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This analogy is not far-fetched. In 1979, soon after Dylan converted to Christianity, he performed a series of 14 sold-out concerts at San Francisco's Warfield Theater. Williams attended seven of them and wrote a 100-page "instant" book (the concerts were in November, the book was in stores by Christmas) titled Dylan -- What Happened? Most critics were simply baffled by this radical shift: In 1975-76, Dylan went out on the Rolling Thunder tour, a coke-fueled, barnstorming, bohemian spectacle; in '79, he was singing gospel songs about Jesus. Williams was one of the few commentators able to understand the transformation and engage the music.
I'm not a born-again Christian, or any kind of Christian, particularly. But I'm a stone Bob Dylan fan, now more than ever after hearing these latest concerts . . . It was hard for me to accept Mick Jagger saying, "stick my knife right down your throat, baby," even though he said it on my favorite Rolling Stones album ever. It is equally hard for me to come to terms with and identify with Bob Dylan singing, "I've been saved by the blood of the lamb."
Williams argued that the art of our pop icons shouldn't rely entirely on our ability to identify with it. In Dylan's case, he sympathized with the star's need for religion, chastised his hand-me-down conservative rhetoric, and clarified why fans didn't immediately "get it":
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And (you ask, I ask) if I've identified with Dylan all this time, where have we diverged? Is he wrong, or are we different in some deep way, or does this mean one day I'm going to wake up in love with Jesus too? . . . The old thing of all of us being in the same psychic space at the same time listening to the same new records just doesn't work anymore. Not that I think Dylan expects it to -- but I think that's what a lot of us still expect of Dylan, that he'll bring us the news. And that's why we're so confused and upset about the news he brought us this time. We keep thinking his news is our news, you see.
Williams was explaining how to grow old and still like pop music: View it for what it is at its best -- artistic expression -- rather than a manual on how to live your life. He viewed Dylan as the best kind of half-breed: a poet in a famous guy's clothing, a writer with the life of an icon, a popular artist.
He had the guy's number. Dylan's secretary ordered 114 copies of the book so he could give them to friends to explain his transformation. When the songwriter returned to the Warfield the following year, he invited Williams backstage to hang out for four nights in a row. What gave Williams the insights that his fellow critics lacked? He is a fan.
"To really care about the quality and originality of many aspects of your life in this way is human nature," Williams tells me in parting. "Sometimes this is a very attractive and ennobling part of human nature. You're saying, 'This is who I am.'"