The State of the Dylan Address.

Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
May 24 2006 1:10 PM

The State of the Dylan Address

An annual tradition.

The Dylan. Click image to expand.
The Dylan

Mr. Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, readers of Slate, distinguished Fraysters, fellow citizens. Sixty-five years ago today, our Dylan was busy being born. He's older than that now. As he becomes a contender for the cover of AARP Magazine, it is my duty to report on the state of the Dylan.

It is true that money doesn't talk, it swears. Nevertheless, over the last six years, we have brought new economic growth by investing in our Dylan. According to the Office of Billboard and Budget, the Dylan's last CD of new material, Love and Theft, sold 754,000 copies, and the Dylan made $1 million in royalties from the book Chronicles Vol. 1. Now we move into a new age of technology: the Dylan's iTunes music store and XM Radio's Theme Time Radio Hour, hosted by the Dylan. Add to this the upcoming Twyla Tharp dance spectacle, a Todd Haynes biopic where seven different actors will play the Dylan, a new CD ready to hit stores, Michael Gray's comprehensive and up-to-date Bob Dylan Encyclopedia,and the perennial fact that he's still on the road, headin' for another joint, and it is unassailably clear: My fellow Americans, the state of the Dylan is strong. (Applause.)

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Yet we are still, in the words of our founders, striving to form a more perfect Dylan. Anyone following the state of the Dylan will recognize the character in Jonathan Cott's Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, published this month. This is the Dylan who eviscerated a Time reporter and immortalized him as the clueless "Mr. Jones" of "Ballad of a Thin Man." The book charts four decades of exchanges: We get the yarn-spinning Dylan of the early '60s, the combative, elliptical drugged-out icon of the mid-'60s, the oracular converso of the late '70s, the embittered burnout of the '80s, the ailing comeback kid of the '90s, and the sexagenarian swami of the 21st century. The Dylan of XM Radio's Theme Time Radio Hour, however, is a Dylan both familiar and startling.

Listening to Dylan's show, we hear the chimes of freedom on the march. Back in 1966, Dylan was still battling uptight forces, even when confronted with the hep Nat Hentoff, who quoted him saying that people "hang out on the radio." Dylan corrected him: "I didn't say that people 'hang out' on the radio, I said they got 'hung up' on the radio." Forty years later, Dylan is definitely hanging out on the radio. There will be, as usual, the nattering nabobs of Dylanology ascribing monumental significance to every utterance he makes, but they would be missing the spirit of the show. Dylan is wisecracking, relaxed, and open on these satellite waves, rasping like Tom Waits' DJ character in Down by Law. Each show has a theme; so far they've included "Weather," "Mother," "Drinking," and "Baseball." With each theme, Dylan has an excuse to spin records he likes, intone song lyrics like a gnomic bluesman, crack jokes, and reveal minor clues about his influences, such as when he kicks off his first show with Muddy Waters' "Blow, Wind, Blow," a "Blowin' in the Wind" source that bypassed most Dylanographers. On the "Baseball" episode, he even sings "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

The Dylan, aided by an international coalition of researchers and probably reciting his patter from a tour bus or hotel room, tells a little anecdote about each artist he plays—the more obscure the better. But you can understand every word and, lo and behold, he actually seems to be enjoying himself. "Here's Sonny Rollins, covering all the bases," he rasps, introducing Rollins' "Newk's Getaway," breaking in just before Rollins' solo to interject, "Let's get goin'." By the time he gets to the third episode, "Drinking," he seems light-years away from the stonewalling Delphic oracle we know. The state of the Dylan might actually be getting mellower with age, but he is not in a malaise. Five years ago, when Mikal Gilmore asked him about his history with alcohol, Dylan snapped: "I can drink or not drink. I don't know why people would associate drinking or not drinking with anything that I do, really." But get the man behind the mic, and he'll offer his recipe for a mint julep (after Lenore from Cincinnati asked for it and he played "One Mint Julep" by the Clovers) and aphorize that "Alcohol will kill anything that's alive and preserve anything that's dead."

So, my fellow Americans, what is the state of the Dylan? He's playing around 100-odd concerts a year, has switched from guitar to piano, is snarling "Like a Rolling Stone" from the casinos of Arizona to the ruins of Italy, and keeps close watch on his iconic image. He saw the dangers of his fame 40 years ago, back when he was badgering Hentoff, and ran as far as he could from the hippies parachuting onto his lawn and the freaks digging through his garbage. But we now live in an age of possibility. Dylan at 65 can let loose, spinning records, cracking bad jokes, and revealing his affection for the odd LL Cool J and Prince tune amid his dusty old Folkways reissues. 

Could this finally be the kindler, gentler Dylan? And do the Dylan's best days still lie ahead? The man who was born 65 years ago today asked how many roads a man must walk down; he still keeps the questions coming. Now we must rise to the decisive moment, to make a Dylan and a world not gone wrong, but better than any we have known. We stand at the edge of a New Morning—the morning of unfulfilled hopes and 115 dreams, where the tour is never ending. Senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the Dylan. And may you stay forever young.

David Yaffe is assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing.