I was twelve the year Kurt Cobain killed himself. I overheard teenagers at the mall whisper a word I barely knew—suicide. Distraught, I spent the summer in my small, Texas town, dressed in flannel, mourning. My parents didn’t understand my sudden withdrawnness. My dad tried, in the only way he knew how to cheer me up. When a popular girl invited me to her birthday party; I shuttered at the thought of being dropped off in my dad’s shit brown, rusty pickup truck. “Kurt would like my truck,” I can still hear him say. I made him drop me off around the corner. Like so many in my generation, Nirvana’s sardonic lyrics made me feel better about being the weird kid in town whose hippie parents didn’t go to church. As I turned the music up to tune my parents out, a divide grew between us. One night my dad had enough and sent my cd player flying into the road mid-Nevermind. My world as I knew it was over.
The summer after the cd player incident, I stayed up late and decided to thumb through my parent’s stack of records. I skipped over most of them. I’d heard enough of The Beatles, Jimi & Janis to last a lifetime. I stopped at Blood on the Tracks for reasons I don’t remember now. Maybe I thought the art was interesting. I knew who Bob Dylan was and his music was present in our house, but with the first note of “Tangled Up in Blue,” I knew I’d never heard anything like it before. The house was quiet, and I sat stunned, goosebumps on my arms, listening to one side before flipping it over until the early morning light. I went to bed with lines I only half understood running through my mind, “old men with broken teeth stranded without love.” Gone was my need for screaming lyrics to soothe my angst. I wanted stories. I wanted poetry. I made my way slowly through my parent’s stack of Dylan records. I’d stay up late, make coffee, steal my mom’s cheap cigarettes, and discover a new album. I’d listen to tales of loves lost, names of places I’d never heard of, and wonder how one man could live so many lives. I kept my newfound interest a secret from my parents in the beginning. I couldn’t let them know I thought their music was cool. After I got my first summer job, I started filling in the records my parents missed, until I had almost all of them. I kept them together like a holy shrine. They were my bible of sorts. When the boy I loved left for the army on my sixteenth birthday, it was again Dylan who consoled me, “You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
My parents took me to see him in Dallas for my high school graduation present. This is how they sent me off into the world. We all sat there mesmerized, each in our own way. I’m sure my parents thought seeing their generations icon couldn’t possibly hold as much magic for me, they were wrong. The truth is, he’s meant so much to so many of us.
Recently at school drop off, after seeing my “Dylan saved my life” bumper sticker, a dad asked me the hardest question for any Dylan fan. Which album is my favorite? Impossible to answer, I thought. I love every album and every Dylan persona, even the sometimes overlooked Christian phase. I hesitated my words and said, “Blood on the Tracks, because it’s the first.” He wanted to wax poetic about possible hidden meanings behind the songs. For me, it means being twelve years old, staying up late, and discovering something that would change my life. My mom thinks Bob would disapprove of my bumper sticker, but I find the sentiment to be true. In many ways, Dylan did save my life. His songs remain a vivid soundtrack to my darkest and happiest memories. His music sent me on a lifelong journey of discovering literature, poetry, and art, things I should have learned in school but didn’t. His music taught me I could love a song for the beauty of the words. Most importantly, it taught me I didn’t have to be so goddamn angry anymore.
My thirteen-year-old daughter’s first concert was Dylan in Florence, Italy. She’s not impressed by this at all. Her current favorite band is Rancid. I took her to see Dylan again last year, just the two of us. As he sang, I watched her facial expression on her perfectly shaped face, outlined with a Mohawk, change from complete boredom to that of peaked interest. We sat close enough to see him crack a smile. By the end of the show, she was smiling too. After the concert, she insisted on a forty-dollar tee-shirt, which I happily bought.
Sometimes I worry about her. Our fights are becoming reminiscent of the years my mom and I stood toe to toe, fist clenched, tongues always on the verge of eruption. I swore things would be different for me, but then I find myself screaming at her through the thin wood of her door. She slams it in my face again after I plead with her her to turn the music down. She instead turns it up, just as I did. “You can only hear “Ruby Soho” so many times before you hate it,” I yell at her. How did we even get here?
I still have my parents Dylan records. I run my fingers over the worn covers that bear my last name in my dad’s handwriting. I picture him long haired, young, in his fringe jacket and my mom in her bellbottoms, listening to “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time, full of hope about their futures. Maybe they thought their lives together would be easygoing and their children, despite their own upbringings, would be free from bouts depression and anger. Surely, they thought they would do things differently too.
When my daughter gets in the car on the way to school in the morning, rolling her eyes at my everything, I smile at the sight of her Dylan shirt. I put on Modern Times, and I hear her singing under her breath. She begs me to turn it down before she slips out of the car. I oblige her request; I remember the embarrassment. On days I have no idea what I’m doing with her, I remind myself that music can crack the code into her world, just as it did for me. In this moment I think to myself, she’s gonna be alright.