Happy Birthday, Bob. I hope it is ok for you, if I call you by your first name. Mr Dylan sounds strange to me. Bobby sounds like we were old friends and I guess nobody calls you Robert or Mr Zimmerman. Zimmy? Naah. To me, you were simply always Bob. Whenever somebody asks me what I am listening to, I just say: “I’m listening to Bob.”
You probably don’t like the attention you are getting today, do you? You’ve never liked the attention, which is something I always admired in you. While other celebrities love their time in the limelight, while some are seemingly doing whatever it takes to be recognised, spotted, remembered or publicly admired, you always did what you wanted to. You never tried to sugercoat anyone, you made unpopular decision because you felt they were right. You were not afraid to switch beaten tracks for unchartered territory. You tried your best to stay true to only yourself and your idea of artistry, in music, in painting and in painting – well, at least that’s how it seems to me. Some people may call it stubbornness or individuality, others called it “constantly pissing people off”. I call it self-integrity and consequence. So, I feel kind of bad, writing to you in public, because I know this is just what you wouldn’t want. But fuck it, Bob, there are a couple of things I’ve always wanted to tell you and you’re not going to read this anyway.
I am writing to you not only to wish you happy birthday. I am jumping at the chance to tell you a whole bunch of things. A long while ago, it must have been 20 or so years now (which is a relatively long period given that I’m only 32), I heard a cover version of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Billy Joel and I fell in love with it. I didn’t know anything about that song, about who wrote it, I simply liked the melody. A while later, I spotted a single of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and I was intrigued, because the artwork looked so much different than all the other records I had ever seen. I put it on, but I didn’t like it and put it away again. Only a couple of years later I seemed to be ready.
On a school trip in Italy I spotted and bought a used copy of “Bob Dylan At Budokan” when all the other kids bought cigarettes. I listened to it on my portable CD player (yes, those were the days) over and over again, fell in love and played it to some of my class mates. They all hated it and I simply couldn’t understand.
A couple of weeks after I got back home I finished school, started civil services and bought my first ever acoustic guitar and started practising like mad. A friend of mine, who also loved your music, had also purchased an acoustic guitar at round about the same time and we met as often as we could, playing, singing, writing. I’d had piano lessons when I was kid, but now, with a guitar in my hand, I felt like a musician for the first time.
With him, I went to see you for the first time. Frankfurt, 2004. The afternoon before the show I bought your Unplugged album and Matthias and I listened to it on the way to the show. He loved it, I wasn’t sure. I remember I even wanted to sell it to him but he said: “You keep it, you’re gonna love it eventually.” He was right. I learned that sometimes music needs to grow on you. Sometimes, you don’t like things at first and after a while, you fall in love with it. What an important lesson that was. That night in Frankfurt, I was shocked. I didn’t recognise most songs, you didn’t play the guitar, you didn’t even sing (I thought) and even though I was amazed by your stage presence and your aura, a part of me was bitterly disappointed. Still, I couldn’t get enough of your lyrics. I started reading them like poems, I learned them by heart, I guess I still can recite at least a couple of verses from most of your songs.
Since that night in Frankfurt, I went to see you many times (not as many as some people that I met at your shows, people who travel the world to see you perform) and I remember the last time I did, I was already a school teacher. I was in my first year, teaching English and American literature at high school and we discussed Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech. At some point during the show, you were sitting at your grand piano, smiling, banging the keys like a maniac, playing with the audience, I had the ultimate epiphany. That weird old guy on the stage right in front of me is actually the guy who came on before MLK on that historic day in Washington in 1963. I know it sounds pathetic, but to me it suddenly seemed like the abstract term that is history was unfolding and becoming reality in front of my very eyes and I’m not even lying.
I also remember that other time. I went to London Feis Festival. You headlined alongside Van Morrison. I also got a chance to see Christie Moore, The Gaslight Anthem and The Waterboys. It had been raining like hell all day. You came on when it was already dark and still raining. I was drenched, I was freezing, my leg hurt from standing and I began to cry when you played ‘Blowin in the Wind’ with Tony Garnier playing his upright bass like a cello.
Fast forward many years. I am 32 years old now, I am sitting in a recording studio, working on my fourth album. I have found a voice for myself. I have started writing to express my thoughts, my feelings, my hopes and anxieties. I have quit my job as a teacher to travel around the world like a troubadour, sharing my stories with whoever is willing to listen. All this is, because you ignited the spirit of music in me. There are many other artists I love, worship, but there is no one, to me, who compares with you. When I played one of your records to one of my ex-girlfriends, she asked me if “this guy was starting to sing soon or if he intended to keep on gnarling” the whole time. It was then I realised that we were not made for each other.
Over the last five decades, many people have been labelled “the new Bob Dylan”, Bruce Springsteen being the most notable. Over the last five decades, many have changed the world with their music and many have written songs that will go down forever in the Great American Songbook. There has never been and never will be a new Bob Dylan.
They have called you many things. A poet, the voice of a generation, the enigma of popular music, the Einstein of modern music, a revolutionary, a man of many masks, a chameleon or simply His Bobness. Eric Clapton once called you one of his favourite guitar players. I call you my biggest influence and my beacon of hope that when you listen to the whisper of your heart, there is a chance, people will see what you yourself can see. I know, I know, all of this sounds probably pretty pathetic, but I can’t really help if this is what I feel, right?
You know, Bob, some people love you, some people hate you, many people admire you and a few belittle you, but nobody, absolutely nobody is indifferent to you as a character, to you as songwriter and to you as a performer and this is probably the biggest compliment one can receive. You keep influencing musicians all around the world and you matter now like you mattered in 1962. To the world, to your fans, to music, to me.
Again, all of this, you probably don’t want to hear/read, but right now I’m being selfish. So, in your own words,
may God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true may you always do for others and let others do for you may you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung and may you stay forever young.
Happy 75th birthday, Bob, and thank you.
P.S.: Chronicles Vol. 2 would be much appreciated by now!