Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bob Dylan and me – forever old...

By Jim Heffernan

Bob Dylan
So Bob Dylan is 70. Welcome to the septuagenarian club, Bob. I got there a year and a half ago, so we’re rough contemporaries.

Born in the same town, delivered by the same doctor, if a book I saw that in can be believed (it was a pulpy paperback), he at St. Mary’s hospital, me at St. Luke’s, if my birth certificate can be believed (it had my name wrong). Around then our paths diverged.

All of the hoopla over Dylan’s 70th birthday has reminded me that I never “got” his art. Sorry Bob. Not that he’d care what I got or didn’t get. Only in my advanced age have I recognized that he is truly exceptional as a thinker and writer (maybe a genius as some say?), but not a singer – not by my singing standards anyway. Stay tuned.

A fascinating column in today’s New York Times (May 24) by David Hadju, a journalism professor at Columbia University who has written a book about Dylan and his contemporaries, posits that his generation of performers – and there are many notable ones – hit puberty right at the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era, smack dab in the middle of the 1950s when Elvis Presley changed everything. Hadju says psychologists believe that age 14 or so is when we develop musical tastes that “become a badge of identity,” almost always odds with previous generations’ tastes.

Hadju includes a Dylan quote that strongly backs this theory: “When I first heard Elvis’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” Dylan was about 14 when this music largely wiped out everything that had gone before it in pop music culture.

Who else was about 14 then? Hadju lists some of them turning 70 this year and next: Joan Baez, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. Some, gratefully, are already dead, of course.

Mario Lanza
What about me? I was about 15 at the time, and I liked Elvis when I was in high school, but it was too late for me, and Hadju’s theory might explain why I was not an admirer of Dylan’s singing or his music. A couple of years before, I heard a singer who forever changed my perception of what singing was supposed to be: it was Mario Lanza.

I saw the movie starring tenor Lanza as “The Great Caruso” at about that age and when he sang “Vesti la giubba” from “Pagliacci” I was a goner. From that day forward I judged all male singers against that standard. No one could compare, although I had to admit Elvis had a passable baritone, and I came to enjoy Frank Sinatra when I got a little older.

Bob Dylan? Hello? With that raspy, crackling voice, I never gave him a chance. I know now I was missing some pretty impressive poetry, and even profound expressions that have had an important influence on our times, particularly at the dawn of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s.

How stuffy – uncool – is that? Early teenager likes opera music? I found a couple of operatic sopranos of that era to admire as well – Dorothy Kirsten, Roberta Peters, not pop artists Carole King or Aretha Franklin.

Lanza died at age 38 in 1959, the year Bob Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School and set out to change the world. Lanza’s recordings are still sold in stores, a pretty lasting legacy for a guy who’s been dead for 52 years.

I’ve got a feeling Dylan’s legacy will be longer than that, but you never know. In any event, neither he nor I will be around to find out.


Kath1e said...

I agree, Dylan and Carol's voice was never the draw - but as you say the poetry is it.

Jim Heffernan said...

You're so right...the poetry says it all.