Bob Dylan turned 80 years old two weeks ago, on May 24, 2021. For those of us who experienced him as a rebel of the 1960s, it’s difficult to imagine him as an octogenarian. And yet, he’s still here: seemingly as indefatigable as ever in his desire to write songs and take his music on the road. I loved Bob Dylan before I even knew his name.
In the summer of 1963, the year I turned 14, I discovered the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary. The artist couple who taught arts and crafts at the summer camp I attended played the famous folk trio’s first three albums continually in their studio. I was entranced the moment I heard them. It was the first music in my life I felt passionate about, and it had an enormous impact on my musical tastes going forward.
Bruce Springsteen was in the car with his mother when he first heard “Like a Rolling Stone.” He said it was as if “somebody kicked open the door to your mind.” For me, it was more like someone had ripped open a window into my emotions. In the wake of my parents’ separation, I felt confused, uncertain, scared, sad, and lonely. But there was something about how Dylan sang out the line “How does it feel?” that electrified me. It felt as though he’d tracked me down in my bedroom and challenged me to stop being so numb — to think about what I was feeling.
Dylan is quoted as saying, “OK, a lot of people say there is no happiness in this life, and certainly there’s no permanent happiness. But self-sufficiency creates happiness. Just because you’re satisfied one moment — saying yes, it’s a good meal, makes me happy — well, that’s not going to necessarily be true the next hour. Life has its ups and downs, and time has to be your partner, you know? Really, time is your soul mate. I’m not exactly sure what happiness even means, to tell you the truth. I don’t know if I personally could define it.”
Dylan isn’t obsessed with aging: he has aged well, and his work in these latter years has reflected someone who doesn’t have to struggle to come to terms with old age, but rather someone still filled with vibrancy, trying to make the most of whatever days remain. He’s comfortable in his aged skin; in fact, he looks more comfortable than he ever has before, the master of his domain.
“To live outside the law, you must be honest.” True to his word, that’s what Bob Dylan is, honest. The man doesn’t shy away from his age. When you listen to Dylan’s recent compositions, you hear the silvery voice of an 80-year-old man and all that he has experienced in those years.
I met Bob Dylan in February 1971 at a synagogue in Far Rockaway, NY. The occasion was a Sheva Brachot Meal. The seven blessings (Sheva Brachot in Hebrew) are recited over a couple at their wedding ceremony and seven days to follow.
The synagogue was part of Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv, a religious academy founded by my Rabbi and mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld.
The bride was a young baalas teshuvah (A Jew from a secular background who becomes religiously observant) who had grown close to Rebbetzin Freifeld. When she found her match from among the students, the yeshiva hosted a Sheva Brachos Meal for her. Among the guests she invited were two colleagues from her previous life, Bob Dylan and the poet Allan Ginsberg.
Along with Dylan and Ginsberg, I met Sarah Dylan, a 2-year-old Jakob Dylan (who started a band called the Wallflowers), and Mick Ronson (David Bowie’s guitarist.)
That night was magical for me. Dylan bummed a cigarette from me. To spend 4 hours in the same room with two of my greatest hero’s was a highlight of my life that I will never forget. The only thing about that night that I regret is that Rabbi Freifeld did not allow cameras or the press.
Ironically, Rabbi Freifeld, considered one of the greatest rabbis of that generation, was dogged by people until he died (1990) about the hours he spent with Dylan.
Years later, I was in Rabbi Freifeld’s office (around 1976 or 1977), and I heard him on the phone with Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), who was in Dylan’s house. He was frantic to reach Dylan. The Rabbi was trying to dissuade Dylan from becoming a Born-Again Christian, to no avail.
Dylan seemed to operate from the inside out instead of the outside in. He had artistic integrity that made him follow his inspiration wherever it took him. It didn’t mean that he never admitted to getting confused, which he did quite often in his lyrics. But he saw the confusion and the clarity and the hope and the despair as all part of some very big picture, and he accepted it all and tried to squeeze all of it into his songs.
Dylan knew how to go knockin’ on Heaven’s door, and in general, there was a certain God-consciousness in the underpinnings of his songs that were full of Biblical imagery.
It was not until I read Chronicles years later that I started to see more fully how Dylan was teaching us. “Dignity” and all of Greatest Hits Vol. III were to us exactly what folk songs were to Dylan when he was our age. A “parallel universe,” Dylan called them, “with more archaic principles and values; one where actions and virtues were old style and judgmental things came falling out on their heads…. clear—ideal and God-fearing.” Those folk songs for Dylan were “a reality of a more brilliant dimension,” “life magnified,” and, as Dylan said, were “the way I explored the universe.”
That was true of us, too: We explored the universe through all his songs but particularly through “Dignity.” Dylan was pursuing dignity but didn’t tell us exactly what it was; he showed us how to search for it, gave hints, and laid bare his own mistakes. We didn’t have a way to express the deepest questions of human suffering, but Dylan did. We were studying his words—words beaten out on drums, sliding like the pedal steel guitar, stretched like his harmonica notes, steady as the clack of the train tracks, the words bending and flowing with the curve of the road, layered with meaning like clouds on the western horizon flaring at sunset, words like those of the folk songs Dylan listened to; that work “on some kind of supernatural level.”
Dylan’s longevity and repeated reinvention means he stays with you. The search for dignity often doesn’t turn out the way you hope. Youth fades—and you are hurled into other paths. Dylan doesn’t disappear—but shapeshifts you into another form for each new stage of the journey. This world might feel like a series of dreams—but Dylan reminds you: You hold cards from another world. The end of a road doesn’t mean the end but a rebirth, the often painful shedding off of one more layer of skin. But despite the liminality, the Center will hold.
Happy Birthday, Bob, and keep on searching. Like you said: We’re going all the way.