What Bob Dylan Means To Me (part 2)

(Above: the video for “Most of the Time” off the “Oh Mercy” album.)

The second installment in this series comes from McKay Stangler, public relations writer for the University of Kansas Medical Center. For more of McKay’s writing, check out his great blog.

I wish I had a great Dylan story.

I wish I could say that some foggy memory lay buried in the deep recesses of memory, a brief excerpt from the halcyon days of youth in which I first discovered Robert Zimmerman. A day when I heard those first notes of “Sara” or “Oh Sister” and was set on an irreversible path toward musical enlightenment.

I wish the 15-year-old me had pulled a dust-covered copy of Blonde on Blonde from a bookshelf in my parents’ basement and become instantly captivated with its sounds. Or perhaps that some tune hummed by the corner vagabond would have remained lodged in my mind’s musical echo chamber, quickly crowding out the assorted noise of the mid-90s, pushing into oblivion the Collective Souls and Blink 182s of the time.

Alas, the truth is much more boring. Although my parents did have Blonde on Blonde, I was first exposed to Dylan through the local oldies radio station. This fixture of the family autos and our kitchen was where I first heard the (overplayed) classics such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” I liked them but mostly because they became family sing-alongs by the second verse. Hell, I had the same feelings for “Hang on, Sloopy” and “Daydream Believer” – still do, in fact.

My Dylan knowledge expanded exponentially in college, when I lived for two years with an avowed Dylan-ophile. Tom collected bootlegs and basement tapes with a fervent fixation bordering on obsession – and it was great. He exposed me to the Dylan pop culture often forgets, the wandering, brooding, haunted man who produced some of his best work when the industry was busy forgetting his genius. I heard enough to know I wanted to hear more.

In August 2001, I saw Dylan live for the first time, at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia with my roommate and another college friend. It was a forgettable venue: we sat in the grandstand of the racetrack while much of the man’s sound was lost in the open summer air. Much of our attention was immediately seized, though, by the charming rural couple seated behind us. They were from Smithville, Mo., and were named, somewhat improbably, Jim and Jane Smith. They’d had a few beers already – the only option at the concert was the gargantuan 24 oz. cup – and said they’d buy us a beer if we correctly predicted what Dylan’s opening song would be.

We thought we were golden. After all, we had my roommate Tom, the Dylan savant! He went with “Roving Gambler,” which had been the opening song at a few recent concerts he had attended. Tom was wrong, but thanks to Jim’s video poker windfall we were clutching beers anyway. Despite being underage, Jim was happy to buy us a round. And then another. And then another. And then about five more.

The end of the concert found us a drunken and boisterous crew, with us promising to visit the munificent couple in Smithville. Dylan’s spotlight had been improbably stolen by the generous, corruptive strangers. Our groups diverged in the main concourse when Jim insisted on throwing money at sideshows. The three of us wandered around for a bit but eventually set a course for the parking lot.

Then we saw Jane. She was wandering alone, drunk and confused. When we asked about her mate, she told us he was lost. L-O-S-T gone. Our offers to help find him were mixed with poorly suppressed laughter at the inanity of the situation. We had Jim paged over the Fair loudspeaker, then flagged down a Missouri Highway Patrol golf cart to help look.

And this was how our night ended. The three of us plus a deeply intoxicated Jane Smith, riding around the Fair with Officer Friendly, finally locating Jim behind a row of public toilets. He was passed out cold, but upon rousing was mighty glad to see Jane and, oddly, us. We rode with them back to their campsite. The magnitude of the night’s misadventures was too much for three drunken students to comprehend.

And this, I suppose, is what Dylan means to me: memories of friendship. Hearing his songs makes me think of college, of sitting around with Tom, futilely trying to stump him with Dylan trivia. Of meeting a couple who would change the course of our night and give us a story to tell for the rest of our lives. Of insisting that the friendly officer take his picture with the five of us, right before Jim passed out again, all of us grinning broadly around the golf cart amid the sparkling bonfires of the campsites. Of listening to Oh Mercy on the way home, none of us speaking a word about the evening until we pulled into a late-night eatery. Of the three of us laughing hysterically, even months or years later, as we recounted the tale for friends.
Huh. Maybe I do have a great Dylan story.


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