Why you should care
Because the times, they are a-changin’.
Leta McCollough Seletzky is a writer and former litigator living in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station. She is currently working on a father-daughter memoir.
Mostly, I remember the screeching. As I recoiled in the Jetta’s passenger seat, a harmonica screeched wildly through the speakers. Then, over jangling acoustic guitar, a nasally voice meandered in. What the hell was this?
In 2003, I fell in love with Dimitri, whom I’d met that winter in Washington, D.C. Unlike me, he had a car — a green VW Jetta (the Music Edition) — where he introduced me to the frenetic harmonica, the wandering voice singing in riddles, the “inimitable” Bob Dylan.
Only, I found Dylan highly imitable. After seconds of incredulous silence, I mimicked what I heard, making my voice high, then guttural. I had a history of mocking Dylan, going back to an early childhood memory: his performance on the 1985 megahit single “We Are the World” — a performance that was universally panned in the almost entirely Black neighborhoods of North Memphis where I grew up.
In my world, a harmonious voice and careful grooming were prerequisites for a vocalist, whether onstage or on MTV. But Dylan was not only laughable in sound and disheveled appearance, he also represented the antithesis of the slick, syncopated 1980s with its studied cool. Clearly, he didn’t give a damn about popular tastes. To my friends and me, this was an affront worthy of ridicule.
Dylan knit a cultural bond between us that helped us connect and interpret the events of our lives.
Nearly 20 years later, I listened as Dimitri proclaimed the gospel of Dylan: He was the greatest singer, songwriter, musician and artist of our time. Dimitri played Dylan’s protest songs from the 1960s. I wondered if he thought they would endear Dylan to me because I’m Black. They didn’t. I appreciate all kinds of music, with a preference for R&B or anything with soul. But this was folksy and plaintive, and I couldn’t connect with it.
Or could I? When I heard “Maggie’s Farm,” a laborer’s vow to quit a thankless job, it resonated with me, a junior attorney buried in law firm drudgery. But more than that, it had a good beat and was kind of dance-y. It had soul.
Gradually, I learned how central Dylan’s music was to Dimitri’s life. His father, an English professor turned contractor, and his mother, a well-read nurse practitioner, raised him and his brothers in rural Maryland without television but with ample doses of Dylan. From his early acoustic days through his many reinventions, including a gospel period, Dylan provided a soundtrack for their lives.
It was Dylan’s gospel music that hooked me. I enjoyed the songs, but I loved that he was bold and weird enough to take this unexpected direction. It wasn’t long before I had learned the songs’ topography of twangs and wails in spite of myself.
About a year after that first encounter in Dimitri’s car, I saw Dylan in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. As he skulked around a Venetian ballroom and pined over a feather-winged model, I had to wonder, was it some kind of joke, or was he just unbelievably cynical? Was he playing us?
Playing us. And that’s when I realized I’d become a fan, albeit a passive one. I heard Dylan’s songs because Dimitri bought them. I saw him in concert because Dimitri wanted to go. I even acquired Dylan-themed art — for Dimitri.
Over time, I memorized enough lyrics to quote them in conversation. Dimitri was thrilled. Though we had little in common in terms of upbringing or pop culture — his eyes glazed over at the mention of The Jeffersons or Diff’rent Strokes — Dylan knit a cultural bond between us that helped us connect and interpret the events of our lives.
Dimitri and I got married and had two children. We moved to Kazakhstan and then Nigeria for his job. And then, in the summer of 2014, we split up. After the Ebola virus hit Nigeria, the kids and I moved into our Nevada vacation home. Dimitri stayed in Nigeria for work. That October, Simon & Schuster published The Lyrics: 1961–2012, a 961-page collection of Dylan’s verses and album artwork. I preordered it and placed it on my coffee table like a monument. I half-hoped its mass would exert some kind of cosmic gravitational force, pulling Dimitri to us. It worked — kind of. Dimitri moved back a year later, after accepting a job transfer a few hours’ drive from the kids and me.
One morning, an urgent text from Dimitri jolted me out of bed: “Did you hear? Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature!” I skimmed the articles and digested the arguments on social media. But mostly, I savored the news, thinking back to those early car rides and how much distance we’d covered with Dylan.