Most of us baby boomers were caught off guard when it was announced several weeks back that Bob Dylan was celebrating his sixtieth birthday. It didn’t surprise us, mind you, since all of us from that generation have gotten used to graying or thinning hair, wrinkles and sags, a gradual decline in energy, and all of the rest that accompanies getting older. But the thought of Dylan getting ready to collect his social security… Well, it doesn’t make sense somehow.
We baby boomers, you see, were never supposed to grow old. After all, we invented the “youth culture.” We were the young generation who declared that we would never trust anybody over thirty. Only yesterday we were romping naked at Wookstock, preparing the world for a lasting peace, learning to live in harmony with our neighbors and wiping the last vestiges of colonialism and racism off the planet. Only yesterday, Bob Dylan was leading the way and promising us that we would remain forever young.
That yesterday was a generation and a half ago. Since then, Woodstock reunions have turned into bastions of looting and crimes against women. We’ve seen wars and senseless bloodshed in Cambodia, Israel, Northern Ireland, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans and practically everywhere else on the globe. There have been mass murders on school grounds, in government office buildings and in the compounds of religious zealots. Colonialism has only grown more sophisticated, disguising itself as “world trade,” and the flag of racism still flies over several state capitals right here in the good ol’ USA.
But yesterday, when LBJ was escalating the war on poverty at home and the war against communism abroad, Bob Dylan was our Gandhi, our Jesus and our Golda Meir all rolled-up into one human being. Just as Woody Guthrie had been the poet laureate for all of the displaced farmers and workers from the Great Depression, Dylan was the spokesperson for the runaways, dropouts and social misfits from the sixties. He took our thoughts and feelings and set them to words and music even before we knew what we were thinking and feeling.
Dylan has claimed that he never wanted to be the Messiah of the hippies, yippies and other malcontents of our era. In fact, the truth is different from the way he claims to remember it. He ran for the office and was duly elected. He lobbied Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar for their endorsement. He turned Peter, Paul and Mary concerts into campaign rallies where it was decreed: “Dylan is King!” It was only after he realized the awesome responsibility he’d undertaken that he declared, “I didn’t ask for any of this.”
It was through the folk trio of Peter, Paul and Mary that most of us first heard of the young songwriter from Hibbing, Minnesota who was tripping around Greenwich Village trying to make a name for himself. We heard of him first through their recording of his song “Blowin’ In The Wind.” After that, Mary Travers couldn’t get through a set without mentioning Bob Dylan, the song writing genius who was sure to soon be discovered.
This legend would continue and grow for the next ten years or so, even after he’d lost the qualities that’d endeared him to a generation. When he was booed for bringing electricity to the stage of the Newport Folk Festival we marveled, for he had deserted the old guard leftists to join with us – the New Left. When he recorded “Like A Rolling Stone,” a six minute anthem to anger and disillusionment, we were amazed, for here was someone seeing through the same mirage that we were seeing through and singing about it on the radio. With the release a couple of months later of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (“Everybody must get stoned”) we realized that the source of his visions was the source of our visions.
For a brief moment it was true: the times they were a changing, with an unlikely Jewish-American folk singer leading the way. Bob Dylan became our Savior, our own Pied Piper with a nasal voice and out-of-key harmonica who was going to lead us children born after the last great war to end all wars into a promised land where idealism could become reality.
Like most dreams, this one didn’t last for too long. In July of 1966, Dylan suffered a near fatal motorcycle accident and after his recovery he was a changed man. It was as if coming face-to-face with his own mortality had humbled him. Although he was to record the critically acclaimed “John Wesley Harding” album and go on to work with The Band, his words and music had lost the edge, humor and irreverence that had made him a spokesperson for an entire generation. It took until the middle of the next decade for many of us to realize that the “old Dylan” we remembered was gone and would never return.
Happy birthday, Bob. We still love you and hope you remain forever young.