I don't get him – not really.

This has been a lifelong problem for me. It's literally true that most of the contemporaries – and those younger – I've liked and/or loved in this world have put Dylan on a high plateau that's too long and steep a climb for me. I get tired halfway to the top and keep whining we should turn back.

It isn't that I don't like many of his songs. I do, but I've always been a little chagrined to admit they're the ones radio likes, too – "Lay, Lady, Lay," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "I Shall Be Released," "All Along the Watchtower," "Like a Rolling Stone." "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" isn't exactly one of those, but give it to someone who loves it – no matter how inappropriate they are to sing it – and it's gorgeous. (Judy Collins anyone?)

It's true some of his songs exasperated me. The first time I heard his denunciatory "Positively Fourth Street," I muttered in the middle to jazz-loving friends, "Hey Bob, does this song have a bridge? Do you need one? I'll try to come up with one before you're finished."

I certainly revere Dylan's influence on pop music. The number of musicians I love – from the Beatles to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen – who became singer/songwriters after Dylan is large and quite wonderful.

I even like some of the things other people hate. I don't, for one thing, hate his nasal voice. He came from Woody Guthrie and there's something great and totally American about sing-talking. Singers who found beauty in ugliness are a miraculous American tradition. Listen to Louis Armstrong and late Billie Holiday sometime.

I don't mind all of his superior smirking and sneering, either. I know some people can't stand it, but if I were Dylan, I might have a lot of trouble trusting my audience, too. When people elect you a generational prophet you never wanted to be and sift through your garbage for clues about your sex life, you've got to resent – at least a little – the American way of pop fame. If you can't smirk and sneer at that, what can you smirk and sneer at?

Dylan loves teasing his audience and making fun of them. No, he isn't gentle and generous and sweet about it the way Elvis always was, but then Elvis was a polite country boy, not a Bohemian smart aleck.

Nor do I scoff at his Greenwich Village/Woodstock politics. How could I? I share most of them. The trouble is I never needed anyone to be the prophet of my generation, much less Bob Dylan.

"A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall," "The Times They Are a Changin'," "Blowin' in the Wind" and others seemed to exist midway between poetry and poster jingoism. Compared to the sulfurous comedy of performers like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and, especially, George Carlin, Dylan's songs sounded to me like appeals and cajolings I was just too cynical to respect.

All of which brings up Dylan's latest challenge to his audience. Last week, he dropped a 17-minute song on the world called "Murder Most Foul" (see Shakespeare's "Hamlet"). He was typically vague about where and when it was written and recorded, but then Dylan wouldn't be Dylan if he couldn't drive the ardent Dylanologists a little nuts every once in a while.

It begins with the Kennedy assassination and goes on from there.

That brings up a story I want to tell and why this may be the first time in my life when Dylan has taken me through obscurity to revelation the way people always claim he does when they throw Nobel Prizes for Literature at him.

I was a student at Syracuse University on Nov. 3, 1963, when Dylan came to town to do a solo benefit concert for CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) at the city's Regent Theater.

The Mohawk Manor Motel was close to the university and the theater. I was walking through its parking lot with the woman I'd later marry when an enormous black Cadillac limo pulled into it.

It remained there, windows up, for about half a minute, as if those inside were casing the lot to see who else might be there besides the two of us on our way to lunch.

So the limo's doors opened and people filed out. Young men, one after the other – four of them, all dressed as if they'd just bought their standard boho clothes at the same Tent City or outdoor store that clothed Bob Dylan on the style-setting cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

Finally, last but not least, after a slight pause, came Bob Dylan, utterly unmistakable even though he was dressed in a snazzy black suit and tie that my father – who was in the menswear business – would have been happy to sell him.

My father belonged to a club of clothiers whose motto was, "Dress Right, It's Good for You." It was a motto he really believed in, as did most proper middle-class men of his generation. And there was the protesting Greenwich Village Genie looking for all the world like Ed Sullivan's lost son.

The contrast between him and the Dylanite parade preceding him made me burst with laughter. First came the Bohemian entourage, then the leader in suit and tie. Later that night, he'd be dressed differently at the benefit.

Remember, this is early November 1963, literally 20 days before the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas' Dealey Plaza. Dylan's cause that night was, in its way, President Kennedy's, too – so we all thought.

Dylan then goes on to sing his new song about what happened to America less than three weeks after we happened to glimpse him arriving in that Syracuse motel parking lot.

The new song, as so many have already said, is like "American Pie." The difference between Minnesota's Bob Dylan, at the age of 78, and 25-year-old Don McLean in 1971 is enormous. No, the "music" didn't die after that terrible plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, even though three charismatic pop favorites certainly did (one great singer/songwriter, one good one, and one DJ finding the top 40 a congenial home for his personality).

But something hopeful did, in fact, die on Nov. 22, 1963, when someone ("they" according to Dylan) murdered John F. Kennedy in that open convertible. It has been, thus far, irreplaceable.

I'm not going to pretend "Murder Most Foul" isn't full of couplets that are outright embarrassing. Alexander Pope, those couplets are not. They'd be grim doggerel even by the poetic standards of sixth grade.

Nor do they have the intemperate insolence in their poetic clumsiness that so much rap does.

So many of these lines are just foul.

But, but, but ...

Dylan and I are close in age (he's three and a half years older). The soul and hope people our age exhibited so shamelessly that November when his limo pulled into that parking lot was murdered three weeks later.

Most foully.

America has been looking for it ever since, sings the Nobel prize winning poet.

In the song, Dylan name-checks cultural figures all over the place that are full of soul. They are, he's saying, some of those seeking the soul that he and we were hoping would prevail when he came to Syracuse to sing for CORE.

But it was murdered in Dallas just a few days later.

And a 78-year-old man wants us all to know he still remembers.

And he's still looking for what was lost.

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