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For birthday 73, a look back at Bob Dylan’s influence on my friends and me

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My 2014 began at a New Year’s Day party hosted by my sister and her husband. While mingling, I began speaking with a man whose son worked for Google. After a while, he asked what I did for a living. I told him that, believe it or not, I spend much of my time writing about Bob Dylan for an online column. “Is he still touring?” he asked. Later on, when I mentioned to a woman from South America that I wrote this column, she reacted to Dylan's name like a spurned lover. “I saw him a few years ago, and his voice was terrible! And you could not understand what he was singing!”

Welcome to the real world. While most readers here might feel incredulous upon reading this, let’s face it. Bob Dylan is not that big a deal in most peoples lives. They may like his hits, heard he stole some material and sold out in one way or another, and then basically moved on with their lives.

Then there’s us. We’re still trying to figure this guy out. For most of us, it’s a challenge, or a fun hobby. For others it is something more important, or maybe less.

For me, it’s about the journey. I don’t really sit and think about what Dylan’s best or worst songs are. Often, it’s his perceived failures that hold the most fascination for me. Sure, it’s easy to praise “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blood on the Tracks.” But how about “Down in the Groove,” or his ramshackle appearance at Live Aid? How is this musical Houdini going to get himself out of this trap? What is he hiding in his songs? How does he deal with his fame?

He’s Bob Dylan. No one in popular music has been as creative, innovative, and commercially successful for such a lengthy period of time as he has. Nobody has done more to repeatedly tear down the preconceived notions of his audience. That doesn’t stop plenty of yahoos from writing negative things in the press. It’s not that I don’t think Dylan is beyond criticism, it’s just their grandiose opinions are based in ignorance and arrogance. In this era of empty-headed celebrities and “American Idol,” these writers want to be in the spotlight by taking a short cut. There have been so many articles posted lately about David Kinney’s recent book, “The Dylanologists,” where journalists didn’t even get the point. I don’t think that’s unintentional, either. They just want to infuriate fans, and generate traffic to their site to generate revenue. Visit them at your own peril.

Listening to Dylan should open your mind to everything, even Dylan. I am always interested in an opposing viewpoint, even if I disagree, as long as it has some validity. If it doesn’t, I want to get to the bottom of that as well. I find prejudice even among Dylan fans. Many refuse to credit Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead for getting Dylan back on track in the late 1980s just because they don’t like the Dead. You’d think they’d get past the superficial image of the Dead just as they’d like others to get a better understanding of Dylan.

It’s also good to know there are people out there who are more "into" something than you are. That way, it helps rationalize your own behavior. One unexpected benefit of writing this column is getting to know a wide range of Dylan fans either through emails, social media, telephone calls, and other means of communication I didn’t even subscribe to until I began doing this. I don’t want to list people for fear of leaving anybody out, but it’s been an honor to speak with, or meet, people I’ve admired from afar, often by their instigation. Even more interesting have been all the complete unknowns who are now my virtual friends who often send me exclusive reports, complimentary messages, or alerts about various goings on in which I might be interested. I want to thank all of you now, and apologize to those I have not answered. Since the advent of smartphones, some things tend to fall through the cracks when checking messages away from home. In any case, I want you to know it is appreciated.

In the early 1980s, I moved back to Boston with a few brand new roommates. There was an extra guy staying there, temporarily sleeping on the couch, who approached me after a while. He said, “I heard you’re into Bob Dylan. I am too!” Somewhat skeptical, I asked, “What’s your favorite album?” He replied, “‘Blonde on Blonde’. What’s yours?” When I mentioned “Street Legal,” an album I was finally getting into after reading Michael Gray’s “Song & Dance Man II,” he looked at me as if I was insane.

Not long after, he got it as well. We soon bonded, and had our own little motto. No matter what Dylan song we heard, we’d say, “That’s from one of my favorite periods.” It’s something I would still say today.

So happy birthday, Bob Dylan. Thanks for the challenges you’ve thrown our way for half a century. I hope I’ve been up to the task.

Keep up with Bob Dylan Examiner news. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Performing Arts column for Examiner.com. Thanks for your support.

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