Dylan Then and Now: It’s Tough To Be An Aging Prophet

For those who came of age in America during the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century– yes, even rabbis– Bob Dylan was, and is, an iconic figure.

Made up of countless classics that have become, in essence, an indispensable component of the American songbook, Bob Dylan’s body of work helped to fuel a revolution in this country that quite literally changed its course. “The sixties” and all that those two words represent could not have become what they were without his prophetic prodding, and a persistently iconoclastic refusal to accept the status quo of race relations in America as its truest and best self. The fact that countless other performing artists, from rock and folk to mainstream performers, have covered songs like “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’” attests to the monumental influence he has exerted on the American psyche.

Somehow or other, through all these years, neither my wife nor I, both of us huge Dylan fans, had ever attended a concert of his. So when the chance arose to go to hear him at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this past Sunday, we jumped at it.

The concert was called for 5:30PM, but when we arrived, we learned that Dylan himself would not be performing until 9:30PM, and he would play a set lasting one-and-a-half hours. By any standards, especially given my current status as an aging rock fan, four hours of opening acts is an awfully long time to wait for the main attraction, and five-and-a-half hours is way long for a concert, unless you’re at a Woodstock-like festival. But hey– we were going to hear Dylan, and finally pay our homage to the man who not only changed the course of our country, but also figured so prominently in our own coming of age and musical tastes.

Well… I guess I should have seen what was coming when, for his opening number, Dylan selected a song that attracted a lot of attention when he recorded it a few years ago. The repeating chorus says, “I used to care… but things have changed.” Uh-oh…

Within that 90-minute set, Dylan played exactly four songs that I would call classics: “Hard Rain Gonna Fall,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and, as an encore, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Truth to tell– the only way I was able to identify those songs was by the chords that his band was playing, and occasionally– emphasis on occasionally– identifiable words that he “sang.” Those who know Dylan’s music will know that he rarely sings a song the same way twice, and the rumor is that The Band, who accompanied him on so many of his greatest hits, actually figured out what the proper tempo and phrasing for a given song was when they were all in the recording studio. But still, it was clear for all to see that so much of his sense of musicality had been lost. And much sadder, at least to me, was the fact that his greatest songs, drenched with meaning in their original contexts, were just not what he wanted to be singing anymore. The ones that he did sing, he treated with something close to contempt. As he himself said, he used to care… but things have changed.

I imagine that you might be wondering what any of this has to do with “A Rabbi’s World.” So let me try and explain.

First of all, and arguably most important, Dylan’s music in no small measure helped me to clarify my own values at a time when America was in the throes of tremendous social upheaval and change. He helped me understand what I should be caring about even if I wasn’t. Along with some other great artists of that time, his music was the soundtrack of my youth, and a significant factor in the adult that I came to be.

Second, on a professional level, I can appreciate how tired he might be of singing the “old songs.” I remember well Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party,” in which he lamented a terrible experience he had at a concert at Madison Square Garden, where he wanted to play new music, and the crowd booed because it wanted all his old hits. I’m sure that James Taylor is plenty tired of singing “Fire and Rain,” and in a different arena, I know that David Broza is thoroughly tired of singing “Yihiyeh Tov.”

Rabbis, too, have times where they might like to change the way something is done in a service, and cantors certainly like to vary melodies. But ask any cantor what happens when he/she deviates from a cherished congregational melody for a part of the Kedushah, or even Ein K’Eloheinu. People know what they like, and they more often than not crave the familiar, the tried and true.

I don’t begrudge Bob Dylan the right to grow as an artist, and even if I did, why should he care? But the truth is that his music was never just music. It was a powerful and important message delivered as music. And when he “stopped caring,” he became just another musician, and the songs were– how can I say this respectfully– less than remarkable.

It’s hard to be an aging prophet whose message was delivered long ago. The biblical prophets wanted nothing more than to slip back into the anonymity they enjoyed before God burdened them with their missions. I don’t know if Dylan felt burdened then, but he sure doesn’t now.

Our loss; I miss the older version…


About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.