I did not like Bob Dylan the first time I heard him.
Or the second.
Or the third.
What I heard when I listened to Dylan was simplistic chord structures, obvious social or emotional sentiments and a weird quavering voice that stretched the definition of singing. I based this opinion on whatever songs I happened to catch on the radio or movie soundtracks attempting to make sure the audience knew the film was going for some folksy charm.
Dylan was important, this much I had gathered, and I thought I understood a bit of why. He seemed to have started a movement, both musically and socially. Or at the very least he came to embody the idea of a movement for people, a position I expect he was always uncomfortable with.
At university I made a conscious decision to learn more about music. Until that point in my life music had always been something that was around. I enjoyed it as background noise to fill the silences during long road trips or the quiet of an empty house. But it did not have a large place in my life. As I was introduced to new musical worlds I found myself connecting emotionally in a way I hadn't before.
After some time discovering music by M. Ward, Bonnie Prince Billy and Sufjan Stevens to name a few, I realized that I was into folk. If you've listened to the above you will know that they each play around with the idea of what folk can be, but much of their music can be put under the broader label of folk.
One Christmas, I don't remember which, I received a copy of the Dylan compilation Biograph from my mother. This is a collection of well known hits, b-sides and alternate recordings from a wide breadth of Dylans career. Biograph had been sitting on my CD shelf for years without so much as a perfunctory listen.
The players were all assembled, but the stage had yet to be set. For me, Dylan required more than an intellectual preparedness or mild curiosity. I needed to be put in a situation where music was a matter of survival. Or at least a matter of desperate longing to be alleviated from profound boredom.
This came in the form of the worst summer job I ever had.
It was the summer after my second year of university and I responded to an add for a water and soil conservation assistant. Sounded interesting, I thought. Right.
The work consisted of a number of government contracts through which we conserved water and soil, the add did not lie. The majority of my summer was spent both planting and maintaining shelter belts for farm land in and around the Winkelr/Morden area of Southern Manitoba. I also found myself sealing abandoned wells, collecting flea beetles for bio-weed control and sitting at a booth at a local agricultural fair. But the shelter belt were the bulk of my summer.
Shelter belts are lines of trees and bushes planted around the edges of a field to block the wind from coming along and stripping off layers of top soil. They are important and long.
For weeks upon weeks I walked along these lines, footprints clearly defined in the freshly tilled black soil which reflected the beating sun back up to me. I carried a bag full of trees, a short handled shovel and a discman. Every time there was a break in the line I would plant a tree, often struggling with the clay soil which clung to my shovel in a desperate attempt to escape its station.
For many of these days I worked alone, making my way from line to line with only my CD player to keep me company. Having not made the leap to digital music at that time I was limited to what I could bring along. When I chose something I was stuck with it at least until I got back to the truck.
It was there, with dust swirling, sweat stinging, trudging along the prairie vastness that I put on Dylan and understood.
For me Dylan requires attention. It is not music to simply flip on to combat stillness, it is music with a tale to tell. The characters Dylan sings about could be real, and to hear their stories requires the same respect you'd give to any human.
I believe Dylan was likely the type to be interested by anyone. Someone who would prefer to sit with one other person over coffee, listening to them talk of their life with complete interest. This is Dylan to me.
I still think his music is simple, but I now feel that is a positive. There is something profound in his simplicity. On a storytelling level he is able to distil complex emotions and events to their core. On a musical level he reaches back and uses an older style to great effect. So often we like to glorify the past. We see those before us as having simpler times, without the complexity we face in our world now. Dylan used this sentiment to sneak in quiet and not so quiet radical ideas.
Dylan pulled me out of the time and place I was in and told me some stories. I could find myself in many of the songs. My ideas, fears, thoughts realized. In the others I felt Dylan's interest in lives I had no knowledge of.
That is what I felt then. Now I find different things when I listen to Dylan, and in a few years I expect to hear something new again. This is one reason why one can have a long, healthy love affair with Dylan, there is always something new to discover.
I am not a fanatic like some, but I am very protective of my love of Dylan. So often it is the relationships that have been difficult to come by that are the most enduring.