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Marking Milestones with Bob Dylan's 'Modern Times'


Bob Dylan's new album, his 44th, comes out this week. It's called Modern Times. Commentator Adam Langer was born after Dylan's first album appeared, but at a young age Dylan's lyrics were already speaking to him.

ADAM LANGER reporting:

By the time I was seven years old and I first heard Blood on the Tracks, I was already an expert on Bob Dylan albums. My brother would bring them back home from Record City and then we'd sit and listen in our Chicago living room. That was when five of us still lived in the house on Mozart Street. But in 1975 my brother had already left for college. My sister would be going soon too, and my days were becoming exceedingly lonesome. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my mom, listening to the radio.

(Soundbite of song Idiot Wind)

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): (Singing) Well visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin' me see stars.

LANGER: There was Dylan again singing Idiot Wind on his new album. One day you'll be in the ditch, he sang, flies buzzing around you eyes, blood on your saddle.

(Soundbite of song Idiot Wind)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Blood on your saddle...

LANGER: That's right, my mother said, when she heard that lyric that would haunt me for months. That's true. Throughout my life, Bob Dylan's albums help teach me what was probably too tough for any parent to discuss with a child. They taught me what it was like to feel lovesick, what it was like to feel helplessness in the face of steel-eyed death, to sense the euphoria of feeling forever young, the price of solitude one would pay as one grew older.

I grew up after the age of protest songs, so what Dylan taught me was more personal than political. I could write my autobiography using Dylan albums. Pick any stage of my life, I'll tell you the album I was listening to.

My pre-adolescent foray into hooliganism and shop lifting?

(Soundbite of song New Pony)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) I had a pony, her name was Lucifer...

LANGER: 1978, Street Legal. I got busted switching price tags on it at Dog Ear Records.

My brief Zionist period? 1980, Saved - smashed that record against my parent's pool table right after Dylan declared himself born again.

(Soundbite of song Saving Grace)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Oh the saving grace that's over me.

LANGER: When Dylan re-embraced his Jewish roots I gave his album Infidels five stars in my high school paper. I blasted Empire Burlesque the summer my college girlfriend came to live with me in Chicago, played our cassette of Down in the Groove endlessly the day after we broke up. Not until the year Under the Red Sky came out would I finally meet the woman with whom I would fall in love.

(Soundbite of song Under the Red Sky)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) There was a little boy and there was a little girl and they lived in an alley under the red sky. There was an old man...

(Soundbite of song Standing in the Doorway)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Shadows are falling and I've been here all day...

LANGER: 1997, when Dylan released Time Out of Mind, I first saw my dad's health beginning to falter.

(Soundbite of song Standing in the Doorway)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) ...and time is running away. Feel like my soul has turned into steel.

LANGER: He was asleep upstairs. My mom and I were in her kitchen again. It's not dark yet, Dylan was singing, but it's getting there. That's right, my mother said.

(Soundbite of song Standing in the Doorway)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) It's not dark yet but it's getting there.

LANGER: Four years later, 2001, I had moved to Manhattan. I wanted to buy the new Dylan CD but when I walked home early from work the record store was already closed. There was a sign in the window. Love and Theft coming September 11th.

LANGER: My dad passed away at 80 late last year. My mom still lives in that house in Chicago on Mozart Street. The other day my one-year-old daughter Nora sat on my lap as I preordered the new Dylan album, Modern Times, illegally downloaded a new song from it called Thunder on the Mountain, e-mailed that song to my brother. I've been wondering if Dylan might have some new lesson for me. Maybe something about how to be better parent, something like...

(Soundbite of Dylan song)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Trust yourself...


(Soundbite of Dylan song)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) But it's all right, mom, its life and life only...

LANGER: But now I'm hoping that the lesson is the one contained in this lyric I'm hearing from the new album. It's being sung by a voice I first heard nearly 40 years ago. I don't need any guide, it sings. I already know the way.

(Soundbite of Dylan song)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Thunder on the mountain rolling like a drum, gonna sleep over there that's where the music coming from. I don't need any guide I already know the way. Remember this I'm your servant both night and day.

ELLIOTT: Commentator Adam Langer is the author of Crossing California and The Washington Story.

(Soundbite of Dylan song)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) The sun keeps shining and the north wind keeps picking up speed. Gonna forget about myself for a while go out and see what others need. I've been sitting down studying the art of love. I think it'll fit me like a glove. I want some real good woman to do just what I say. Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today. Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground. Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down. Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king. I won't betray your love or any other thing. Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches. I'll recruit my army from the orphanages. I've been to St. Herman's Church, said my religious vows. I've sucked the milk out of thousand cows.

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News I'm Debbie Elliott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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