Expecting Rain


By John Nogowski

Published May 28, 2024.

“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Some of us remember that vintage TV commercial, where two businessmen are retrieving their bags at a luggage claim. As soon as one of them begins to speak, everyone stops to listen, hanging on his every word.

Bob Dylan had a moment like that, probably his last, on March 27, 2020, four long years ago. Somehow it seems even longer than that.

It was late on a Friday night in March of that year, a fearful nation hiding inside their homes, wondering if the plague of COVID might strike them, when unannounced, Dylan quietly decides to slip out his first new composition in eight years, a haunting 16:56 elegy for all he – and we – had seen and heard since that fateful November afternoon in Dallas when assassins – nobody knows how many – snuffed out the life of our youthful president. Dylan then issues a brief statement on Twitter.

“Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” Dylan tweeted that Friday night. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. Bob Dylan”

Stay safe. Stay observant. May God be with you, an absolutely unexpected blessing from one of our great voices of freedom. To some, it was a reminder to all that we’d been through impossibly awful, ugly moments before and we could – and would – carry on. To others, it was Bob Dylan’s conscience speaking up for everyone, telling all of us we’d be OK.

America was listening. Even at almost 17-minutes plus – an unspeakable length for radio – “Murder Most Foul” went to No. 1 on Billboard. A first for a 79-year-old! And also his first No. 1 record after all those years! Imagine that.

Turning 83 on Thursday, Dylan will resume his 2024 tour in Atlanta on June 21 as part of the Outlaw Music Festival, sharing the stage with Willie Nelson, Robert Plant (formerly of Led Zeppelin) and Alison Krauss and will play on through the summer. He’s done 24 shows this year so far, 76 last year, 82 the year before that. In all, 3,066 going all the way back to when he started in the early 60’s, a precocious, whiny-voiced 20-year-old from Minnesota singing about “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “The Times Are A-Changin’.” They certainly were.

To many, he was the voice of that change, speaking out against war, injustice, racism, the politics of the era before picking up the beat from The Beatles and leaving his acoustic anthems behind and creating his own distinctive, influential brand of poetic rock and roll in the mid-sixties and was booed for it. “Judas” one unbeliever cried in an British ballroom.

From there, Dylan ventured into country music, a brief swipe at middle-of-the-road music, then the starting confessional “Blood On The Tracks”, a patriotic “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour and shows and movies and more shows all the way through now.

Along the way, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an Academy Award for the wry tune “Things Have Changed,” was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, toured the world, wrote a couple of acclaimed books, dj’d 100 episodes of a fabulously imaginative radio show (“Theme Time Radio”) for Sirius, created a brand of whiskey, paintings and iron gates (!), made a few movies that, at best, were quirky, and whether you’re a fan or not, Dylan has been an unrelenting, unstoppable creative force in American popular culture for, why, half a century now.

And you can still go see him, like I did in Jacksonville about a month ago. Sure, I admit that even though I knew the song list, few of his songs were recognizable from the first few notes, some were unfamiliar halfway through but that’s Bob. Having written three books about the guy, followed him for 50-plus years, he’s not trying to please anybody. Never has.

As he sang on one of his most popular and recent songs “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” – “Never pandered, never acted proud, never took of my shoes, threw them into the crowd.”

Instead, he’s followed his own, often inexplicable path through the world of popular music, even when it seemed America wasn’t listening. Which is why, to me, that moment in March, four years back, was so poignant. Imagine having the nerve to release a 17-minute song, your first original material in eight years, those haunting, elegiac words and hypnotic music echoing from coast-to-coast…

It was like, well, dammit, Bob Dylan had something important to say and share. One more time.

John Nogowski is the author of "Bob Dylan: A Descriptive, Critical Discography and Filmography: 1961-2022, (3rd edition)" available on amazon.com - .co.uk - .de

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