Bob Dylan

Bobby as he looked when I was forced to listen to him, then never stopped.

Bobby as he looked when I was forced to listen to him, then never stopped.

I have been asked at various points in my career if I was influenced by Bob Dylan. The answer is no, I feel like I and my generation were, if anything influencing him. How very often did it happen that something blew up culturally all around me, resulting in some gutwrenching downer for me and then, shortly after that, I would hear a song or a phrase from Bob that hit that experience right on the nailhead and helped me claw my way up from the pit–maybe on an album I’d been listening to already for a while.

We were all influencing each other, I’m sure, but I have no hesitation in saying I’m not sure I would have made it through the 60s sane without Bob. Pulled me up from the depths on many and many an occasion. And now, right now, I still sing the ones I know by heart with my closest friends and they feel just exactly the same way to me. Prophet of my generation? In a certain sense, yes, though there were others, but there was none so right on so all the time as Bob Dylan.

Soooo. Imagine my joy when the first black president of United States chose Bobby for a Medal of Freedom! VIN-DEE-KAY-SHUN!!!

I cut out that picture, had it laminated and it hangs in glory on my refrigerator door. I was briefly afraid he’d turn it down, just to preserve his reputation as a cantankerous old cuss, but he didn’t. I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of us. He got that award on behalf of all of us, not just how he walked us through it, but what it was we were walking through and the changes that came because of it.

Bob Dylan receives the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, an image I could not have made up in my wildest dreams.

Bob Dylan receives the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, an image I could not have made up in my wildest dreams.

Like a lot of musical people, I had to be strapped down to a chair and forced to listen to a complete album before I got Bob Dylan. This favor was done for me by my dear folksinger friend, the late Charles Bird, of Berkeley.  He was blind, I was his reader, but we became close friends.

Berkeleyites of a certain time period may remember him from his steady gig at the Blind Lemon.  He, like me, was a founding member of the Oakland City College chapter of SLATE, a student political organization at Berkeley.  He had been busted in the HUAC demonstrations and jailed. He went with me to the FSM Sproul Hall sit-in, but declined to be busted. He said only, “its hard for a blind man in jail.” When he died, he was my very last friend in the world and my grief was my first hurdle to overcome after my FSM bust.

Charles had just gotten Dylan’s first album. I only knew of Dylan because of “Blowing in the Wind”, beautiful words, unlike any I had ever heard before on the radio, but it ain’t Dylan singing them. Him singing was hard for a trained singer like myself to bear. Charles beseeched me, as a boon to him, to be still and shut up and listen to the whole album. By the end, I got it. It’s poetry set to music, more than it’s music with words. Maybe he is not the prophet of my generation, but by God, he is definitely the poet of my generation. When he got that award, I just felt years of debris falling off of me. So much of the pain, the insults, the discrimination, the lies, the harassment we got from our leaders, now balanced and/or erased by the formal recognition of the guy who put into words what so many of us had no words for. Good for you, Bobby, good for you.


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