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- Posted on May 24th 2011 9:30AM by James Sullivan
Lurching headlong into the "mysterious, terrifying world of adulthood," the young singer was floored by the mid-period Dylan track -- number 34, if you're counting, on Rolling Stone's recent list of the 70 greatest Dylan songs in honor of the great Bard's 70th birthday.
Those words are well-chosen. Through 50 years, at least that many official album releases and countless words of analysis about what it all means, Dylan's career has been a musical quest to rival a medieval knight's, full of mystery, chivalry, adventure and transformation.
As Lee points out, any songwriter who has stood onstage holding a guitar can't help but feel Dylan's influence. Yet the elder statesman's most important contribution might be something far more elusive.
"He just had chutzpah," says the singer. "That's what all artists need -- the chutzpah not to conform, to be ourselves."
Tom Morello, the socially conscious Rage Against the Machine guitarist who performs solo as the Nightwatchman, is partial to Dylan's first several albums, when our newest septuagenarian set the standard for topical songwriting. An admitted latecomer to the cult of Dylan -- he says he discovered the singer's work moving backwards from Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska' album -- Morello was deeply moved by the way Dylan "humanized the political issues of the day -- issues of race, class and war -- but in a way that was profoundly poetic, and felt like it was world-changing."
Later moments in Dylan's sprawling career made believers of other aspiring musicians. Nicole Atkins fell hard for 'One More Cup of Coffee' off Dylan's 'Desire' album, from the fertile mid-'70s run that also produced the potent 'Blood on the Tracks' and 'The Basement Tapes,' the long-buried woodshedding he recorded with the band that would soon become The Band.
Suzanne Vega, who first emerged from the New York folk scene two decades after Dylan, singles out 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).' "I love the flow of words and images," she says, "the fact that it goes on for eight minutes, the breadth of ideas contained and the intensity of his performance."
And psych-folkie Alela Diane picks 'Lay Lady Lay,' from Dylan's surprisingly plum-voiced 'Nashville Skyline' album (1969), as her own personal favorite.
"It's the reason I have a brass bed frame," she says.
For a lot of artists, Dylan built the whole house they live in. Philadelphia's G. Love freely admits that "a lot of my songs are straight Dylan. Even in my hip-hop and blues writing, the stamp that Bob has made on me runs deep."
"It seems as if he has always been purely creative on his own terms," says the singer. "Almost all of the great artists from the '60s have made some questionable records, but Dylan never made a record that was overproduced or trying to be something he was not... To see Dylan on the road year after year lets me know that I might get old, but I'm never gonna retire."
And Matt Costa, who, like G. Love, is often associated with Jack Johnson, might have the simplest explanation of all for the power of Dylan's songwriting.
"It makes me want to put down the guitar," he says, "and pick up the pen."