On a beautiful August night at Parkview Field I attended my 14th Bob Dylan concert.
When I was a high school English teacher I can still remember what the chalk felt like in my hand when I wrote these words on the blackboard for my 10th-grade students to contemplate: “There's no success like failure and ... failure's no success at all.” — from an early Dylan song, “Love Minus Zero.”
I have been pondering that line ever since. Bob Dylan and I are the same age, from the same part of the country, and we both have tried to elevate the race a notch. There is a difference: He is a gigantic success; I am a lowly failure.
But that doesn't mean I can't relate to what I think is the power of his artistry, why he's still going strong, not just as a singer but as a cultural force. I'll start with James Grant's glowing review in The News-Sentinel in which he called Dylan's songs timeless and thought-provoking.
It's not just his lyrics. In a recent interview he said the stigma of slavery ruined America, and he doubts the country can get rid of the shame because it was “founded on the backs of slaves” and adds, “It will hold any nation back.” And that if slavery had been settled in a less violent way the country would not be mired in blatant injustice and endless wars.
I added that last part. U.S. incomes have dropped to the 1989 level. Millions of Americans live in poverty. Children go hungry. Americans continue to be obsessed with the Civil War. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in U.S. history. More wars for profit and power are always around the corner.
Challenging my students to think cost me my teaching career. Generally speaking, the last thing an American wants is to think. It's why we have religion and schools and elections and wars. To avoid thinking at all costs. Thinking will get you to the reality of our existence, and who wants to think about that? That we're all passengers on the Titanic, and you have to wonder if any of the journeys along the way makes any sense.
“No reason to get excited,
the thief he kindly spoke.
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke.”
— “All Along the Watchtower.”
Timeless? What is timeless is his reflection on human nature:
“Preacher was a talkin'
there's a sermon he gave,
He said every man's conscience
is vile and depraved.”
— “Man in the Long Black Coat.”
But what Dylan did is, he went beyond the words. He puts the words to music, and then performs the music, playing guitar, piano and harmonica in his totally unique way. And he shares it with us. He tours constantly. And that's what I love about him.
I think of a man with all the money and acclaim a human being can accumulate sitting down and writing “Gonna sleep down in the parlor and relive my dreams, I close my eyes and I wonder If everything is as hollow as it seems.”
We fill the hollowness with nonsense, the more nonsensical, the better the distraction from thinking. We take it out on each other, our fear and our hate, on little countries that have done nothing to us, on our neighbor, watching him and his family sitting on the sidewalk, their home foreclosed, with nowhere to go.
Or the person on the other side of town who lies dying, unable to afford to go to the doctor, the people who can save her, loaded with health insurance we provide, refusing to help her.
In between right here in the All-American City, Americans stand at shopping malls with signs begging for help. A friend in a Dylan-like moment told me, “They (the rulers) don't want us to have nothing.” And we go along with it. The candidate says, “We will take away your health insurance in your own old age,” and we don't storm his house with pitchforks and torches. We cheer.
“Now, he's hell-bent for destruction
He's afraid and confused
and his brain has been
Mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies”
— From “License to Kill,” in which he also says, “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool and when he sees his reflection he's fulfilled; Oh, man is opposed to fair play. He wants it all and he wants it his way.”
Dylan knows we are too “vile and depraved” to live up to any ideals of fairness: On his album “Infidels” he snarls, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and they make you a king.” and “Democracy don't rule the world, you better get that in your head; This world is ruled by violence but I guess that's better left unsaid.”
Has anyone ever summed up America better? So why I go to Dylan is to be reminded, to know, that in a country run by the worst among us, humans named Romney, Ryan, Obama, Clinton, Bush, who worship war and celebrate injustice, that that there is also among us someone with not just the talent and the artistry but the courage to explore the truth.
I end with Dylan's encore that evening, in which he poses the timeless question: “Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.”
Dylan has no answers. No one does. But he dares to ask the questions that come to this: Why, when we could be helping each other, do we instead climb all over each other to see who can get the best seat on the ship?