Dylan Then and Now: It's Tough To Be An Aging Prophet
Jewish Week Correspondent
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For those who came of age in America during the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century– yes, even rabbis– Bob Dylan was, and is, an iconic figure. 

Made up of countless classics that have become, in essence, an indispensable component of the American songbook, Bob Dylan’s body of work helped to fuel a revolution in this country that quite literally changed its course.  “The sixties” and all that those two words represent could not have become what they were without his prophetic prodding, and a persistently iconoclastic refusal to accept the status quo of race relations in America as its truest and best self.  The fact that countless other performing artists, from rock and folk to mainstream performers, have covered songs like “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’” attests to the monumental influence he has exerted on the American psyche. 

Somehow or other, through all these years, neither my wife nor I, both of us huge Dylan fans, had ever attended a concert of his.   So when the chance arose to go to hear him at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this past Sunday, we jumped at it.

The concert was called for 5:30PM, but when we arrived, we learned that Dylan himself would not be performing until 9:30PM, and he would play a set lasting one-and-a-half hours.  By any standards, especially given my current status as an aging rock fan, four hours of opening acts is an awfully long time to wait for the main attraction, and five-and-a-half hours is way long for a concert, unless you’re at a Woodstock-like festival.  But hey– we were going to hear Dylan, and finally pay our homage to the man who not only changed the course of our country, but also figured so prominently in our own coming of age and musical tastes.

Well… I guess I should have seen what was coming when, for his opening number, Dylan selected a song that attracted a lot of attention when he recorded it a few years ago.  The repeating chorus says, “I used to care… but things have changed.”  Uh-oh… 

Within that 90-minute set, Dylan played exactly four songs that I would call classics: “Hard Rain Gonna Fall,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and, as an encore, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  Truth to tell– the only way I was able to identify those songs was by the chords that his band was playing, and occasionally– emphasis on occasionally– identifiable words that he “sang.”  Those who know Dylan’s music will know that he rarely sings a song the same way twice, and the rumor is that The Band, who accompanied him on so many of his greatest hits, actually figured out what the proper tempo and phrasing for a given song was when they were all in the recording studio.  But still, it was clear for all to see that so much of his sense of musicality had been lost.  And much sadder, at least to me, was the fact that his greatest songs, drenched with meaning in their original contexts, were just not what he wanted to be singing anymore.  The ones that he did sing, he treated with something close to contempt.  As he himself said, he used to care… but things have changed.

I imagine that you might be wondering what any of this has to do with “A Rabbi’s World.”  So let me try and explain.

First of all, and arguably most important, Dylan’s music in no small measure helped me to clarify my own values at a time when America was in the throes of tremendous social upheaval and change.  He helped me understand what I should be caring about even if I wasn’t.  Along with some other great artists of that time, his music was the soundtrack of my youth, and a significant factor in the adult that I came to be. 

Second, on a professional level, I can appreciate how tired he might be of singing the “old songs.”  I remember well Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party,” in which he lamented a terrible experience he had at a concert at Madison Square Garden, where he wanted to play new music, and the crowd booed because it wanted all his old hits.  I’m sure that James Taylor is plenty tired of singing “Fire and Rain,” and in a different arena, I know that David Broza is thoroughly tired of singing “Yihiyeh Tov.”

Rabbis, too, have times where they might like to change the way something is done in a service, and cantors certainly like to vary melodies.  But ask any cantor what happens when he/she deviates from a cherished congregational melody for a part of the Kedushah, or even Ein K’Eloheinu.  People know what they like, and they more often than not crave the familiar, the tried and true.

I don’t begrudge Bob Dylan the right to grow as an artist, and even if I did, why should he care?  But the truth is that his music was never just music.  It was a powerful and important message delivered as music.  And when he “stopped caring,” he became just another musician, and the songs were– how can I say this respectfully– less than remarkable.

It’s hard to be an aging prophet whose message was delivered long ago.  The biblical prophets wanted nothing more than to slip back into the anonymity they enjoyed before God burdened them with their missions.  I don’t know if Dylan felt burdened then, but he sure doesn’t now. 

Our loss; I miss the older version…


Last Update:

08/16/2013 - 15:27
Bob Dylan

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

As a 65 year-old classic rock junkie, I have been listening to Dylan for the entirety of his career. While many of you call Rabbi Skolnik narrow-minded, I think it more fair to say that we are all being a bit provincial in our outlooks. There are many different aspects to music, and to attack the rabbi based on his assessment is just as insular and closed-minded as you claim him to be. For instance, is music soul food for the listener? Or, rather, is it merely a method of expression for the artist, with no concern over the listener's desires and opinions? Additionally, is music not left to the eye (or ear-HA) of the beholder? With these elements in mind, let us appreciate the rabbi's comments not as an attack on our beloved artist, but rather as a contribution to our discourse and intellect.

All those who commented are on target.In fairness to your point of view,you are certainly not alone in thinkIng the way you do.Dylan is unknown to most and,perhaps he intends it to be that way.Perhaps not.Contrarian appearing contradictions maintain the unknown aura.Prophet? Thats been debated and written about in books and articles for years.Thus,all we are left with are our own perceptions,assumptions and meanings.But,these are ours and we can't impose our interpretations on his realities.His sense of humor about all this through the years been interesting to observe.

