The Last Time I Listened To Bob Dylan

by Al Masciocchi

I always thought the idea of Freewheelin’ was sooooo cool


I learned of it sometime in the late 1980’s through John Green. We had been trading for a while and each packet of tapes he sent contained listings of his recently acquired tapes – one sheet for Dylan, one sheet for all others. Those sheets turned over every month or so; how could one man obtain and distribute that many cassettes in a month I wondered every time? Little did I know. Somewhere along the line, John started sending me copies of “The Ladies Treat Me Kindly” and further on down the line explained to me what its main purpose was. 

How cool was that?  A dozen Dylan fanatics – did that many really exist? (I was a Dylan vet, but relatively new to this aspect.) And a subset, a cult within the cult with their own magazine, limited to 12 lucky individuals. The only way to get in is if someone left. And who would ever leave? Man, how I wished I could be a member. 

Then came the public Freewheelin’ and I became a charter subscriber. If I couldn’t be a member I could at least be a voyeur. And if the public aspect took away some of the coolness, getting to read the monthly missives and piece together the lives and personalities of the Freewheelers’ from the jigsaw puzzle pieces revealed in their notes put it back. Now my periodic packages and letters to John contained a list of questions prompted by what I read in magazine. Who’s the one who knows Ralph McTell? What’s this Cambridge Society?  And so on. 

So, finally I get to be a Freewheeler’. Bittersweet since it takes the passing of both John and the monthly magazine to accomplish it. But, damn, it’s still cool – I’m a Freewheeler’! 

What about the last time I listened to Dylan? Don’t tell those who determine fitness for Bobcat-dom, but weeks and weeks can go by without me actually listening to Bob; as it happens it’s only been a few days. The occasion was the acquisition of the Hollow Horn boots Walk Like A Duck, Smell Like A Skunk (covering studio outtakes from the first album through Another Side) and Now Your Mouth Cries Wolf (covering Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde). Nothing much new, even to a non-completist like me, but all in one place, nicely packaged and they sure look nice on the shelf. 

One afternoon for me, four and a half years for Bob (November 1961 to March 1966). You listen to this and you realize why he’s spent the last 29 years deconstructing “Bob Dylan”. Why? Because the way those 53 months play out on these recordings the choices must have been destruct or deconstruct, and who of us wouldn’t make the same choice? How could you continue the way he did without stopping and trying to take it all apart? 

And I also understand why it’s 29 years and counting and he’s yet to be successful at the deconstruction. The achievements were too great, too shattering, too unearthly to ever be successfully taken apart. It’s a mitral valve, material can only flow out, not back in. He can live to be 100 but Bob Dylan will never escape those 53 months. 

I remember proposing a Dylan topic to JRS a few years ago. I had read The Gospel According To The Son by Norman Mailer. It’s what the title says, the gospel story told from Jesus’ point of view. Only gradually does he come to realize that he is God’s son and only gradually does he accept it, agree to it. 

Dylan has been called a prophet so often and for so long that it’s trite. JRS wrote an article suggesting that Dylan truly could see the future (something to do with Princess Di as I recall). What if, I said, he wasn’t just a prophet, what if he is THE prophet?  What if he is God’s son? 

Well, that would surely explain these four discs and the legitimate releases that resulted from these sessions, wouldn’t it? He was 20 damn years old when it started. Jesus didn’t come out until he was 30!  I mean, you gotta make a deal with someone more powerful than the devil to produce this stuff, don’t you? The voice, the words, the music, the sounds, the range, the assimilation, the taking apart, the combining, the re-combining.  How can you do that at that age?  This isn’t some idiot savant who knows what the weather was on July 30, 1847. This isn’t some 7-year-old violin prodigy that can play a Mozart piece. You can’t get this kind of perspective, this sense of history, this deep-rooted wisdom in two decades, this timelessness.  Unless, unless, unless… you always were and always will be… 

But unlike Mailer’s protagonist, 1966 Bob said, “No, I’m not accepting that role”. Except it was too late.  Maybe he could pass the cup and save himself from destructing but even he can’t deconstruct what we’d already seen and what is out there for anyone to hear. 

Imagine if no one bothered to write down that Jesus turned water into wine or made the blind see or raised Lazarus from the dead. Dylan was turning out miracles and not even letting people see them. Maybe it wasn’t that Dylan wouldn’t accept being God’s son. Maybe God got pissed at him, threw him out of he house as it were, “Whattaya mean you’re not releasing “She’s Your Lover Now”, you’re no son of mine!” 

Elvis swiveled his hips and upended the post-war, Eisenhower 1950s. And the Beatles perfected the pop song to such a degree that in 40 years, no one has come even close to their perfection. But neither Elvis nor the Fabs approached the dizzying accomplishments of Dylan in those 53 months. 

Here’s how great an achievement Bob had in that period. Since 1966, he has a body of work, released and unreleased, the best of which stands up to anyone, anywhere, anytime and yet he can’t touch himself. We can argue it, we can fill up message boards, we can be fully passionate about Blood On The Tracks or John Wesley Harding or Love & Theft or “Every Grain Of Sand” or “Blind Willie McTell” or “Joey” (just kidding about that last one). By any measure, Dylan’s post-1966 output would put him in the Hall Of Fame. But, I’m sorry; it doesn’t touch what he achieved through 1966. 

Maybe he isn’t God’s son. After all, Jesus accomplished a lot and he did it in only 36 months. 

But maybe Bob’s the kid brother…

“So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’,
Help him with his load,
And don’t go mistaking paradise

For that home across the road.”