American Idol judge Simon Cowell says in a Playboy interview that he has never
owned a Bob Dylan album, that he finds Bob Dylan boring, and that in effect
American Idol (which is back on the air this week) will never be American Folk Idol.
This in itself is no surprise. You would no more expect American Idol to find the next
Catpower than the next Dylan. Nonetheless, there are two important points I would
like to address, and I hope Mr. Cowell will pause in all his glittering pop-star whirl to ponder them.
The first is how his comments provide yet another example of how, among the many ideologies
that serve as fault lines in our world, there is the cult of Bob Dylan. There are those to whom
Dylan is a god, one of the most important artistic forces to emerge in this country, a man who
is to popular music what Picasso was to modern art. On the other hand - and I think of that
hand as a small, crabbed, withered claw - there are those who think he is (per Cowell) a shrug.
Such people at best will say something along the lines of " I cannot stand his voice, but he is
an interesting lyricist. " I have no idea which camp is larger, only that obviously I am in the first,
and that those in the second are wandering in the desert at twilight. They cannot see the white
dove sleeping in the sand, and they kick it, and it is dead or its wings are broken anyway.
My other point, Mr. Cowell, is that one can be awakened from this sad state. I want to tell
you - how odd: that sounds like Peggy Noonan, " I want to tell you " - I want to tell you
my own story. It is, I hope, simple yet effective testimony.
I, too, was absolutely indifferent to Bob Dylan until I was nearly 20. It amazes me
now to realize this, but it is so.
Think back to the days - or, if you are a very young reader, do your darnedest to
imagine the days - when a teenage boy's prize possession would be his turntable
and his collection of vinyl records. In those days I would listen to - what did I listen to?
I listened to Sondheim musicals, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Copland and
Vaughan Williams. I suspect you can gauge my level of high-school popularity
from that list. By the time I was a senior I had begun listening to Joan Baez's
old recordings of folk ballads about silver daggers, mothers dying in old West Virginia
and so forth, and I knew her life was intimately linked to Dylan's, yet still he was excluded from
my little record collection. I thought he was ugly and unpleasant. A kind friend at school - perhaps
he pitied me, perhaps he simply wanted to share his own enthusiasm - lent me Dylan's greatest hits,
told me I had to hear it. And so I played it on my cheap little turntable one afternoon.
But it did nothing for me: Like Simon Cowell, I could not hear. I returned it to my friend, I
told him just that - that it did nothing for me - and I even wrote a cruel little essay in which I
believe I actually suggested that Liza Minnelli was the greater artist.
I no longer recognize this person, but I remember this, so that person must have been me.
The actual moment of conversion came a few years later: First year of college, second semester,
listening to Joni Mitchell in a friend's room - the transition from Baez and Ronstadt to Joni
Mitchell had come as naturally as growing my hair longer, and boy my hair then was magnificent ... .
And now a song came on the campus radio station. " Positively 4th Street. " And suddenly everything
changed. I mean it. I heard that bouncy little intro - it has the spring of someone walking their
dog down a Manhattan street. And then the song itself, the melody so up, the lyrics so mocking,
the voice so happy with its own contempt, like the creature in the Stephen Crane poem who is eating
his heart, and it is bitter, and he likes it. If I been on a horse headed for Damascus, I would have fallen
off it and into the dirt. Ooooooooooooooooooh, whispered my mind and my heart and my lungs in
unison. Ooooooooooooooh. Pretty much just like that.
Well I have never gotten tired of that voice, which always sounds like death singing through a
comb and tissue paper. It's a beautiful voice, somehow managing to renew its mysterious power
through the messy decades and what seem like rather haphazard stylistic experiments. Even at his
weirdest - and I think " They Killed Him, " with Dylan singing about Gandhi backed by a children's choir,
comes close - he is still above every other popular musical force I know.
And someday, you know, someday Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul may be at the catering table,
and Cowell is putting slices of ham on brioche, and someone in the back of the room is playing
a recent Dylan album through tiny speakers hooked into an iPod. It's the song where Dylan
wheezingly sings about how he's thinking about Alicia Keyes and crying ... .. And Cowell's
heart, mind and lungs will say, " Ooooooooooooh. " And then American Idol will produce,
who knows? The next Devendra Banhart? Or at least Mariah Carey strumming acoustic
guitar and singing about the wagoner's lad who broke her heart.