I think it is fairly safe to say that Bob Dylan became the first recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to accept the honor while wearing sunglasses.
Did Dylan wear dark spectacles so the world would not see him roll his eyes at President Obama's words? Did he do so in homage to the Secret Service? Was he merely taking the advice he dispensed in "Rainy Day Women #12 & #35"? Or was it just Bob being Bob?
It has been more than fifty years since the man born in Duluth, Minnesota (but raised in nearby Hibbing) as Robert Zimmerman released his first album titled simply Bob Dylan. Like his shades, Dylan remains as mysterious and enigmatic as ever. His 35th studio album may be released in September and it is rumored to include a 14-minute song about the Titanic. Or maybe not.
Dylan has long been lauded for his lyrics and has frequently been hailed as the "voice of a generation" -- a characterization he has long eschewed. Nevertheless, Dylan's often maligned singing voice has fascinated me since childhood. In my formative years, Dylan albums were regularly spun on the family's record player, most notably Blood on the Tracks and Nashville Skyline. For years, I could not get over the fact it was same man singing "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Lay Lady Lay." I truly thought it was two different people. In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, shortly after the release of Nashville Skyline, Dylan said the change in his voice was a result of quitting cigarettes. However, people who knew Dylan when he was still playing coffeehouses in Minneapolis in the early 1960s said this particular "voice" wasn't so new. But new or not, the voice heard on Nashville Skyline gave listeners, well, another side of Bob Dylan.
Needless to say, I very much wanted to see Dylan in concert. However, when I would mention this the consensus was that it wouldn't be worth my time because he was terrible as a live performer. Most attributed his pitiful performances to his sobriety or lack thereof.
Dylan's reputation was such that when he announced he was coming to Thunder Bay during a rare Canadian tour in the summer of 1992, instead of being booked at the state of the art Thunder Bay Community Auditorium (where the likes of Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, and Ray Charles had performed), he was booked at the Fort William Gardens, an antiquated hockey arena. Poor reputation or not, I was going to see Dylan come hell or high water. Not only did I buy one ticket, I bought two. I took the bold step of asking one my Dad's graduate students to join me and, to my delight, she said yes. OK, I think she was more interested in seeing Dylan than in accompanying me, but I didn't care.
The concert exceeded all expectations. Dylan's singing was clear and crisp. After beginning the evening playing his songs in a country style he adapted to hard rock arrangements as the night wore on. Since Thunder Bay was only a few hours north of Hibbing, he perhaps assumed the audience would be more receptive to a country sound. But once he made that change I remember people dancing in the aisles. After the concert, we lingered around the arena and saw a long, white limousine emerge. Its horn honked not in agitation but in appreciation of our warm reception on a warm summer night.
A couple of days later there was an editorial in our local paper not only praising the concert but lamenting that it should have been held at the classier Community Auditorium. While the acoustics would have probably been better, I don't think the spirit would have been.
I have not seen Dylan in concert since that night nearly twenty years ago. There are other artists I have seen perform on multiple occasions (i.e. Paul McCartney, Eric Burdon, Richie Havens, America, Three Dog Night, Gordon Lightfoot, the late Alex Chilton). So perhaps the time has come to see Dylan again -- or perhaps not. Like a Presidential Medal of Freedom (or a Rolling Stone), some once in a lifetime experiences are best experienced once.