Ballad In Plain Dylan

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Smirking into a studio microphone for the punchline filled "I Shall Be Free No. 10" released on Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964, the singer barely suppresses a laugh as he declares, "I'm a poet. I know it. Hope I don't blow it." He couldn't have known how many mics into which he'd smirk in the next four decades at that early point of his career, but the shield that he was able to put up between himself and the audience would be of benefit in the near future.

The very next year, poor Bobby Dylan became acquainted with angry dissenters in the audience after he burst the folk bubble at the Newport Jazz Festival. He didn't relent his electric assault on his audience, and that is why he is still around today. That moment is well known, but our Mr. Dylan was also heckled to great extremes an untold number of times as he continued his demonstration of a new style of music which blended folk and rock and soon became known by the clever compound name of "folk rock."

A fresh perspective on the boldness of this decision was presented in one of the previously unreleased film clips quilted into Martin Scorcese's patchwork visual homage No Direction Home. A quarter of the way into the four-hour documentary, the film's commentary subsided for a moment while stage lights shone through Dylan's characteristic halo of curly hair as he glanced into a camera upstage from his piano, and proceeded to put on a moving display of resilience. Refusing to look out into the roiling crowd, he looked off-stage and made a gesture to someone in the wings as if to say, "Do you hear something?" His countenance remained completely cool in utmost Dylan-esque fashion.

Next of course there was a transaction which so often appears in films, fictional or otherwise, where the mic feeds back and Dylan has difficulty communicating with his sound man. He cups his hands around the globe surrounding the capsule and tries to narrow the field of pickup. "Is this on?" A heckler near the back of the hall couldn't resist the opportunity to chime in with his own audio suggestion: "How about switching it off, Bobby?"

Why some of those most disturbed by Dylan's transformation didn't simply leave the concert hall that night rather than staying through the two-part show to taunt the performer is difficult to say. However, his persistence in bringing a conglomeration of styles to his audience is admirable. Today this translates into that king of all buzzwords, "convergence," and maybe we should take a cue from an iconic Midwestern rebel and carry on despite the trouble it may cause along the way. When an IT department head heckles you from the back of a conference room, just carry on with your presentation. If a GC can't see why extra Cat-5 cable should be pulled, just shrug and concentrate on rearranging the tools in your kit the same way a former folkie would concentrate and fine-tuning the position of the harmonica brace around his neck. That will buy you time to gather strength and demand what is required for a successful "future proof" installation. After all, something as future-proof as some tuneless ballads sung over a rollicking rhythm is bound to raise a few hackles in the present.

It wasn't easy to change the way things were done forever. Dylan's two 1965 LP releases were electric on side one and acoustic on side two. This split between styles (which of course disappears on CD and downloadable versions of these albums) is almost akin to the analog redundancy that is sometimes built into digital systems these days. Something for early adopters and folkies alike.

-Kirsten Nelson

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