Looking back at the long, fecund career of the generational muse and lyrical shapeshifter, it might seem impossible to divine a common thread to Bob Dylan’s half century of creative hits, yet there is one: his love and pursuit, and occasional rejection, of women. In this concern, which Bob shares with Picasso and Casanova (not to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger!), Dylan has been a master at translating the specifics of his love life into universal sentiments, whose lyrics drift through our heads ("but she breaks just like a little girl"). Indeed his sentiments reek of Tin Pan Alley and his resentments breathe country music, especially those of his first influence as a teenager on the make in the desolate Iron Country of North Minnesota, Hank Williams.
Dylan’s allure lies in his longing. His first New York lover, the recently deceased Suze Rotolo, so messed with his head by leaving him for Spain in 1963 that Bob enacted a kind of dowry in song, demanding that Suze return with a present of "Spanish boots of Spanish leather, making him a kind of early Carrie from Sex and the City.
Woe to the woman who tried to match Dylan in sarcastic attitude. As he taunts Edie Sedgwick in She’s Your Lover Now, "you always ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?", then demoting Edie to the worst possible fate in Dylan’s ambition-filled head, "a complete unknown," in the mysognistic anthem, Like a Rolling Stone.
Yet the skinny Semite is a softie at heart, stealing sentiments from the Song of Songs, the Bible’s sole snip of sustained sensuality. "She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist and she don’t look back" probably sums up the love life of many of you readers out there, though Dylan often slips into sentimental sexism, declaring that "you’re a big girl, now" or "what’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?" In this sense, Bob is just one more man speaking power to woman, melting like a little boy when he gets his way, and saying "someday you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes," when the mother of his children objects to his bringing his lover to the breakfast table one morning in Malibu.
I have often thought, throughout the ups and downs of two marriages and a few relationships that were deeper and longer than my marriages, that what led me astray was all that music in my head from the ‘60s, with Dylan at the top of the hit parade. In an era of activism, justice and accountability, romantic Dylanese was often a conscious guide to pleasure and the pain which invariably results. Certainly, Dylan, rejecting Baez, retreating into the mists for seven years to raise a family, devoting his best album, Blood on the Tracks, to the CBS record executive who granted him a new lease on love, then touring with a stone cold brace of black gospel beauties, many of whom he bedded and marrying one of those singers secretly, fathering a love child with her, has been all too typical of the controlled libertinism which has defined my generation. At 70, it makes for sexy memories and wistful might-have-beens, so alone, a stopping stone. Happy Birthday, WonderBob, and thanks for the lovin’!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).