May 14, 2001
The Sound of Protest
By MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
Bob Dylan turns 60 this month. It's been almost 40 years since Joan Baez
took him on stage with her at the Newport Folk Festival, where he appalled
just about everyone with his stridently unpretty singing voice and his
raucous, edgy lyrics. He was then, at least in theory, a folk singer. But
Bob Dylan wasn't interested in wistful melancholy or febrile lament. He
sang about poverty and desperation; he sang about love's limitations in a
voice hoarse with feeling.
In the 1960's, like millions of other white, middle-class teenagers, I used
to jump around in my suburban bedroom, sing-shouting the lyrics to
"Positively Fourth Street" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to my
poster-covered walls and narrow bed. Bob Dylan and I were (or so it seemed
at the time) ticked off about the same things America's vanity and
hypocrisy and in love with the same things anarchic freedom, the strange
beauty of the underlife, the whole haunted shimmer of a vast and dangerous
I was not a particularly bookish child. I loved Bob Dylan back when names
like Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Woolf were mere rumors to me. Hearing Bob
Dylan sing "Just Like a Woman" on "Blonde on Blonde," I had my first real
sense of transport at the hands of a writer. I had never before heard
anything so passionate and peculiar, so utterly itself. I was knocked out
not only by the lithe, effortless rhymes, but by his songs' particular
combination of ardor and cruelty; by their implied conviction that the
yearning for happiness is a deadly serious business, and that seeking it
may not leave your life in any shape you recognize as comfortable or kind.
Every adolescent has heroes, and the people we love in our middle age are
rarely the ones we loved during puberty. Bob Dylan, however, has stood up
for me. When I write fiction, I hope not only to honor the depth and magic
of great authors but to approximate, on paper, the jangly exaltation I felt
when the needle touched the grooves of "Blonde on Blonde."
Bob Dylan's most durable gift as a writer may be his obdurate, unapologetic
intensity. He has never once been even slightly ironic. He has never stood
to the side of anything and commented wryly. In a world swamped by irony,
he's held fast.
Bob Dylan belongs to a line that includes not only Woody Guthrie and Jack
Kerouac, but Flaubert, Woolf, William Gaddis, and even Maria Callas. Like
them, Bob Dylan is one of the slightly preposterous and wholly necessary
figures who've risked public humiliation by making no secret of their
passions; who've courted reputations as fools, romantics and hysterics;
who've rambled the highways so that we in our beds could imagine them out
there roaming a world so immense and mysterious that the only conceivable
thing to do is try to make art of it.
They understood that their strangeness was part of their strength, and that
a great artist can seldom expect to come through with his or her dignity
intact. I've tried to learn what I can.
Michael Cunningham is the author of "The Hours," which won the Pulitzer
Prize for fiction in 1999.
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