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An Open Letter to Bob Dylan: Happy 65th Birthday!

27 May 2006

May 24, 2006

Hi Bob,

I know you probably won’t read this, and I’m cool with that, but I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, and whether it’s important to try to seek out older people one admires before they die (or before I die for that matter, for you might very well outlive me). After all, you kind of started out that way with WOODY GUTHRIE. But while Woody was more of a cult figure, laid up with that horrible disease, you’re still very actively creating music and featured regularly in the press. I know you must still get lonely, but what could I give you that you couldn’t give yourself?

Okay, after the initial awkwardness, I could imagine us sharing a laugh or cry or the silence of awe, but to go through all the red tape to meet you—it’s probably never going to happen, and I’m cool with that (though I bet we’d have a great talk on your satellite radio show, but no more so than if JON STEWART invited me). Besides, I know how people still want to claim you as their own, and how when anybody (including myself) starts talking about you, they’re not really talking about you so much as they’re talking about themselves. I doubt that’s going to stop me, or anybody else, from talking or writing about you anytime soon, but, like you, I wish more people would fess up to it.

So, last night, I performed at a tribute concert for you organized by a fine young local musician, CHRIS DINGMAN, and his band CROOKED ROADS. I played “Visions of Johanna” and the underrated “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through The Dark Heat)”—it was nice to see BOBBY GILLESPIE single out that song for praise in the April 2006 issue of Q magazine. Yet, even as I gave a passionate performance, something was gnawing at me from inside: is this really the best way to pay tribute to you?

It’s never been enough for me to laugh at the fans nodding their heads as you sing/snarl “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,” or content myself to do only covers. But, damn, it sure is fun to play songs you wrote. In fact, last night, my girlfriend even told me I’m a better singer of your songs than I am of my own, and that can humble me as none of the more famous acts of my generation can (just as older guys like LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS or BLIND WILLIE MCTELL humbled you, even when you were being celebrated in the early-to-mid ‘60s), and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So I mostly went along with the rules Dingman had set: don’t play solo acoustic and don’t play originals (even if they’re variations on words or melodies you used), but understanding SF Weekly columnist HIYA SWANHUYSER’s skepticism on how hewing to these rules could rob the event of some of your spirit (“We hope some of the groups sneak in original material” and “Could the punk band named BLOB DYLAN crash the party?”), I managed to sneak in the lyrics to my “With Bob on Our Side”—but it was a gesture that seemed largely lost on the audience.

I didn’t mind so much that at this tribute, there were no boos or attempts to ‘cover’ your heroic 1963 ‘acceptance’ of the TOM PAINE award; I was glad to be asked to perform, and felt that I added some of the punk/folk fire that would otherwise have been absent last night. But after the show was over, I found myself in “desolation row” once again, and knew I had to write to you.

In many a dark hour I’ve felt so ashamed
That the world Jesus fought loves to shout out his name
But I can not speak for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Jake Dylan’s father had Bob on his side

(© Chris Stroffolino 2006, Stoic Forlorn Fishsongs, BMI)

So, hey, hey, Bobby Dylan, I wrote you a song… and happy birthday!