Once upon a time, there was a Minnesota boy named Robert Zimmerman. Like a lot of Jewish immigrants, he moved to New York and changed his name, though not in that order. He didn't have a pretty voice, but folkies couldn't get enough of his cryptic protest and unsentimental love songs.
To shake things up, he added electric guitar to the mix. The folk purists didn't like that. One fan was so mad that he yelled "Judas!"when Dylan dared to play with a band at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in May 1966.
Dylan crashed his motorcycle, converted to Christianity, and shilled for Victoria's Secret. He lives happily ever after, on a tour that never ends.
By the time I was born, 10 years after Dylan went electric, the concept of purity that sparked such vitriol was dead. In 1976, only punks cared about keeping it real. Years later, when hip-hop heads took up the cry, it was about staying honest lyrically. By now, it should be obvious to anyone with ears that mingling styles – whether it's electrified folk, soul-snatching hip-hop or disco-punk – is what keeps music fresh and evolving.
When I hear the "Judas!" taunt that precedes "Like a Rolling Stone," which ends the soundtrack to the recent Dylan documentary "No Direction Home," the only reason I know why the heckler is so angry is that I read it in some history book. The music itself doesn't suggest anything so provocative.
I've known "Like a Rolling Stone" all my life, along with most other songs on "No Direction Home." Dylan wasn't big in my house, but like "C Is for Cookie," "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and "We've Only Just Begun," his songs have always been around.
I can't recall a time before I knew "Blowin' in the Wind" or "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and so the alternate takes, demos and live versions on the "No Direction Home" soundtrack are familiar enough to pass as standards and distant enough that I'm not thrown off by cosmetic differences.
Pure as …
Dylan's audiences may have clung to notions of purity, but the man himself wasn't quite so fussy about bloodlines. He was smart enough to nick bits from enough different folk traditions to sound like something special while he developed a style of his own. I imagine that most of his fans got over the shock of hearing electric guitars and kept up, at least for a while, with his changin' times.
Forty years on, he's still playing around with arrangements; in concert, he's likely to dress an old song in a new coat and to put his own twist on someone else's words.
For any purists left, neither his current repertoire nor "No Direction Home" will be as satisfying as "Live at the Gaslight 1962," which documents an early version of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," alongside traditional songs like "Barbara Allen" and "The Cuckoo."
If you like your heroes preserved in amber, well, you probably bought the more complete bootleg of this show long ago.
I was a teenage bootleg fiend. I stopped counting after amassing 500 hours of R.E.M. shows on tape, but even the most complete soundboard recording can never capture the feel of sitting in a bar and experiencing the rapport between performer and audience.
And the chance of catching Dylan at a Gaslight-sized venue these days is somewhere between nada and nil. So if you're the sort of purist who won't be satisfied by a 43-year-old recording, you may as well go down to South Street's Pontiac Grille on any given Thursday night and listen to Philly's own Dylan disciple, Adam Brodsky. He's got the phrasing down, and even Dylan doesn't stick as many verses in a single song anymore.
Me, I'm looking forward to finally seeing Joan Baez, who plays the Keswick Theatre in Glenside this weekend. She's still one of the finest champions of other people's songs. Her recent "Bowery Songs" does right by Dylan and Steve Earle, and she still maintains a pretty voice.
A history book can teach you a lot, but there's less distortion when you're right there in the room with a master. u