Here's what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you'd expect he would be. He wouldn't come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn't want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn't show up to that. He came in and played "The Times They Are A-Changin'." A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage--I'm sitting right in the front row--comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it--then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That's how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don't want him to be all cheesin' and grinnin' with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.
I read this last night and it actually moved me to tears--although not because I'm this huge Dylan fan. I'm aware of the role he played in the '60s, I like a number of his songs, and I respect his originality and talent, but I've never been into him the way some people are. And yet he's been so prominent during my lifetime--he released a "Greatest Hits" album the year I was born, when he was 26--that I developed an understanding of the man without ever paying that much attention to him. He was just always there in the background, a musician who mattered a lot to musicians I loved, a hero to writers and cultural figures who were heroes of mine.
But reading that quote from Obama caused me to see Dylan a little more clearly, and it had a surprisingly powerful impact on me: That's how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don't want him to be all cheesin' and grinnin' with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.
I realized that this is exactly how I'd expect Dylan to show up, because he epitomizes this attitude, which I consider a core component of personal integrity. The ability to be himself in any setting, to engage with the great and powerful without being unduly impressed, to hold himself at a slight remove without being churlish, to connect with people without cheesin' and grinnin', to participate in the enterprise without losing a sense of skepticism about it.
Dylan's certainly not the only public figure who's taught me something about personal integrity. Billie Holiday, Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, Fran Lebowitz, James Baldwin, James Brown, Joan Didion, John Waters, Kurt Vonnegut, Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Pema Chödrön, and William F. Buckley come to mind--a varied group, to be sure, but a common thread is something that I'd describe as a commitment to their individuality while remaining engaged with the world.
Maintaining our personal integrity in the face of so much pressure to do otherwise is one of the most difficult aspects of life. There's much to be gained by cheesin' and grinnin', by abandoning our skepticism, by joining the enterprise. And yet when we do we inevitably pay a price for those rewards, although the actual cost may not be readily apparent.
I'm not suggesting that Dylan or any of those others are indifferent to acclaim or immune to the universal need for acceptance. Quite the opposite, to be sure--people don't become public figures without a deep desire for appreciation. I'm also well aware that my image of "Bob Dylan" is a half-truth, a persona created by Robert Allen Zimmerman to serve many different needs of his own.
But still, this idea of Dylan--and that of the others above--remains an important inspiration to me. These are my role models, in the best sense of the term. I'm not looking to imitate them, nor do I endorse their every action or utterance. (Messrs. Brown, Buckley and Davis are particularly problematic.) But their example motivates me to be a better version of myself, to live with integrity, to be a little skeptical of the whole enterprise.