Through it all he is criticized for everything he's ever done and his critics love going after every "crime" they perceive.Heres a partial(!) listing:

Ripped off Woody Guthrie.
Lied about his parents and background.
Went electric.
Self Portrait.
Another Self Portrait,soon to be released-to great acclaim,and off course,giving critics a chance to find that negative twist they seem to enjoy!
Bad voice.
Worse voice-pick an era.
Changing lyrics.
Lied about the bike accident and stopped touring,recording.
The born again albums and tour.(the music was superb on that tour)
His religious views,choices and personas.
Political views.
Not expressing his political views.
Not being a political writer and denying he's the voice of his generation.
Not giving interviews.
His interviews.
Not writing Chronicles 2.
Touring with Grateful Dead.
Poor lighting on stage.
Not playing guitar.
The piano,& before that the keyboard.
The house in Malibu.

I could go on and on.We all have something we want that he's not doing.Try to sing along,he abrubtky changes the rhythm.Sing the lyrics,or expect to hear them,he changes them or mumbles.Sings so you can't hear the lyrics,then strategically mikes his voice so you can clearly hear every word,opening the door for his many critics to then criticize his lyrics.That applies to Tempest and shows I've seen over many years including recent shows.

All told,its been a fun ride and with age it gets better.Dylan provides a canvas for our thoughts and aspirations and we each paint a picture that is a product of our own selves.Thats a great artist who makes us work for our own meanings.We just tend to think its about him,on a personal or professional level.Hes exposed the truth-we are about us.

Rabbi Skolnick,if you ever want to hear some tales,we can exchange emails and talk.It might interest you or might be fun.Or not!

R Skolnick is either creating a false memory of his formative years or was otherwise lacking in any core value before Dylan came along. To have enjoyed Bob Dylan is fine; to say that Bob Dylan's confused and rambling ideas somehow were transformative, is to acknowledge that before the singer came along, the would-be rabbi was pretty lacking in any sense of purpose or belief.

A pretty strong indictment of his parents and others who guided him as a youth

I must take strong exception to your comments about Rabbi Skolnick's poignant op-ed piece. I respect the fact that you were never positively influenced by Bob Dylan. I never was either, though I thoroughly enjoyed his music and saw him perform live twice. Unfortunately, I generally found his message to be both sanctimonious and supercilious. His very short lived public support for Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, complete with classic song, was an example of this. Yet, I understand why millions of Americans were and remain completely enthralled by him.

As for your "indictment" of Rabbi Skolnick's parents and others for failing to guide him as youth, you display complete ignorance of Rabbi Skolnick's background. Though I haven't seen him in 43 years, I remember "Gerry" as an outstanding teenage counselor in Camp Massad Bet. Though I was only 11 years old and not a member of his bunk, I recall that he was a bright, level headed teen who everyone recognized was destined for a significant leadership role in the Jewish community.

Charles, may I suggest that you offer Rabbi Skolnick and his parents an apology.

I knew where this was going after the first paragraph. I wish I'd have known you all your life so I could continually ask you to be the guy you were in 1968, and then show total disappointment in you for having evolved into something much more. I've been to about eighty Dylan concerts and read countless reviews, and your predictability, and that of your peers, astounds me. You've been a "fan for forty years yet have never seen him, obviously have not been following the "news" since his "resurgence" in 1997 or so, and then are disappointed he's not still the spokesman for a generation. Dylan wrote you a note a long time ago, the first time he rejected the notion that an artist creates art for an audience and not himself: "It's all over now, baby blue." He then plugged in and blew the ears off the folkies of the sixties....and he's as good as he has ever been RIGHT NOW!

SSSOOO wrong
The Man continues to re)create
Old words / New phrase
rock /jam
jazz / blues

not dark yet
-not dark yet

I have been listening to Bob Dylan for 46 years. I loved the 60's Bob, but I love today's Bob even more. His latest album, Tempest (2012) is as fine as anything he's ever done. It's not just about rebellion and protest anymore, it's about that very very complex thing called life.

Respectfully, your article says a lot more about your own expectations than it does about BD, then or now. You obviously have not pretended to "keep up" with Mr. D for what, forty years? Did you expect him to stand alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack? Yes, the man is aging, but he is not and never was a "prophet." He's a rock star, and I think that you as a rabbi might know the difference.

The review is very unfair. Dylan's music is still prophetic and vital if you have listened to anything he's done in the last fifteen years, all of which are masterpieces. At 72, Dylan's voice is gone. If you expect him to sound like he was 27, then this articles is fair. At 72 with a shredded voice, Dylan assembles a great band and sings with more heart and honesty than any current modern singer. People wrote Dylan off in 1962 and every decade since until they took the time to listen more carefully. I thing the Rabbi is very well intentioned but really needs to once again open his mind and listen a little more carefully.

A man who changes the world, does not need to do things the way other men do them.

He is still changing the world too. A lot of people, thanks to Bob, now can go to a show and let the Artist play what they feel like, rather than hear them play a song they have come to deplore.

Going through the motions is the ultimate in "not caring." Bob D changes his show every tour, plays different tempos and keys constantly. I think he REALLY still cares. But rather than please a crowd, which can be done through all kinds of tricks on stage, he is challenging the crowd, and thus the world to listen and drop their' expectations. I have been to 6 Dylan shows. Some at the time bored me. I have since obtained copies of these shows that now rivet me. Also a few of the shows transcended and were some of the best live music I have ever heard.

Bob is the head-scratching-est guy ever. Please don't try to pin one thing down on him: he is the man that wears many faces. Always was, always will.

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