Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed" and the Virtues of Musical Discovery

Oddly enough, Bob Dylan's songs on the Wonder Boys soundtrack marked a watershed moment for me as the 90s blended into the 2000s. I started going back to college in 1999 after a two-year break where I mostly worked and listened to records. My first attempt at college had been unsuccessful due to deep depression and homesickness that I did not realize was happening at the time.

The period for me was full of change. I was trying to figure out who I was in an adult world, figuratively and musically. I was shifting between genres and personas like a man possessed.  My high school musical interests ran the gamut from 70s punk to melodic hardcore to Indie rock, but I had fallen away from most "alternative" music as I reached that age in a young person's life where I felt like I needed to be defined by a "style." Needless to say 90 percent of my listening tastes were firmly entrenched in punk circa 1999-2000.

While I never gave up the punk rock and indie rock of my youth, I was exploring new musical vistas  as soon as I arrived back at college. My college record store, Radio Kaos in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, was an eye-opening place. The proprietor, Randy, would talk about records for hours, instructing us neophytes on myriad genres that, due to my youthful naivete, I would never have touched previously. I was still in the throes of street punk, Fat Wreck Chords bands, and, most commonly, the Lookout! records catalog, particularly The Mr. T Experience. I still listen to much of this stuff, especially MTX, but I was long due for a sea change.

In 2000, I had begun dabbling back in Indie rock, picking up records by Ween and the Flaming Lips that I had missed among others. I was also discovering the world of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joan Baez, and other such luminaries. A coworker had shared the first couple Dylan records with me, and I was hooked. Those early, acoustic records spoke to me in the same way that punk had. Dylan's lyrics and singing voice were fraught with tension on Bob Dylan and The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. He was equally adept at personal and political songs. He expanded on the lyrical bent of the folk tradition, while reinterpreting forms, such as the talking blues.

When I saw Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys in 2000, I was already beginning to build my Dylan collection, but the  grip of that film along with Dylan's newer songs, that were still exciting and maintained a palpable tension between the personal and the political reinforced my fascination with his songwriting. Before this, I had listened to some Dylan but considered it outdated or hipsterish. In high school, my friend's dad excitedly preached the pulpit of Dylan after he checked out one of the Dylan collections from the library. We chortled and belittled his excitement. By the time Hanson's film was released, I was seriously reconsidering Dylan's oeuvre.

The film itself, based on Michael Chabon's equally edifying if not slightly weirder novel, is a fun and forgotten classic. It stars Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a novelist and creative writing professor, who is struggling to finish his long-awaited second novel. It is a heartfelt journey through the academia surrounding creative writing. Tripp conducts an affair with the University Chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) while avoiding the grasp of his overbearing editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) and searching for his long suffering wife. He also mentors several students, promising and off-putting James Lear (Tobey McGuire) and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), who is always "compulsively clad in red cowboy boots." Tripp attempts to finish his novel and mentor Lear in the midst of various upheavals that affect his life, continually smoking marijuana and avoiding his real responsibilities.

The soundtrack follows the twists and turns of the films plot and works perfectly alongside the film's themes of discovery and change. Curtis Hanson told Edna Gunderson that "every song reflects the movie's themes of searching for past promise, future success and a sense of purpose." Perhaps, this is why the film and soundtrack meant so much to me. I was striving for purpose just like the characters in the film, and the songs on the soundtrack, although they come from established artists that could be perceived as trite. Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison all make appearances with songs that could make up a left of center classic rock mixtape. Yet each song becomes more in reference to the others. Indeed, the soundtrack works as a perceptive mixtape that an older and more world-weary relative might give to their younger and bright-eyed proteges.

Truly, though, the soundtrack is Dylan's show. Besides "Things Have Changed," three older Dylan tracks appear. Sandwiched between equally thoughtful songs by other major artists, they still maintain their dramatic effect. "Shooting Star" is from Dylan's 1989 record, Oh Mercy, still one of my favorites and is buoyed up, not cluttered by Daniel Lanois' production. The song is hopeful and forward thinking, sharing optimism with the next Dylan track, 1997's "Not Dark Yet," a highlight of Dylan's often touted Time Out of Mind. The final Dylan selection on the soundtrack is significantly older, but no less transcendent, 1975's musically cheerful, yet lyrically pessimistic "Buckets of Rain" from Blood on the Tracks. Each of these tracks more than holds its own next to other greats, such as Neil Young's "Old Man" (which plays in the film during Grady Tripp's marijuana binge in his old car), Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe" (made famous in a treacly single from Rod Stewart's otherwise superlative Every Picture Tells a Story), Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for the Miracle" (which oddly enough also appears on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, and John Lennon's dropout anthem, "Watching the Wheels." My personal favorite non-Dylan track is actually Clarence Carter's "Slip Away," which seems out of place until you listen to the whole album.

However, "Things Have Changed" is the focal point of the album, setting the tone for what is to come. It justly won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The video, also directed by Hanson, depicts a sad-eyed Dylan in Grady Tripp's position, wandering through the world of the film, at one point holding his guitar over his shoulder like an itinerant troubadour. A song of expectant change that also contains gallows imagery, it plays out like other Dylan classics. He paints a latter-day Dylan narrative, mixing lyrics of uncertainty and loss with wordplay and representations of weird characters. The song is surreal, silly, and truthful, transitioning from broad stroke examinations of the every person to minute character sketches of "Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy." As dreamlike as Dylan's most challenging songs, the song nevertheless tells the story of a narrator at the end of his rope figuratively, if not literally: "Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose /Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose." The music is forceful with propulsive drumming and wiry guitar leads. Dylan's vocals are high in the mix as he sings, "People are crazy and times are strange / I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range / I used to care, but things have changed."

The song still gives me goosebumps as I think about the expectancy that it held for me. The lyrics are still cogent and timely, especially given the current distress in America. But, perhaps, that is a cop out, as the song's sense of unease mixed with an undercurrent of hopefulness captures a universal sense of needing to belong, while trying to discover how the world works for yourself. It was mandatory listening when I was branching out musically, but it is still mandatory listening because it captures the turbulence and disquiet of change, as well as the hope and promise that change might bring. Musical discovery, after all, is self-discovery, and Dylan's words and story-telling ring true today just as they did when my scattered self, fresh out of my teen years, discovered them. Here's hoping that life will remain fruitful, and I will be able to continue discovering music as timely and transcendent.

Bob Dylan-"Things Have Changed"


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