We’re having a party for Bob Dylan’s birthday Tuesday night. You ought to come. It’s going to be over at Keith Harrelson’s house of musical fun, Moonlight on the Mountain, over in sock-up downtown Bluff Park, which means you’ll be able to hear the music really well and also that if you want something to eat or drink on, you’d better bring it yourself.
It’ll cost you at least five bucks to get in, but you should plan on spending some more, because all the proceeds are going to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. I know, you’re thinking they’ll make a ton of dough off Do Dah Day this weekend, and that may be, but this party specifically is to defray the expenses of the Humane Society’s rescue efforts in the tornado zone the last couple of weeks. The human toll there has been horrific, but animals have fared little better, and the survivors frankly aren’t very good at raising money by themselves. I mean, a collie can put its paw out for a contribution, but it can’t give you a legible receipt.
There will be swag. For example, our old friend Rowland Scherman, who won a Grammy for a picture he once snapped of Bob Dylan, has graciously donated one of his prints to be given away. I asked for his left index, but I think he’s sending one of Bob instead. Rare recordings of indeterminate origin will be yours to win as well, and if one of them happens to be a complete set of Bob’s 100 Theme Time Radio Hour broadcasts, we can only thank an anonymous source at the Abernathy Building for untrammeled generosity.
Generosity also figures into the music you’ll be hearing. Rick Carter, who labors harder than Katy Perry’s bustier on his own multitude of musical enterprises, nevertheless stepped up at once when he heard about this one and offered his invaluable assistance. At press time he, Heath Green, Sharrif Simmons, Lolly Lee, Jon Poor, Wilder Adkins, Justin Cross, Simone Durand and Mark Kelly were confirmed, and doubtless more can be found by now on the calendar at the Moonlight on the Mountain website.
The premise is that each artist will get 10 minutes to play out of the Bob Dylan songbook, and I hope everyone goes deep. It’s stunning that the old man turns 70 this year, but more so to realize that 2011 marks his fiftieth year of performing and composing. He’s written a goodly number of clunkers—if nobody wants to cover “Wiggle Wiggle” Tuesday night that’s fine by me—but he is distinguished by the percentage of songs filling space among his classic hits that merit attention and scrutiny.
My testimony may be suspect, for I am a devotee. Scarcely a day goes by on which I do not give some thought to the work of Bob Dylan, and if I am not listening to his music, I’m noting his influence on somebody else’s. For good or ill, he has altered this world in which we dwell. He receives accolades for it on a fairly regular basis now, but in another age, he might just as well have been burned at the stake.
A Top 40 radio fan growing up, I was inoculated with Dylan’s hits, but when I got to the University, I met a stone-cold fan named David Lowe who gave me a serious case of discography, pointing me back toward Dylan’s acoustic beginnings and deeper into the electric albums. I remember to this day the first time I heard the B- side of “Positively Fourth Street,” a catchy clamor called “From A Buick Six” that thundered on the Supe Store jukebox whenever someone pressed H-3: “Well, she don’t make me nervous, she don’t talk too much/She walks like Bo Diddley and she don’t need no crutch/She keeps this four-ten all loaded with lead/If I go down dyin’, you know she’s bound to put a blanket on my bed.”
It was always the words. Sure, Dylan used graveyard wind for his voice and he borrowed all his melodies from Rip Van Winkle, but the unexpected way he loaded his songs with syllables pretty much leveled Tin Pan Alley. “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” he asked when he was but 21, essentially rebooting folk music and placing politics in the pop vernacular. He made a handsome living off the news for a couple of years, but just at the point when the left was ready to claim him as an avatar, he vaulted out of issues into a new kind of popular music as beholden to William Blake as to Leiber and Stoller.
He cut three peerless electrified albums in a row, and in the summer of ’66 he vanished like a thief in the night. (Watch Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home and guess why.) When he reappeared two years later, with the album of parables entitled John Wesley Harding, he had shifted shapes again and was legging it for the country.
Over the next forty-odd years, Dylan left a tough trail to follow as he hid in plain sight; into Christianity and out again, disappearing back into folk, wallowing in the unexceptional and emerging transcendent. Along the way, I believe he began touring as a means of atonement for unspecified sins. I think for the son of Abe Zimmerman, every day is Yom Kippur.
But I analyze overmuch. As Bob Dylan hits his Biblical three-score-and-ten, he has earned his respite from the critical likes of me. I may never figure out what he was getting at in “Changing of the Guards,” but that’s okay. I am content at last to take him at his word, that he is neither a poet nor a prophet nor the voice of any generation, just a song-and-dance man.
But what songs and what a dance. We’re having a party for Bob Dylan’s birthday Tuesday night. You ought to come.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.