COSTA MESA — My friend the late Jiggs Thompson was a South Carolina gentleman and one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. The only cross words we ever had were over Bob Dylan.
“Bob Dylan is terrible,” Jiggs said.
I cited many of the unforgettable songs Dylan has written, including, I am sure, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane,” “The Times They are A-Changin’,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “I Shall Be Released” and “Forever Young.”
I could have gone on and on with the classic songs Dylan has written, and I probably did. You don’t want to get into such arguments with a guy with a memory packed with reams of useless information.
“But he’s a terrible singer,” Jiggs argued.
“I agree his voice is unconventional,” I said, “but I think that he does that by design.”
“So he sings terribly on purpose?” Jiggs asked.
I thought for a few seconds.
“No, I think he sings terribly with a purpose,” I countered, largely full of baloney, “to put the focus on the lyrics and the melody, not the singer.”
My wife, son and I saw Bob Dylan before a big crowd at the Pacific Amphitheatre here last week. The crowd ranged in age from teens to people in their 70s. At a couple of points, a young dandy in his late teens or early 20s left his pretty girlfriend to dance wildly with a heavyset woman in her 50s who looked like she had just gotten out of bed and/or rehab. The two had one bond … the music of one man.
That’s the breadth of impact Bob Dylan has had on our culture. You also can see it in the musicians he’s influenced deeply, everyone from The Byrds to The Boss to Tom Petty to Steve Earle to Eddie Vedder to R.E.M. to The Decemberists.
Dylan knows how highly he is regarded and revels in it. He’s renowned for being cantankerous and doing what the hell he pleases wherever he pleases, even on stage. Complete with a big straw dandy’s hat and tight slickster suit, Dylan almost took on a Depression-era carnival barker persona during the show I saw.
During the concert’s first hour, Dylan mostly played more obscure songs. When he did play his classics, mostly later in the show and during the extended encore, he changed either the melodies or arrangements so much the songs we all grew up with were hardly recognizable.
But people endured, actually enjoyed, because it was Dylan, this nation’s greatest-ever folk singer, one of the planet’s greatest-ever songwriters, a man whose lyrics are cited as poetry in legitimate 20th century poetry anthologies, a man whose songs will shine until the end of the planet.
Yes, there the legend was, right in front of us, singing, growling, moaning or whatever else his detractors would call it.
Me, I was in heaven, or least knock knock knockin’ on its door, particularly when Dylan sang a relatively new song called “Forgetful Heart,” which is one of the prettiest tunes he’s written. On a balmy SoCal night with the wind blowing lightly from … well, I was flipped around a bit from the travel, but I think it was from the northwest — surrounded by family, with a national icon performing, and with that lovely song playing, I thought, “It is wonderful to be an American along with Bob Dylan, isn’t it?”
He may be a pain, and his singing may not always pretty, but Bob Dylan is a national treasure.
Bret Kofford teaches writing at San Diego State University-Imperial
Valley campus. He can be reached at Kofford@roadrunner.com