Bobby Zimmerman knew at an early age that he was bound for musical glory. The pain in his soul could be managed whenever he held a guitar. And he knew his connection to the music he heard all about him was a special.
Dylan was unstoppable. He got rare records any way he could and swallowed America’s musical heritage. Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie showed him that the poetry that he had written could be transformed into lyrics. At the beginning, his confidence was indistinguishable from adolescent bravado. But reality soon verified his expectations.
His personality was a vital component of his success. His caution seemed to have been amputated. He wasn’t slowed by the emotional stop signs and red lights that deaccelerate the speed with which most of us charge ahead
The moments of success accumulated. Some must have stood out to him. Maybe it was the writing of Blowin’ in the Wind, which was far more sophisticated than his earlier work. Or maybe it was when he asked Tom Paxton whether the words of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall formed a poem or a song lyric.
At one point during the staggering rise of his career, Dylan began to see that he was better than anyone else. Other people noticed it too. Some were jealous and angry. Some were impressed.
But this explosion of raw talent into an artist and a person unlike any other left the early Dylan with a dilemma. What should he do with people from his past? He was, after all, Bob Dylan, and they weren’t. Joan Didion once wrote of Joan Baez that she was a personality before she was a person. Dylan had that same reality.
Dylan wrote about this dilemma in several songs. Let’s consider three relatively early ones.
Take “Long Time Gone.” As with many of his early songs, this one was adapted from other songs. The lyrics are a re-working of “Maggie Walker Blues.” The tune was lifted from Kelly Harrell & The Virginia String Band’s “My Name is John Johanna” which Dylan heard on the influential Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith. In a telling sample of how Dylan worked, Dylan’s lyrics are far superior to the material he borrowed from. He was a master thief with a unique access to language.
At one point in the song, he sings:
“You might see me on your crossroads
When I’m a-passin’ through
Remember me how you wish to
As I’m a-driftin’ from your view
I ain’t got the time to think about it
I got too much to get done”
Here Dylan defines his feelings towards the people he meets along the way as he speeds along his career track. He tells them that he doesn’t much care what they think of him. He needs, instead, to use his time to think about what his art calls upon him to do next. His work is more important than worrying about the reactions of others. This might uncharitably be seen as a dismissal of other people, but from another point of view it defines the quiet focus artists require to do their work. It’s selfish if the artist lacks true talent. A talented artist like Dylan makes the issue more complicated. What is, after all, the appropriate relationship between talented artists and people who want to interview them, get their help becoming famous, hang out with them, and in other ways deprive the talented artist of the private space needed to create?
Dylan also addresses his own attitude to those he leaves behind in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the final track of his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home.
Dylan begins the final stanza of the song with these lines:
“Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you”
This is similar to “Long Time Gone” and adds some credence to those who interpret the identity of “Baby Blue” as Dylan himself. But Dylan’s poetic abilities have greatly increased. The second line has impressive assonance as he repeats the sound of a vowel:
“Forget the dead you’ve left”
Dylan has also gone from not thinking about those whose lives he has passed to actively trying to forget them, to erase them as if their existence in his mind will interfere in his art. He has a realization that most people are stuck in their lives and won’t explore in the way he thinks is crucial to artistic creation.
Finally, consider “I Want You” on Blonde on Blonde. The album has been inadequately recognized for its Christian content. This is pertinent for the lines to be examined. Those lines are:
“Now all my fathers, they’ve gone down
True love they’ve been without it
But all their daughters put me down
’Cause I don’t think about it.”
In these lines, Dylan is talking about how his Jewish fathers, that is his ancestors, have been without a belief in Christian love, which Dylan asserts is the “true love.” Reminded of this by Jewish women, the daughters of the fathers, Dylan says he doesn’t even think about it. There seems to be a simple indifference in these lines. It’s possible to read some cruelty into the lines, some angry refusal to even think about the long Jewish genealogy that led to his birth.
As these lines indicate, Dylan the artist wants to be alone with his own mind and to do so needs to stop caring, to forget, to ignore, to willfully be indifferent to others. It seems as though it’s a sad way to live, but perhaps one filled with the necessary mental isolation to see what others can’t see, to find language that others don’t hear, and to transform tunes that others hear only in the familiar way.