The Sad Ballad of Bobby and Willy

In any era, Bob Dylan is a transcending icon of cool. Other ’60s-era musicians tried to break the rules but Dylan, rebellious and irreverent, made up a whole new game. At this point, Dylan is everywhere; many of his tunes are as ubiquitous as “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.”

Almost everyone’s life seems to intersect with this jangly-limbed trickster from Minnesota. So the question is not so much are you a Dylan fan, but what is your Dylan discovery story? 

My discovery story goes like this: It’s the ’90s in Portland. I’m still in high school. My best friend’s older brother is in college. We visit him on the weekends, which mostly means we hang out and listen to music. Previously, Dylan was on my radar primarily as a sort of goat-voiced brayer of tunes older folks got all moony-eyed over while extolling the virtue of his harmonica playing (which to me seemed needlessly meandering and frequently tooting).

I was a punk-seeking New Wave kid. Dylan was firmly on their side, and what was mine was mine.

Then, one night at a college flophouse, someone pulled out a CD box set as wide as an LP sleeve. On it was a pop-art-style, mono-colored image of a young man with complexly curly hair, the look on his highly intelligent face conveying a mixture of disdain, exhaustion and determination. It was the Bob Dylan compilation Biograph.

This college kid cues up the song “Up To Me.” Where once I heard a braying voice, now I heard an honesty that came from the chest, and from his hands sprang simple guitar chords — the kind of chords I myself knew how to play. 

But mostly, it was the words: “Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing/ Death kept followin’, trackin’ us down, at least I heard your bluebird sing.” 

Oh man, I knew then I was a goner. While some of the older crowd went for pre-Judas era acoustic Dylan, I went hard for Highway ’61 Revisited-era Dylan: motorcycle boots, sharp suits and a strung-out style of no-fucks-left-to-give. 

Dylan has had a long career. I love much of his stuff more than I’ve loved any music ever. His June 7 show, with legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples at Cuthbert Amphitheater in Eugene, is sold out. Who’s buying those tickets? Has Bob Dylan pulled it off again, by jumping the divide to a new set of kids pushing their own boundaries and setting their own limits?

Caroline Bauer is a 25-year-old Eugene resident and musician. “Bob Dylan’s music is timeless, goofy, rebellious, romantic,” she says. “It was most meaningful to me during my high school and early college years.”

Leo London is also a musician who splits his time between Eugene and Portland. 

“I used to go to CD/Game Exchange and buy his cassettes,” London says. “It was cool because I didn’t have the internet, so he was kind of mysterious and every record seemed different. I wore out Blood on the Tracks.” 

Caghain McCoy is a 24-year-old student at the UO. “His songs call back the same feelings of social unrest and dissatisfaction with the system that were so prevalent in the ’60s,” McCoy says. “I think that still sucks people in. Bob Dylan’s songs have a certain lonesome sadness to them that I really like.” 

Some millennials, however, are intimidated by Dylan’s huge catalogue. Meerah Powell is a 20-year-old student at UO and an intern for EW (check out her Silversun Pickups piece this issue). 

“I don’t know, in a way it always seems overwhelming to me to try to backtrack and attempt to get into an older artist that I hadn’t been really exposed to throughout my life,” she says, “just because his discography is so vast — I don’t necessarily know where to start.” 

And while older eras felt betrayed when Dylan went electric, Bauer feels similarly about Dylan going commercial. “I remember my opinion of Bob Dylan changed drastically when I saw him in that Victoria’s Secret ad on TV,” she says. “That was so bad, like the ultimate sell-out.”

But what remains consistent is that when younger generations discover Dylan, they feel like his music is theirs and theirs alone. “I ‘discovered’ Dylan as a teen,” Bauer says, “separate from my parents; it felt like I had more of my own relationship to it.” 

London adds: “When I found Bob Dylan it changed my life, resonated with me.” 

And is anyone surprised that Dylan’s Eugene show is sold out? “Not at all,” McCoy says. “This is Eugene.”

Bob Dylan celebrates the release of Fallen Angels with Mavis Staples 7:30 pm Tuesday, June 7, at Cuthbert Amphitheater; SOLD OUT, all ages.

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