Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bob Dylan column

Genius. Technically it means someone with an IQ of 140 or higher.

It’s not just the brain we are born with; there is also the factoring in of a certain amount of self-discipline and striving to improve one’s intellect, or their talents in one area or another.

Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are geniuses in the traditional sense, just as Michael Jordan was a genius basketball player and Muhammad Ali was a genius in the ring. We appreciate their abilities and recognize them as such.

During a TV broadcast from the White House the other night it occurred to me there is an entertainer out there who, besides being a genius in his field, is also a national treasure and he should be appreciated while we still have him around.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Minnesota. His family was not well-to-do, but his working class upbringing in that part of the country would not stop him from pursuing a career in music.

At first, he became caught up in the life story of rail-riding folksinger Woody Guthrie, who at that time in early 1960 was hospitalized in New Jersey with Huntington’s Chorea. Dylan hitched rides across the country to visit his hero, succeeded, and began playing many of Woody’s songs, as well as many traditional blues and ballads as he made his rounds throughout the clubs of New York and elsewhere. He was considered a terrific mimic, but that was it. He did none of his own material and it never looked like he was going to be anything more than an idiosyncratic interpreter of others’ work.

This is where the genius part comes in.

Somewhere in his Midwestern brain, all of those influences -- Guthrie, Hank Williams, Little Richard and others -- coalesced, and almost overnight songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” and others were flying off the pages of his typewriter.

The timing of Dylan’s blossoming was in sync with the height of the civil rights movement. Dylan’s eloquence quickly made him the musical face of the movement, but he was still an artist in transition. While the folkies embraced him as their own, he tired of being pigeonholed and began writing songs of another type, long, and some say “chemically influenced” masterpieces like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row” and hundreds more. He faced hostile audiences around the world in the mid-sixties for going electric but it did not stop him. In the 1970s he released Blood on The Tracks, still one of the greatest albums ever made, and he has continued to record and tour since then, winning an Oscar and several Grammies in the last decade alone. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his arrival in New York. His influence on popular music and culture in the past half century rivals that of Shakespeare in his time and cannot be denied.

The other night he performed “The Times They Are A-Changing” at the White House, in the faces of the very people he was singing about: “Come senators and congressmen, please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall, for he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled—the battle outside is ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls for the times they are a changing.”

Strong stuff for a little Jewish kid from iron ore mining country.

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