American Idol

James O'Brien

Two Fridays ago, as the clock neared 2:00 a.m., I stood in the men's room of the Turf Club. Kraig Johnson and the Program had just finished their set, and I was joined by a couple of revelers at the urinal--which, in my experience, has always been a post-gig sanctuary of sorts, a place to ruminate on the night's events. But one of these guys had already moved on. "Bob Dylan is coming to town, my friend," he said to us, or himself, as he peed and looked up at the tiles and graffiti on the wall. "Bob Dyyylan. Yes. Bob Dylan is the one."

I might have dismissed his prophet-mongering had it not come when it did. Earlier in the night, I'd been at an art opening for the Poster Offensive at the Frank Stone Gallery in northeast Minneapolis. There, sprouting up amidst the corner bars and neighborhood churches, was a tiny gallery packed with young and old artists, musicians, and their friends, all gathered to view propaganda-styled posters that smartly skewer their country, president, government, and media.

A band with a singer dressed in a rooster suit played Velvets-y riff-rock as people milled about, drinking, eating, and basking in their momentary refuge from the insanity of the political season. Underneath the boho cocktail-party mood, though, there was a seething fury that felt like the flip side of the same coin I came across earlier in the month at a Wellstone event at the Humphrey Institute, and at a standing-room-only meeting about the proposed school closings at Washburn High School.

In all three rooms, the anger was palpable, as if people were waking from a long nap that started four years ago, wiping away the drool and shedding their corsets of politeness to do battle. As Fog of War director Errol Morris said at the Oscars, "Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam, and millions died. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again."

Small wonder, then, in the middle of the night, in the middle of this barrage of official lies, non-news made from non-issues, and 24-hour celebrity culture, we have a young man with his head spinning and ears ringing, standing over a urinal in St. Paul, saying, "Bob Dylan is the one."

His choice of words--the one--is what made me grin and nod that night. Because I feel a single-minded affinity for Dylan these days, and more than ever I hear the sound of a rare freedom in his voice, which is why I'll be at Roy Wilkins Auditorium tonight (Wednesday; a rumored show at First Avenue the day before was canceled last week). But there was a time--when I was music editor of this newspaper more than a decade ago--when I walked out on Dylan in mid-show. It was the summer of 1992, during the opening night of Dylan's five-night stand at the Orpheum, but I couldn't hear the words or recognize the songs and I thought he didn't care about connecting with anybody but the converted, and I was busy and bored and couldn't be bothered.

Things started to change the following year, when his World Gone Wrong dovetailed with the rise of alt-rock, and I found myself drawn to a weariness in Dylan's voice, haunted as it was by his recasting of blues and folk-blues tunes by the likes of Blind Willie McTell and Doc Watson. At a time when the music I cut my teeth on was suddenly the most popular thing on the radio, Dylan and his ghosts felt like an underground discovery, and I started delving into him in a way I hadn't since buying Blood on the Tracks on the day it came out in 1975.

In the coming years, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and the single "Things Have Changed" became the most played Dylan records I own. That's still true. While so many of his older records still astonish, for me the most inspiring sounds have been of fifty- and sixty-something Dylan making records that pay virtually no attention to anything but his voice, the times, and what's on his mind. When I listen, headphones taut, he provides a head-above-the-sand escape from all the nonsense that passes for reality, sounding not unlike a great journalist telling me you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

Which may be less far-fetched than it sounds. The other day I watched Dylan's bookend films, Don't Look Back (1965) and Masked and Anonymous (2003). Along with the music, the most memorable bits of the former are of the young Dylan (who wrote for the Minnesota Daily for a spell in the early '60s) savagely grilling journalists on why they do what they do.

"I know more about you just by looking than you'll ever know about me," he tells one especially hapless Time correspondent, his words foreshadowing what This American Life's Ira Glass said many years later: "Most journalism portrays the world as smaller and stupider and less interesting than it is. That is a failure of the craft." In Masked and Anonymous, the journalist-lampooning is more subtle, left to an over-the-top performance by Jeff Bridges, who plays a reporter spouting jaded rock-critic rants and conspiracy theories. Both, though, act as a commentary on how fiercely Dylan has fought for genuine personal freedom--as illustrated by the scene in which Dylan's self-styled character, Jack Fate, is released from prison.

"I haven't felt free in a long time," he tells the guard.

"Keeping people from being free is big business," says the guard.

"I'll keep it in mind," says Dylan.

He always has. And at the moment, Dylan is one of the few unmistakably organic sounds of freedom to be had. His voice remains clarion-ragged, unsullied, and untouched by trends or whims. The puppet strings are all too visible on various politicians, musicians, and media celebrities these days, but Dylan still sounds beholden to no one but himself and his music, a troubadour singing about class, race, love, power, and that one evergreen that all great music is built on: mystery.

In that sense, Dylan sounds like America, or at least the America that Dylan reminds me I still love. He's truck stops and blues and cigarettes and blue jeans and sex and beer and spaghetti Westerns and naturally "independent" and "alternative." He's angry, in a way that America at its best has always been angry--full of questions, always seeing the way things really are out of the corner of his eye.

He's the CNN crawl ("Even Jesus would never forgive what you do"; "Living in the land of nod, trusting our fate to the hands of God"; "Things are breaking up out there"; "How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they're forever banned?"; "If dogs run free, why aren't we?") that never gets read, but which simmers under absolutely everything that happens. He's the ex-con songwriter sitting in the back of the van at the end of Masked and Anonymous, his eyes slithering back and forth, his voiceover saying, "I stopped trying to figure out everything a long time ago."

He's Bob Dylan, friend, and, for the next couple of days at least, he's the one.


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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