It's Alright, Ma

Bob Dylan didn't die. Apparently the state of his condition following his May 25 hospitalization for histoplasmosis was greatly exaggerated by the news media. ("DYLAN COULD BE IN FIGHT FOR LIFE," wailed the headline from the May 29 edition of the New York Post.) Still, the news of that hospitalization rattled me to the bone, chilled my blood, stopped me in my tracks -- all the cliches used to describe a first response to bad news were applicable. Not just because I can't conceive of a world without Bob Dylan (though God knows I can't), but because I'd had a premonition of sorts on May 24, the day of his 56th birthday. It was an erroneous premonition, but a premonition nonetheless.

It arrived during the afternoon, while I was parking my car on the way back from the seafood market. I had been blasting a tape of a recently acquired Dylan bootleg, and popped it out of the deck before turning off the car. In the split second between those two actions, I heard a familiar song on WLRN's Folk and Acoustic Music. It was a Dylan song, 1962's "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," a much-bootlegged outtake from the sessions for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album that was finally made available legitimately on 1991's The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased). Anyone who tunes in regularly to FAAM knows that songs as good as "Talkin' Bear Mountain" are rarities on this smug, poorly programmed show.

Forgetting that it was Dylan's birthday, my immediate response to hearing this very funny, seldom-aired song was one of doom: "Dylan's dead," I said aloud to myself, certain it was the only explanation. Of course, I soon realized it was simply a birthday toast. The feeling in my gut, however, lingered, and it's lingering right now, unshakable even as the news has just arrived of Dylan's improved health. And though I've been trying ever since that day to figure out exactly why I can't shake it, I don't know that I'll ever have a definitive answer.

Part of the reason is Dylan's seeming immortality. Sure he's mortal, but he should always be around, whether he's making brilliant records or going through the motions of simply being Bob Dylan (hardly a simple task). Another reason is this: For the last two months I've listened to very little music other than Dylan's -- albums, singles, favorite tracks from assorted bootlegs of outtakes, leftovers, and live stuff culled from various tours.

Some people return time and time again to particular books or movies -- I have one friend who watches John Ford's The Searchers at least once a month, and another who every year cozies back up to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- but I find myself constantly turning back to Dylan. I do the same thing with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington. But with Dylan it's different. Although I've been a fairly intense fan since grade school, when my parents first introduced Blood on the Tracks and Desire to the living-room turntable in the mid-Seventies, I quickly found, and then stuck by, my favorite Dylan albums -- the ones that obliterated what my young mind thought were the boundaries of how far someone could take the art of singing, songwriting, and playing rock and roll. I stayed close to them over the years, seldom straying very far into the dark woods of what are generally accepted as his lesser efforts.

It was 1990's Under the Red Sky, however, that sent me digging deeper into Dylan's massive oeuvre. After deciding that album was the worst possible effort from the twentieth-century's greatest songwriter since his last worst possible effort (1970's Self-Portrait), I decided to go back and re-evaluate the albums that critics over the years have either dismissed or overlooked, the ones I had passed over through the years -- albums like Planet Waves and Shot of Love, Street-Legal and Hard Rain, and even fairly recent downers such as Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. (I should point out that there are limits to both my fanaticism and my revisionism: Try as I might, I've yet to find much good in the two albums issued by Dylan during his startlingly reactionary fundamentalist Christian period of the late-Seventies, Saved in particular. Apostasy I'm all for, just not with a far-right bent.)

What I found among those albums was jarring, for it overturned much of the criticism leveled at Dylan during the period separating John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks, which is to say the period separating the last two acknowledged Dylan classics. With every repeat visit, I came away with something worth adding to the Dylan albums I consider to be his benchmarks -- namely, Freewheelin', Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks, and the myriad 1967 tracks that make up the legendary Basement Tapes (of which the legitimate album of the same name, issued in 1975, rounds up a mere fraction). These were the records on which I based my own obsession with Dylan and his art.