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Bobby Z and the Lazy Repost

A long while back I took a crack at answering a post on ‘Quora’, which is a question and answer website. The question was straight-forward: “What’s so good about Bob Dylan?” Here’s what I came up with:

The standard answer here, to paraphrase David Letterman on his penultimate show, is that Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the modern era. And it’s a good point, both in terms of prolific output and quality of work.

Dylan is deceptively simple. He’ll use an unremarkable turn of phrase that becomes ingrained in one’s subconscious. And he does it on album after album. Take “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” from 2009’s “Together Through Life.” It’s an ordinary tune on first listen .. perhaps about a shifting relationship, and set to simple melody. Then a closer look at the lyrics: “the fourth part of the day is already gone.” What exactly is the fourth part of the day, and who uses this as reference? His baby’s comin’ .. “walking with the village beast.” Some assert it’s “priest” but in either case it’s an attention-grabber. “You are as porous as ever / baby you can start a fire.” Of all uses of fire as a metaphor for burning love, who adds “porous as ever”? Talk about a flame-stoker. For me, the image is a Weber charcoal starter, with porous holes in its sides allowing for oxygen, heat, and flame. For you, it’s likely something different. His words mean something powerfully different to each listener.

But why pick “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” from “Together Through Life”? Because unless you’re a fan and attuned to Dylan‘s recent output, you’ll likely never listen to this tune. Nothing about Dylan is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, outside of his eccentricity and curious moments like his Christmas video “It Must Be Santa” (a brilliant aside in a career packed with them.) It’s his ability to use words, a talent spanning six decades, which sets him apart.

Knocks on Dylan serve to reinforce his greatness. Old hippies who have seen him live at some point over the last decade often complain that his voice is terrible, and that he doesn’t play any of his “protest songs.” Dylan never claimed or wanted to be a protest singer, even when given the label and dubbed the “voice of his generation.” There’s a 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley from years back where Dylan explains that his songs were just songs, “not sermons” and that he never saw himself as a generational voice. “It’s ironic,” Bradley notes, “that the way people saw you was the polar opposite of how you viewed yourself.” Dylan: “Isn’t that somethin’ ?”

This leads to another of Dylan‘s greatly underrated attributes — his sense of humor. He’s always been aware of his surrounding myth and has had great fun with it. Another superb Bob tale from 2009 occurred when he was far from his tour bus in pouring rain, walking in an affluent Long Branch, New Jersey neighborhood. Someone called the cops on him. The young female officer didn’t believe the soaking wet 68-year-old when he told her who he was. “I’d seen pictures of him and he didn’t look anything like them.” She asked what he was doing there. He told her that he was looking at a house that had a “for sale” sign on it. When that didn’t suffice he added “I’m on a big tour with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson.” Was this spontaneous or a conscious effort to pad his legend? Does it really matter?

So what has Dylan been writing and singing about in recent decades, if not protest themes or social issues? Besides the eternal topic of love — which he hits on like no other — he’s been covering growing older and closer to death. About being there “when the deal goes down.” Not with morbid repetition, but with the same insight and language that has supported him through his entire career. He’s always of his time, regardless of what time it is, and is novel in approach. His voice? Come on .. this is Bob Dylan. Anyone complaining about that never got it anyway. There have been accusations, particularly in recent years and around the era of “Modern Times,” that Dylan steals from songwriters and poets of another generation. And of course, it’s true, just as those songwriters and poets did in their time. Ultimately, what he creates is uniquely his own and a revelation.

The above really only scratches the surface and the best answer is contained within the original question. What makes Bob Dylan so great? He’s Bob Dylan.

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