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Once upon a time you dressed so fine... (like a Spotted Toad)

Spotted Toad is a fabulously goofy tune, if I do say so myself, and a tribute to Bob Dylan who as we all know just officially turned a bazillion years old and I’m so pleased for getting to that little dusty attic (in my head) where I put things and finding this song right there. I listened to it again this morning for the first time in 15 years all the way through and I thought, “O my gosh, there was a bridge; yo Bill, I wrote a bridge on this one!” And it’s funny, at least a little bit. Witty, anyway. And it’s a tribute, in it’s own way, a tribute to Bob Dylan and all the sweet wreckage that man caused and inspired.

You know… a couple years back the Swedes finally stopped dithering and gave Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature; not because I wrote that song, or sent them a postcard, but they did. There was a lot of noise then about whether what he did qualified as literature. Huh. Literature. When I was a boy in my 20s writing poetry hand over fist, I remember discovering Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, speaking of literature, and another Nobel literary laureate, found him in the pretty good, they say, Ben Belitt translation. I remember enjoying his stuff immensely. And I loved it that Neruda said he wanted his poetry to be as useful to the people as a loaf of bread (and I’m not putting that in quotes because I don’t know exactly where it came from, though my cortex just assured me again it’s legit, so…).

I love it because the introduction to the Belitt translation said of Neruda that the shoeshine boys in Santiago could say his verses. I remember how important that was to me at the time, not because I expected any shoeshine boys to come knocking, but to provide some context. But I already knew the context pretty well, and didn’t need Neruda to tell me that poetry, (My Beloved), was on the thinnest, most begrudging life support in these United States. She did not look well there, (she looked really good if you know what I mean, but not well), with the quilt pulled up, coughing a little blood into a lace hankie, and looking longingly out the window at the daffodils, wah de do dah… Most Americans were so completely disinterested in poetry, and for good reason: modern poetry was disinterested in most Americans. Modern poetry was academic, or esoteric, or just difficult; alien, weird; egghead professor stuff. Heaven’s… the hours out of my young manhood I spend trying to decipher - trying to like - Ezra Pound’s later work. (His younger lyrics are great BTW). Like modern music or dance or theater it really seemed to only be made to appeal to a pretty small group of intellectual aficionados. But all of that was about to change, and Dylan’s stuff - excuse me, I meant, Dylan’s “Body of Work” - anyway, he was a big piece of that change.

According to the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 chart for 1965, Bob Dylan’s breakout folk-rock hit Like A Rolling Stone got to #41, snugly in between hits by Patti Page at #40, and Freddy and the Dreamers at #42. Competition was stiff: Wooly Bully, by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs was #1 that year. Millions and millions of otherwise defenseless American children like me got to try and get the words straight, when Bobby sang:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine,

threw the bums a dime in your prime,

didn’t you?

v.1, Like a Rolling Stone, B.Dylan

God knows there are books, fun and popular, catty and mean, respectable and not; bios and retrospectives and analyses; and now of course textbooks on Bob Dylan, by the shelf, by the truckload; a respectable cottage industry. Himself wrote a very readable and interesting autobio that brings that early Greenwich Village, Gerdes Folk City milieu into startlingly vivid life; and a pleasant read in part because he speaks with such relaxed humility, a million miles away from the guarded barbed unreadable surrealism of Tarantula, his first alleged book published in ‘66, I think. But… they sure didn’t give it to him for Tarantula - it’s real bad; or even for Like A Rolling Stone, good as it is, but properly, for an entire body of work that goes back to that first, self-titled album, Bob Dylan (1962) and forward through blazingly transcendent business like Blonde on Blonde, and Blood On The Tracks, and… well, what did Wikipedia just say…? 39 studio albums? Wow.

Not to dwell too long on what a different poorer world it would be without Joanie singing Blowin’ In The Wind, or Jimi Hendrix inviting us All Along The Watchtower; moments some of us think of as prophecy.

Here’s my biggest theme with Bob: as soon as there was language, people made poetry, (OK, Bob comes in real soon here.). They found lovely elaborate patterns in their languages, and chanted poetry and sung it; used it to teach skills and cooking and horsemanship; they used it to describe the heavens and the beings who lived there; they told the stories of the queens who freed their people, and told all about Coyote and Raven and Brer Rabbit. And then they got way smart and invented writing, and we used the one more and the other less until all the poetry dribbled out of the people’s mouths and leaked away, gone, utterly gone by the time I was a boy, shrug, except in the university… until, until… mirabile dictu … the phonograph record, and the radio station, and now they got this thing called the internet… so you can hear poets sing their work, even if you don’t have one in your town…….

Don’t miss it: Bob, meaning only to have a good time and do his best (and get laid) turns out to be the exact right, very ambitious, very talented, very lucky guy to model putting poetry back in the mouths and ears and brains of ordinary people, and he did it. But it doesn’t stop there either. Bob’s successes fueled all the new singer-songwriters: Joanie Mitchell, a great popular poet; Paul Simon, a great popular poet, and the list goes on and on. In turn, all of these pioneers inspired vast rippling developments still gaining authority in the culture: in regional voices, in women’s voices, the poetry of black people and brown people; rap and hip-hop; cowboy poets, poetry slams. So, of course, Bob was not the only one - just one of the earliest; one of the most successful poets since… who? And for my money, one of the very best.

Happy Bazillionth Birthday, Bobby! Enjoy your Nobel - you earned it. (And I hope Sony gave you more money than you can count!)


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