I started listening to Bob Dylan in 1996, in the months prior to the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I had been listening fanatically to The Beatles for a couple of years before that, and I knew a few other people, some my own age but mostly older, who also listened to them; I heard them on classic rock radio occasionally; the Beatles Anthology aired on ABC during that time: it was not unheard of, in other words, to be a Beatles fan at that point in my life. I knew no one who listened to Bob Dylan.
As far as I’d known, my parents didn’t even listen to him. In retrospect, I realize that they had exposed me to his music occasionally: they had me watch the 30th Anniversary Concert when it made its way to PBS; we watched his performance at the Prince’s Trust concert when it aired during a free HBO preview weekend. What somehow managed to hook me into finding out more about Dylan was my Dad’s inclusion of some of his music on a mix tape that he made for us to listen to in the car. My Dad does not have what one might consider the typical Bob Dylan records in his collection: in addition to Greatest Hits, he owns Self Portrait, Slow Train Coming, and Saved. It was from the first two that he’d selected songs for the mix tape: specifically, the original version of “Like A Rolling Stone” and Dylan’s cover of “Blue Moon.” I don’t know why those two songs finally jarred something in me. To be clear, though, it wasn’t just that I loved “Like A Rolling Stone” alone; it was the combination, these two shockingly dissimilar songs produced by the same person, that prompted me to find out more.
In the summer of 1997, a solid year deep into what at that point had become a musical preoccupation, my Mom told me that Dylan would be playing at the nearby Great Woods amphitheatre and that she knew someone who could get tickets for me if I wanted to go. Of course I wanted to go. And so, on August 16, 1997, I attended just the third concert of my life: BR5-49, Ani DiFranco, and Bob Dylan. I remember recognizing how lucky I was at age 15 to be in the same space as Bob Dylan. When he took the stage and started into “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” I was giddy. I remained that way through his 14-song set, a grainy recording of which I later obtained on cassette tape and re-listened to many times. I couldn’t imagine it getting better.
Weeks later, back in school, a friend asked if I was excited about the new Bob Dylan album. New Bob Dylan album? I’d never conceived of such a thing. I’d seen the man in person only weeks before, yet the idea that he might still be an active recording artist producing albums that I would be able to purchase and hear astonished me. Given that he had not released an album of original material in seven years at that point, I might have had reason to be surprised, but I don’t think I was even aware of that detail; I had simply assumed, based on nothing, that the recording portion of Dylan’s career was a thing of the past. And now, I was faced with the prospect of hearing new songs, new words in that voice I’d heard in person.
The internet being what it was in those days (which is not nearly what it is these days), information came in dribs and drabs. I saw a listing in a Sam Goody advertisement for “Bob Dylan - Time Out Of Mind.” Then, sitting at a picnic table and listening to a radio someone had brought along on a camping trip, I heard a DJ mention the new Dylan album, Time Out Of My Mind. Which was it? That question and others persisted: What would it sound like? Would there really be new songs? The idea that this might just be some sort of compilation album lingered until I had it in my hands.
That finally happened on September 30, 1997, 17 years ago today. My grandmother was visiting all the way from Nova Scotia and was staying with us that night; despite that, I made my family take me to Circuit City so I could buy the new Bob Dylan album on its first day out. I brought it home, put it on and was….confused. His voice sounded odd from the start; it didn’t seem quite like the voice I’d heard in August. The songs were relentlessly downbeat and seemingly straightforward; where were the images, the characters, the wordplay I knew from so much of his work that I’d heard to that point? The last song was 17 minutes, which appealed to me for sheer audacity but was a hard listen that first night. I brought it to school the next day and made my Music Appreciation teacher (Brian Battles, who would later play bass on some of my recordings and at a few of my shows) play it during class. It started to grow on me.
The only other person I knew by then who was listening to Bob Dylan was an English teacher at school. He told me this was an album made by an old man for old men to appreciate. That didn’t account for how much it meant to me. Of course I didn’t relate to it then the way I do now, and I imagine I will relate to it differently if I hear it at 55, which is how old Dylan was when he wrote and recorded it. But that’s a large part of Dylan’s genius: a 55-year-old man released a deeply personal album referencing century-old blues and folk lyrics and dealing in plain language with isolation, ostracism, heartbreak, longing; and he managed to make it accessible to a 15-year-old high school student.
Time Out Of Mind has become one of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. It is an important album for me. It is an album that, without reason or warning, I will feel an occasional compulsion to listen to; and when I feel that urge, it usually means that I will listen to it more than once, many times. I’ve felt that urge lately. I’ve listened to it already today, and I’ll probably listen to it again tonight. You should, too.