I’m gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey—I’ll die before I turn senile

                                                            “Cry A While” by Bob Dylan (2001)

71 years ago today, on May 24th 1941, at 9:05pm in St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, Robert Allen (Shabati Zisel ben Avraham) Zimmerman was born. He would grow up to be the greatest songwriter who’s ever lived, and the most influential song-and-dance man of his generation.

Those who know me know that I could speak about Dylan for five days straight until I die of thirst, so I’ll try to keep this brief.

The best summation of the man’s career is the one he uses himself as an introduction at his concerts. Hearing it for the first time at a Minor League Baseball Stadium in upstate New York, I could not help but laugh at the accuracy of the statement, despite its over-simplification and self-deprecation. Adapted from an article by Jeff Miers that had appeared in a local newspaper, The Buffalo News, the house-announcer’s clear, showman voice boomed over the loudspeakers with the words:

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!

Blowin’ out the candles on his 25th birthday back in ’66

Other than reaching this milestone of 71, 2012 seems to be turning out to be an exciting year for the man who once went by the moniker of Blind Boy Grunt: Next Tuesday at the White House he (along with the likes of Toni Morrison, John Glenn, and Madeleine Albright) will be awarded the country’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he’s currently recording a follow-up to 2009’s Together Through Life, which likewise features Los Lobos’ multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo; and he’ll be continuing his Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988 and has seen the man performing roughly one-hundred concerts throughout the globe a year.


Who would’ve thought in 1966 that this amphetamine wreck …

…would not only still be around as a septuagenarian, but still performing regularly?

Live at Workers’ Stadium in Beijing. Photograph by Liang Shuang

I can’t even think of any acts comprised of kids in their twenties that keep that kind of performance pace.

On January 12, Dylan started off the year by paying tribute to Martin Scorsese at the Critics’ Choice Awards, performing his relatively obscure but haunting masterpiece, “Blind Willie McTell.” His weathered voice now cracked and split like an old leather suitcase that’s been dragged through the dust of the world, I just love the way he pulls and tears at its edges to bend out new sounds from a voice that had already seemed to belong to an old man back on his debut album of 1962.

  Dylan pays tribute to Martin Scorsese at the Critics’ Choice Awards, performing “Blind Willie McTell.”

Originally recorded on May 15, 1983 for the Mark Knopfler Produced Infidels, Dylan inexplicably decided to discard the song and leave one of his finest compositions in years off the album.

Slowly, you receive the song as if it were the torn journal entries of a weary witness, a ghost gone passive before all the horrors, transgressions, and failure in a debased world cut off from God in his heaven. The song “turns all the old, sainted rebels and victims parading across Dylan’s whole songbook to dust, then blows them away”(Marcus, 1991). Caught within that dust we gain a taste of our great nation’s squalid and bloody history, and just as the narrator is, we are ensnared—immobile.  The lyrics make you “put your hands into a wound that will never be closed” (Marcus, 1991). And it seems that for this man, this specter who’s “gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel”—it seems that the only thing on this world that can make him feel anything is the sound of blues singer Blind Willie Mctell.

——————————————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)

Like it? Buy it.

Blind Willie McTell

Seen the arrow on the doorpost

Saying, “This land is condemned

All the way from New Orleans

To Jerusalem”

I traveled through East Texas

Where many martyrs fell

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents

The stars above the barren trees

Were his only audience

Them charcoal gypsy maidens

Can strut their feathers well

But nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning

Hear the cracking of the whips

Smell that sweet magnolia blooming

See the ghosts of slavery ships

I can hear them tribes a-moaning

Hear that undertaker’s bell

Nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river

With some fine young handsome man

He’s dressed up like a squire

Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

There’s a chain gang on the highway

I can hear them rebels yell

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in His heaven

And we all want what’s His

But power and greed and corruptible seed

Seem to be all that there is

I’m gazing out the window

Of the St. James Hotel

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

Despite the fact that this song has come to be recognized as one of Dylan’s finest, it seems he never considered it more than a sketch: “So many songs that people elevate on such a high level were in some sense only first drafts. […It] was never fully developed; I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record” (Heylin, 2010).  At another point he was quoted as saying: “I didn’t think I recorded it right” (Heylin, 2010). It seems we disagree.

I’ve been privileged enough to see Dylan live 4 times in my life, even once hearing him perform this rarity; and I certainly plan on catching him the next time he and his top-notch band roll through town.

Well, here’s to you Bobby; your art has definitely helped make this world an interesting place, and has helped many to understand it. Happy Birthday!

Portrait of Bob Dylan by Edward Kinsella on display at the current “Illustrators 54 Sequential, Moving Image, & Uncommissioned” show at The Society of Illustrators in New York City

—————————–BOBBY CALERO———————-


Dylan, B. (1983). Blind Willie Mctell [recorded by Bob Dylan] On The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare And Unreleased) 1961-1991 [CD] Sony. (1997)

Heylin, C. (2010). Still On The Road. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Marcus G. (1991). Real Life Rock Top 10. Artforum.

Marcus G. (1991). Dylan As Historian. San Francisco Focus.

4 thoughts on “HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOBBY!

  1. nick

    in the end, as usual, you’re right. so lemme just point out this small little aside, as a contra to jonathan lethem’s misguided and incomplete study of one of the most important films ever made, THEY LIVE. In it, he has a snide remark about Bob Dylan’s career circa ‘Union Sundown,’ as it relates to the John Carpenter film. Sure, I come to this song via Alex Jones, but I think it’s worth linking to the lyrics as an argument against the academic ideologues who always wanna pigeonhole a man who wasn’t born for pigeon coops.


    1. Robert Calero Post author

      Well said! After Dylan stopped producing what he called “finger-pointing-songs” because, as he said, “I only got 10 fingers,” supposed fans shouted “why?” and continued to demand them to the point of insult. And when he once again began composing what could be recognized as “protest songs”–say the fire-and-brimstone of “Slow Train Coming,” or the state-of-the-union songs on “Infidels,” they shouted “No! why are you writing about this?”

  2. Erin

    What an amazing and eloquent post!!! Bobby, I miss you and Keri dearly and I hope to seethe two of you soon whether it be an east or westcoast venture.

  3. Pingback: THE BIRTH OF COOL « A Mouthful of Pennies

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