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Highway 61 Revisited

by Mark Peres

October 4,2005

On PBS the other night, I watched Bob Dylan revolutionize American music. In “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” Martin Scorcese fused home movies, concert film, news footage and interviews into a stirring homage to creative genius. The documentary showcased Dylan in all his poetic, prophetic mastery. There he appeared, baby-faced and fierce, cutting through miasmas of convention with anger, remorse and unapologetic protest, inventing, reinventing and inflaming time out of mind.

With Woody Guthrie and Dylan Thomas as muses, Bob Dylan charged Greenwich Village coffeehouses with lyrics that celebrated and inverted traditional folk songs. His voice was weird, haunting and mesmerizing, totally unique in its harmonics and authority. From his elegy to Medgar Evers in “Only a Pawn in Their Game” to his apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan took hold of his generation with sneer and innuendo, his message damning and increasingly remorseful.

When all the folkie purists insisted as hero worshipers do that he conform to their image, he took to electric guitar at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival to shouts of betrayal and broke free. From there came “Maggie’s Farm” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” From there came “Just Like a Woman” and “All Along the Watchtower.” From there came “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Like many other men my age, I flirt with buying an electric guitar, even though I can’t play a note. I imagine playing Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. With command over a canon of blues and rock, I’d pour out songs into a sweat-filled night, driving the strings of my 1954 Fender Stratocaster, the best solid body electric guitar ever made.

I dream of it as respite and rebellion. On stage, on cue, channeling Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, all angelic in their purity and brimstone. It is these iconoclasts, misfit and broken, that reveal a world that is deeper, truer, than what safety convenes.

I think of so many of my friends that are confined within lines of caution. Once daring in their hopes, they now manage their careers first and their songs second. I think of this city, bold in youthful ambition for nothing more than applause.

Bob Dylan resonates because of a core courage to not need acclaim. His satisfaction is in evolving. Artists change. They explore. They venture and hurt. We feel it as they become dark and speak of light. They carry the cross of perception. “Lay, Lady, Lay” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to “Tangled Up in Blue.”

My hope as reunions near and friends drink on misbegotten nights that courage is found. We all have walked through mystical portals where we dance and swim and are released. We are all at our best when we write our screenplays. We are all at our best when we steal a kiss.

Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan went into seclusion. His music became introspective, exploring a range of influences and sentiment, as if preparing the way for another burst of revelatory power, which came with a fury when he returned to touring in 1974. In the next two years, Dylan released “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire” – two aptly named albums for any artist in the throes of creative destruction.

In the years since, Dylan veered to the evangelical with “Slow Train Coming” and headed to the end of the line with the Traveling Wilburys. He has become grizzled and esteemed, receiving Grammys, an Academy Award, Kennedy Center honors and playing for Pope John Paul II. In 2004, he released “Chronicles: Volume One,” the first in a three-book memoir series, and as his time nears, he relentlessly tours on.

In our town, in the days ahead, we will open our arena with Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron, veterans who are unabashed in their joy of playing. They are accomplished, disciplined in their energy. Made of the same chords as Bob Dylan, it will have taken the Rolling Stones 8 years to have returned to Charlotte, but better now than before. In that moment, during that set, everyone there, for a moment at least, will be given a portal to walk through.

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