CULTURE- BUZZBOX- Bob on Bob? Actually, it's A. Zimmerman on R. Zimmerman

Because we share the same last name, dozens of people have asked me whether I'm related to Bob Dylan. But not a single one has ever asked whether I'm related to Ethel Merman.

I understand the reason, the personal connection people hope to establish with Bob that they don't desire with Ethel. For me personally, for example, in addition to sharing two-thirds of a name with him, it was Bob, not Ethel, who made the world a more hospitable place for short, curly haired Jewish guys who couldn't sing.

But for both Bob and his audience, this desire for a personal connection has been equal parts blessing and curse. 

As anyone who attended one of Bob's shows in the late '80s or early '90s will attest, they were strange affairs. In dingy, second-tier arenas half-filled with stoned, drunk, aging baby-boomers– along with a smattering of stoned, drunk teenagers– we'd spend the first few minutes of almost every song trying to figure out what the hell Bob was playing. Finally, a snip of a familiar lyric or a melody line would spark a flash of recognition.

Of course, by that time, we'd missed half the song. We knew something was happening, but we didn't know what it was, did we? 

Actually, I just thought Bob was wasted, like everyone else in the building. 

But Bob explained in Chronicles, Volume 1, his 2004 autobiography, that by 1987 he had become dispirited and disconnected from his songs, performing "on cruise control," as he put it. He was ready to retire. 

Then one night in Switzerland, his old reliable performance technique failed him, and he had to develop something new on the spot. The light bulb went on for him.

"Instantly," he wrote, "it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised."

Bob figured, however, that because he had created a "new genre, a style that didn't exist yet," he would need a new audience. The problem, he wrote, was that "My audience at the time had more or less grown up on my records and was past the point of accepting me as a new artist. ... In many ways, this audience was past its prime, and its reflexes were shot. They came to stare and not participate."

Over the next three years, Dylan proceeded to systematically deconstruct and resurrect himself. 

"The reason I thought it would take three years," he wrote, "was after the first year, a lot of older people wouldn't be coming back, but younger fans would bring their friends the second year, so attendance would be just about equal. And in the third year, those people would also bring their friends, and it would form the nucleus of my future audience."

He was right, of course. Unlike Ethel, we had never allowed Bob to simply be the song and dance man he yearned to be. Happily, Bob seems to have found his new audience, judging by his critical and commercial success over the last 10 years.

Now if we could only get him to cover "There No Business Like Show Business."

Alan Zimmerman writes the "Tough Customer" consumer column each week in the Hook.