Martin Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, brought back a lot of memories. Packed with commentary by Liam Clancy, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Peter Yarrow, and others, it sucked me right back to my late teen years. I was raised by extreme right-wing evangelicals. I didn’t fit in, and those years seethed with bitter conflict.
I was 16 the first time I heard Bob Dylan. One of my chores was ironing, and I was listening to KSAY 1010, a country music station, while I slaved away at the ironing board. (Does anybody iron pillow cases anymore?) I liked Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, and Johnny Cash. Then Bob Dylan came on, singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I had never heard anything like it. The lyrics left me stunned. It was the anthem of our time. I don’t think they played him very many more times on the country music station, but I was never the same after that. Someone had just given voice to my own forbidden feelings about segregation and war.
Looking back, I have trouble understanding the extreme reaction some people had to Dylan’s going electric; I liked the evolution of his music just fine. It didn’t hurt that the musicians who backed him up were the people who would later become “The Band.”
Some people said he sounded awful. They made fun of his voice. But my best friend Roz and I played the records over and over on our cheap little record players. We painstakingly wrote down the lyrics and memorized them like scripture. My high school English teacher, Lloyd Baskerville, was determined to discover what this was about–why the kids admired Dylan so much while the “adults” despised him, so he got the records and spent an evening listening to them. He was amazed. He spent a whole English class quoting lyrics (“pure poetry”) and talking about them.
Those songs got me through the difficult transition of breaking away from my racist, McCarthyist parents with their threats of hellfire and making my own imperfect way in the world. His lyrics are “evergreen.” Most of them could have been written in 2010.
Down in Pebble Beach, California, there’s an elite private high school that has its own radio station. When I worked in Salinas, I would sometimes listen to it on the drive home; some of those kids had excellent musical taste. One night, a girl deejay was playing old Bob Dylan songs from my own high school days: “Chimes of Freedom,” “Hard Rain,” and “It’s All Right Ma.” She said she’d just discovered these songs. “They’re way old, but listen to the lyrics. They are totally awesome, could have been written today.” I grinned all the way home.