Dylan a Timeless Troubadour Three Decades Later, Unprecedented Lyrics Still Hit Home

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Byline: Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic

Back in the '60s Bob Dylan was knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door, but no one answered.

So, like many who grew up listening to his music, he kept looking for other doors, but found each one as creaky as the next.

He still has many questions, but far fewer answers.

"I close my eyes and I wonder/if everything is as hollow as it seems," Dylan, 56, sings on his new album, "Time Out of Mind."

"I wish someone would come and push back the clock for me," he


The refrain could be the mid-life blues of an aging boomer scanning a landscape of superstores, traffic jams and mini-malls and wondering about the cost of "settling down."

To the generation he jolted out of submission more than three decades ago, Dylan's songs still hit home.

"He could not be more significant. He defined the zeitgeist," said Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. "People came to look for him as somebody who spoke to all the essential matters of their lives."

Dylan, who will perform at 7:30 p.m. today at Benedictine University in Lisle, set off explosions in the guise of his first seven albums, which immediately tore apart folk music, transformed rock 'n' roll and gave his audience lessons on how to live life at that particular moment.

The cultural revolution Dylan led, recalls DeCurtis, 46, was unprecedented and spawned a near cult-like following.

"People were searching his garbage for clues to what he was thinking," he said. "(Folk musician) Phil Ochs was afraid Dylan was going to be assassinated. Like the Beats, that language was so open-ended with unparalleled streams of images that evoked certain freedom, beauty and visions. It was wild, wild stuff."

Wild stuff, that on a record, sounded like it wasn't coming from a scrappy displaced Jewish Minnesotan named Robert Zimmerman, but from an impatient oracle nudging everyone awake.

"He not busy being born is busy dying," Dylan sang on "The Times They Are 'a Changin'," that '60s anthem. For many of his era, Dylan's songs sparked a re-examination of their lives.

They also sparked a close examination of the lyrics themselves. Every early Dylan song, it seemed, was rife with lyrics open to interpretation.

It all started when Dylan emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene talking a different kind of blues. Declaring it was now OK to be the subject of your own songs, Dylan broke down the worldly weight of folk music.

Later, he dumped the acoustic in favor of the electric and, despite criticism from folk purists at the time, Dylan created the concept of a singer-songwriter in rock.

"He set the agenda for popular music," DeCurtis said. "When he went electric, he was taking cues from the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But from that point on, they took their cues from him."

Dylan's career is remarkable mainly because he's stayed such a mysterious figure. Even today, despite the popularity of his son Jakob, not much is known about his life. …