I slipped the CD into the slot on the dashboard, upped the sound, turned to my high school-aged daughter and said, “Let’s be quiet so we can listen to this song.”
For the next five minutes or so, we traveled to the sound of Bob Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Because Dylan is played pretty frequently in our house, I’m sure it wasn’t the first time she had heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I am confident, however, that it was the first time she listened with careful, attentive ears.
When the final note faded, she turned to me and brightly said, “Dad, that’s poetry.”
And that was exactly the response I had hoped for. I didn’t play her the song because I wanted to bend her will to my way of thinking about Dylan in particular or music in general. What I wanted was to give her an inkling of why her father is more than a little fanatical about Dylan.
Simply put, Dylan taught me to love literature. And it started with that song.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” took me places where no song had taken me before. And it completely changed the way I thought about popular music.
Gone were the simple, declarative sentences, the make-no-mistake-about-it directness and the easy, oftentimes lazy, rhymes.
In its place was something altogether different, and I was at an utter loss as I tried to understand it. Though I initially had no idea what the song was about, I was thoroughly entranced.
I was struck by the cascade of vivid images, how the rhymes slipped snugly into place and especially the way it stuck in my mind, and then opened it.
I returned to the song again and again and let its lyrics tie me in verbal knots as I tried to unravel its mysteries. I examined it, memorized each verse and reveled in the beauty of its language.
I can remember printing the entire song on a piece of white poster board and hanging it in my bedroom. Years later, a girlfriend who made candles offered to inscribe my favorite lyrics on one of her creations.
I asked her for this:
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
I settled for “Let It Be.”
I didn’t realize it at the time but “Mr. Tambourine Man” sparked an interest in literature and helped introduce me to literary devices like symbolism, allusion, alliteration, metaphor, simile and allegory. I expanded my horizons beyond popular song and embraced novels, poetry and short stories.
Popular music, however, remained my fiercest passion and I moved on to other literary minded lyricists like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Richard Thompson, songwriters with a knack for stopping me in my tracks with a well-turned phrase or an indelible image.
But I never abandoned Dylan, who moved on from “Mr. Tambourine Man” and proceeded to create a songbook that describes the arc of a life.
Dylan has written songs encompassing every style, every emotion. His approach to songs, to lyrics and to literature changed as he changed, always searching for the best way to tell his story.
And along the way he has created a body of work without equal in popular music. He has expanded the boundaries of popular song in ways that once seemed unimaginable. He is the lyricist against whom all others are measured.
So, I’m thankful that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (though I wonder what took so long). However, I don’t need the Swedish Academy to inform me of Dylan’s greatness as a literary figure.
I knew that from the moment I heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.”