Opinion » Bill Cope

Hwy. 61 Rerevisited

Those damn answers are still blowin' in the wind

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Today, we're doing a little something different, you and I. Me? Well, I'm going to turn my typing finger to reviewing Martin Scorsese's sizzling good chronicle of Bob Dylan's early years, No Direction Home.

As for you ... you have to sit through it. That is, unless you don't care what an overly reverential boomer thinks of the most significant social voice to come out of America since Mark Twain died. And if that be the case, then I ask only that you leave quietly so as not to disturb the faithful.

Before I go on with my little Dylan indulgence, though, I should address the protestations of those who feel there is more than enough current material to cover, and that I should not be wasting precious print on a 40-year-old cultural phenomenon who, even at the time, generated more questions than answers. They have a point. Tom DeLay's indictment alone merits many months of writing effort, and even that would barely scratch the surface of how such a vile, indecent mobster could have become such a powerful figure in a decent country's government. Then there are the reports of George Bush's deteriorating mental condition, the Fitzgerald investigation into White House treason, Bill Frist's "Martha moment," not to mention the question of who will soon have the dubious distinction of being be the 2000th American soldier to die in Iraq so's those folks can get on with their civil war.

Turbulent times, indeed, and indeed, there is much that must be said. But I can't help but feel the scrawny little Zimmerman boy still has a presence in all of this, and that there is a firm yet nebulous thread--a straight yet serpentine road--an intricate yet simple narrative--leading directly from Bob Dylan's early years to the headlines in this morning's paper. Don't ask me to explain. I can't. It's like something you see stirring out of a corner of your vision (Mister Jones) but you don't know what it is. Whatever it is (if it's even really there) can only be approached with eyes focused elsewhere, sidling sideways into it, maybe like a poet approaches something too huge to think about.

So I will take my chances with being untimely and I will amble obliquely back to that crossroads when not America, but Americans, one by one, were presented an alternative to a solid, stolid reality they had previously never given much thought to. Think about it ... at a given point, on a given night, mid-60s or so, it's entirely conceivable that Bill Clinton, Bush, Gore, Kerry, Stephen King, Hillary, Laura, Scorsese, Schwarzenegger, Arlo Guthrie, Tom DeLay and me--all of us being within a stone's roll of each other's ages--were gathered around the same song (albeit from different radios, in different settings and with vastly different attitudes), and we all in our own ways decided whether there was anything to be learned from Raggedy Bob. (It had to be our thirst for answers, didn't it? I mean, nobody ever cut a rug to a Bob Dylan tune, nobody ever dreamed of copying Bob Dylan's singing voice, and I seriously doubt anyone yearned to have a Dylan-esque hair-do.)

But whether or not that precise a confluence ever happened, Dylan's soft reign is something we couldn't help but have shared, whether we liked it or not. Then, when music was molding our sensibilities more than almost everything else combined, we cut our rugs to Motown, dreamed of singing like Jagger, labored to get that McCartney-esque hair—but it was Dylan who plucked our guts, strummed our collective consciousness and filled our lungs with a harmonica breath of inscrutable American mystery. He was at the shimmering heart of where many of us pictured ourselves going—a far shore we ached to reach, and when he asked "How does it feel?" we spent the next decade trying to figure that out.

So how could he not have a presence here, in all of this? Once something is in your soul, how could it ever go away?

If you're young and have no idea who Bob Dylan was or what he meant to your Pappy--Gran'Pappy, perhaps--understand this, if nothing else: there was no one else like him. In No Way Home, Allen Ginsberg comments that when he first heard Dylan, he knew the torch had been passed. (And if you have no idea who Allen Ginsberg was, it won't do any good to ask "What torch?")

But where did that bright thing go when Dylan dropped it? It's been decades since my tribe has had such a common totem to gather around and wonder over. Have we wandered the desert for these years looking for another Bob? There've been plenty of false totems, carved from Bush-like certainty and painted with cheap and easy answers, but no one since Dylan has gotten us to ask so many questions. And if you're young, you should know that answers may satisfy you for the moment, but it's those questions that keep you ticking.

To tell you the truth, I almost didn't watch Scorsese's testament to the fragile Dylan. Didn't want to. Was a little bit scared to, if you know what I mean. And if you've spent the last 40 years slipping incrementally away from that early passion, that funky hot spirituality, that intense mangy dog dedication to ... something ... (see? even after all this time, I can't put my typing finger on it, but I'll try again)--if you, like me, feel miles and miles from that home Dylan laid the foundation stones for--then you do know what I mean. Let me put it this way: Would young Bill Cope, upon meeting me in the street, be disappointed? Probably so. And what could I say that might explain myself to him? Probably nothing.

So you bet, I was nervous. Not about revisiting Dylan's years--Jeez, I love that little hobo--but I was afraid I'd stumble across that other fella. The one who swore he ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. The one who didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Is it because I've replaced so much passion with possessions over the years? Does it have to do with complacency replacing commitment? Resignation instead of spirituality? Mangy dog dedication going out and tired dog desperation slipping in?

I don't know. All I know is, young Bill Cope is the only person on earth who could ever make me feel ashamed. And I have the sense that he's still out there, somewhere, hoboing around with the scrawny Zimmerman boy, trying to find his way to a far shore.

Oh. About Scorsese's film. Really good. You should have seen it. It was on PBS, last week, but I don't think you can get there from here.

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