AT THE MIDDLE PASSAGE By Walter Mills “I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now” Earlier this year, the poet/singer Bob Dylan turned 71 years old. Performers age and songwriters lose their touch, but the songs themselves stay forever young. I first saw Dylan’s boyish face on an album cover - a cardboard container for a vinyl recording that you may have seen in your parents’ basement. His hair was long and combed back in a pompadour. The album was titled “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and I didn’t know how to pronounce his name. But I liked the photo of him on a city street with his arm around a girl. He looked young and vulnerable, as though there was a cold wind blowing and his thin jacket couldn’t keep him warm. I was 12, reading comic books at the drug store, thumbing through the record racks, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was on the radio. I wasn’t a music consumer in those days and it took another two years before I again had any consciousness of Dylan. I was listening to WNOR or WGH, the two battling local AM rock and roll stations in Norfolk, Va. when “Like a Rolling Stone” crashed through the car speakers like a broadcast from an alien planet. The song seemed to go on and on, twice the length of the normal 2 minute 30 second single. The words were encoded, layered and jumbled and I only caught a glimpse of the things they referred to. It was not like beach music or even the pure pop joy of the Beatles that was playing that summer as we rode the rides at Oceanview Amusement Park or hung out at the 7-Eleven learning how to smoke. Dylan was a wild-eyed, word-drunk symbolist songwriter with a heavy debt to the French boy-poet Rimbaud and his “deliberate disorientation of the senses.” He was an urban hipster out of the Midwest and he sang in the gravely voice of a carnival barker. Parents must have thought he was calling their children inside a sideshow tent where we would all be transformed, like Pinnochio, into braying jackasses. Each morning before we left for school, my buddy Sam and I would put that 45 record on the turntable and listen to its carnival calliope opening rift. Then in the evenings Sam would sit on the edge of the bed in my room upstairs and try to strum the chords on his Martin guitar while I faked the intro on a Horner Marine Band harmonica. And we would sing in nasal voices songs with preposterous names like Positively 4th Street and Desolation Row. In 1965 Bob Dylan came to town and Sam and I took our harmonicas to the Norfolk Arena where we sat in the upper section in a crowd of manic fans. He came on stage alone, pale and thin in a black suit and white high-buttoned shirt, with two acoustic guitars and a harmonica on a neck brace. The pearl face of the guitar flashed streaks of light around the auditorium as voices called out song requests in the dark. When I was around 16 someone gave me an album of Dylan songs as recorded by the Hollywood Strings. It was strange to hear the tunes backed by lush orchestration and a hundred violins. The music hidden below Dylan’s harsh voice really was lovely, but that was the last thing we were interested in. Dylan appealed to us because he seemed dangerous. His pain was complicated, full of betrayal, and he turned his anger against the fakes and phonies that we had all seen already, even if we were only 16. I watched Dylan live from Australia on the Academy Awards show a few years ago. He still looked like he was standing in a cold wind. But we are middle-aged and we have forgotten that real honesty is dangerous and that change is unceasing. We were older then, but we’re younger than that now. Read more of Walt's writing at his blog: http://americanimpressionist.wordpress.com/ (The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2012 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, address your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org ).
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