Happy 70th b-day, Bob Dylan!

Bob Dylan turns 70 today. I first heard about this milestone while exchanging wee-hours emails with a music-critic pal last week, and on Sunday I got to read the fruits of my former colleague’s labor.

I loved the idea of asking a cross-section of musicians to share their Bob Dylan memories. “Take him out of the picture and it would be a mighty hole,” said Merle Haggard. “[He] tore down every boundary and yet remained true to a set of strong musical traditions. In other words, he did the impossible,” added Pete Townshend of The Who.

Other media outlets had the same idea, apparently. I loved the Irish Times’ interviews with Emmylou Harris and Alex Turner. And I greatly enjoyed reading Sinéad O’Connor’s rambling letter to the Sexiest Man in the Universe:

This week when everyone is writing and talking and thinking about your birthday, they’re all gonna go on about the usual stuff. ‘Prophet’. Blah blah. ‘Voice of a generation.’ Blah blah. Blah blah. Blah blah. All true I’m sure … But no one ever says: ‘Holy Mother of God! That Dylan fellow is an extremely adjectival sexy adjectival m.a.n. so he is for himself!’

… But, I digress, Bob. I only meant to tell you you’re gorgeous. So have seventy kisses for yourself on Tuesday.

And what can I say about the multinational tribute to Dylan’s rabble-rousing influence? Argentina’s León Gieco … Russia’s Vladimir Vysotsky (may he rest in peace) … India’s Lou Majaw … South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela … Japan’s Yuichi Ohata. All of these men were deeply influenced by Dylan, and they all went on to become superb musicians—and activists—in their own right.

So you may be wondering … how did Dylan influence me? Not too deeply, I’m afraid. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of Bob Dylan until I moved to Minnesota. (He’s a local boy, dontcha know.)

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have Dylan tales to tell.

My first brush with Bob Dylan came when I was 16. I was dating a guy named Tom, whom I’d met through my high school’s jazz band. Tom wasn’t handsome. But I wasn’t beautiful, either, so we made a good pair. Still … he didn’t love me, and one day he let me know that with a song:

Go ’way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Go melt back into the night, babe
Everything inside is made of stone
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

My second brush with Bob Dylan came on my friend Alison’s answering machine. At 16, she was two years younger than I—but already she knew herself better than I probably ever will. Only a 16-year-old lesbian living in a tiny tenement apartment would think of playing Lay Lady Lay on her answering machine.

Then, I was fortunate to see Bob Dylan play live with Willie Nelson at St. Paul’s Midway Stadium. July 12, 2005 already seems like a lifetime ago …

Since then, I’ve been a vicarious fan through my friend Pam’s son, Noah. I’ve hung out in Dylan’s old Dinkytown haunts, which lie just a mile from my house. And I’ve learned a few of his songs on the piano.

But for me, the closest Bob Dylan connection came—ironically—in Paris. During an improvised concert on a bridge one night last March, a musician friend sang Girl From the North Country.

The important part is that, for the first time ever, I saw myself as a Girl From the North Country. And for the first time in ages, I actually appreciated my Minnesota roots. I’ve lived here for more than 30 years, but I’d never truly embraced this place—with its country fairs, its howling winds, and its connection to one of the greatest musicians (and poets) of our time.

So … happy birthday to Bob Dylan. Your music has been an inspiration—and your lyrics, a revelation. In the words of another marvelous bugger, Long May You Run.


  1. As you said, I suppose we all have our Dylan memories, especially those of us who were growing up in the 60s and 70s. I was a fan of Dylan’s music more so than his singing; and I was a big fan of The Band, more than of his strumming. And like you, my fondest memory, of many memories, was in a most unlikely place. In fact, it is not the music as such that is the focus of that memory but what, or whom, it connected me to at that particular moment. And yet it is a moment I can picture in my mind as vividly as if I were there right now, listening to Dylan singing The Hurricane. How powerful a trigger music can be when a song about a man from Paterson, New Jersey, can bring to mind a girl from Canton, Ohio. sitting with me in a coffee shop in Kyoto, Japan.

    • Wow! Your “International Dylan Memory” tops mine by about 3,000 miles. That’s wonderful. (And I’m with you 100% on being more a fan of Dylan’s music than of his singing. Though I admit that the ol’ Bobster has grown on my over the years. His harmonica-playing is another matter, tho! 🙂

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