Just picked up Bob Dylan's newest album, "Modern Times." I've heard it suggested that this is the final piece of a trilogy of albums that started with "Time Out of Mind." It's wager that's a false assumption, and Dylan himself put the lie to it in his recent interview in Rolling Stone. It sounds much more like a brother to "Love and Theft." "Time Out of Mind" is a dusty, jagged album. "Love and Theft" and this new addition are rambling, with music that sounds like it could have been written 50 years ago, almost joyful. It's like Dylan took old standards (like he did literally with "Good As I Been To You" and "World Gone Wrong") and rewrote them in his old voice. That, of course, is what Dylan has been since his birth as an artist. If there was any better way to describe his history than "Love and Theft," I'll be damned if I know what it is.
It just puts me on cloud nine. My uncle introduced me to Dylan as a kid and even left me his old Guild guitar in his will. I might be 30 and too short-in-the-tooth to know one-true-thing about Dylan...but I love him like I discovered him myself. Isn't that how most of his fans feel about him?
I'll be grandioise and say something indefensible. Dylan is the essential American artist. He is a fan, and a charlatan, and he's for sale and he's independent. He's insisted that his whims and his works are entirely according to his own set of rules...but he's stolen whoever he is from a list of bigger personalities than he's ever displayed on his own. Over the years he's been Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Alan Ginsberg, a Gypsy, A Born-Again Christian, and, lately, something of Mark Twain. He's taken the pop art of self mythology from Andy Warhol and implemented it without the self-conscious construction of other single named artists (Madonna is an identity artist...Dylan is a filter.) He belongs so entirely to the American rock/pop/folk/blues canon that he's actually taken ownership over it. It's like he's wrestled away history from his heroes, simply by paying strict and loving homage to them.
What more could any writer learn from him, but to learn from what you love, use it liberally, and love it completely, without ego or competition. Become what you believe in. If you stop believing in it, move along. Life's to short to hang on, once something has passed through you.
Can you think of anything more essentially American than that? Or at least, the best of what we're supposed to be? It's the opposite of ego. It's the externalizing of your entire body of work. It's about being and audience and an interpreter all at once.
Short version... buy this record. At a record shop. Take it home. And don't listen to it on the train or in your car on the way to work. The first time you listen to it, listen to it with a cup of your drug of choice, sitting up, in a quiet room.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.