I was 16 the afternoon I heard Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde the first time, back to back. I remember exactly the way my bedroom looked and exactly what sort of day it was and exactly the way the sunlight shone through my window, the moment was that indelible - a revelation on the order of reading Wuthering Heights or Light in August or the last third of Moby Dick, or seeing Vertigo or The Third Man or The Passion of Joan of Arc. Musically the only thing that had impressed me so much was Ray Charles, when I was eleven. It wasn't just Dylan's words, about which people had already made a great deal, but the sonic panorama: the voice on 'Like a Rolling Stone' and the organ snaking through 'Ballad of a Thin Man', the Baudelairean honky-tonk of 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' and the mesmerizing drone of 'Visions of Johanna' and 'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands'. It seemed impossible anyone could be allowed to make music like this, the audacity of it was so preposterous, and it was another rare, early lesson in how art isn't about rules or formalism or even taste, but passion and imagination and courage.
Not long ago I read something somewhere by some critic I don't remember on the importance of cultivating one's own good taste, which ultimately means taste that impresses other people. 'You've read all F. Scott Fitzgerald's books', Dylan once sneered at someone awfully like this person, in one of those songs I heard that afternoon 35 years ago. In its flabbergasting anarchy Dylan's music was the sound of liberation, an affront to conventions and mavens and establishments of all sorts: critical, musical, cultural, academic - insinuations of contempt threading the eyes of art both high and low. Rock and Roll was already about rebellion, but Dylan's was the rebellion inside the rebellion, putting Rock's pretensions and poses on notice even as Dylan had some pretensions of his own. But his somehow seemed inspired in a way unlike anyone else's (except maybe the Beatles), even as he did some posing of his own, which somehow seemed authentic in a way unlike anyone else's (except maybe Hendrix, for whom Dylan was a crucial model). Writing and singing as the keeper of Burroughs' insurrectionist American heart, and Henry Miller's before him and Mark Twain's before him, Dylan already sounded like he thought he was the end of the line; 35 years later, he still does. The arrogance becomes him.
I'm not sure that Fitzgerald of all people, given his desperate, heroic, late-life disarray, deserved Dylan's scorn. But in the 1960s Fitzgerald was in vogue and so to Dylan he represented the sort of élitism that, in fact, the unkempt romanticism of novels such as Tender Is the Night and The Great Gatsby defied; there wasn't much that withstood Dylan's delirious wrath in those days, warranted or not. Or maybe in his prophetic fashion Dylan was anticipating something: the way Fitzgerald, who died five months before Dylan was born, had cursed him with that business about American lives not having second acts. If you're 24 years old, as Dylan was when he wrote 'Ballad of a Thin Man' and as Fitzgerald was when he began to conceive Gatsby, you don't want to hear about how your moment of glory is already behind you, as Fitzgerald would soon sense his was, and as maybe Dylan feared his was too. A lot of other people also thought so, and until recently everything Dylan has sung since then has been heard against the backdrop of what he sang and what I heard for the first time that afternoon in 1966.
'What do you mean you can't repeat the past?' Dylan asks on his newest record, and then answers, 'Of course you can' - and if that sounds slightly familiar, well, it was originally written by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, though whether he believed it, or that was just Gatsby talking, we can't be sure. No second acts in an American life? Dylan is well into his third or fourth, and it's for that I've become fascinated and enthralled anew by him recently, fascinated and enthralled by the fact that the man who most fascinated and enthralled me in my adolescence still does so at my half-century mark. Ensconced in a New England writers' colony this past summer, when I wasn't working I listened to him almost exclusively, while also reading a new biography of him. On my last afternoon at the colony I shared lunch with another writer who came over to the States from China after Tiananmen Square in 1989. She just happened to be playing Dylan on her CD player in the background and we fell into a long discussion about a more recent song called 'Not Dark Yet', his best of the 1990s ('It's not dark yet, but it's getting there'). So I've been surrounded lately by the serendipity of Dylan. He's captured my imagination again, though he never really relinquished it, but now he speaks not to a teenager exhilarated by all life's prospects but to someone who increasingly finds death's prospect inescapable, as Dylan presumably does himself.
The truth is that in the middle of the New Hampshire woods I wasn't listening to the music Dylan made 35 years ago, the music that history considers 'classic'; rather, I was listening to the music he's made in the last 20 years, particularly in the 1980s, when critics who worried a lot about their own good taste said he was artistically spent. These were the years of spiritual and creative confusion when he often seemed unsure of who he was anymore. Having burnt a CD of personal favourites from the period, I was struck by how many of these songs mean as much to me as anything else he's done, and how taken together they represent some of his deepest, most vulnerable and raging work: 'Ring Them Bells', 'Dark Eyes', 'A Series of Dreams', 'Shooting Star', 'Brownsville Girl', 'The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar' and particularly 'Blind Willie McTell', an astonishing requiem for America as sung through the metaphor of an obscure blues singer; 'Most of the Time', one of his most beautiful and self-knowing love ballads; and 'Every Grain of Sand', in which he hears God's footsteps in some place that he can't quite be sure is either past or future. It may be the greatest song he's written.
It wasn't long after I returned to Los Angeles, where I live, that even the West Coast skies filled with the ashes of New York, during that week that divided all our lives from the rest of our lives. As it happened Dylan's newest album was released on the day It happened, somehow fitting - 'It's been a sad and lonesome day', he sings - and also defiantly at odds with the sadness and the lonesomeness: a raucous, sweet litany of Yes and Always and Forever in answer to the locusts of No and Nothing and Never that now attempt to blast out all our windows. Four years ago, on Dylan's last record, you could hear him straining to swim against time to somewhere before he was born; now at the age of 60, no longer singing against the backdrop of what we all heard in the 1960s, he sounds at one with a mystic tide undesignated by eras, being carried by that tide farther than even the farthest horizon of his own beginning. This is the tide of the American promise, which itself sails against the current of nihilism as ceaselessly as Gatsby's dream
First published in Issue 63