This week, back in 1961, Bob Dylan took the stage at Folk City in Greenwich Village for
the first time. And he has a lot to answer for. Anyone over forty, at one time or
another, has been seized by momentary, but repeated, wistful reveries concerning why they
were not him. A few years ago, I heard about a niche market that was thriving thanks to
guys in their fifties with disposable income: custom acoustic guitar making. It seems a
host of boomers were hoping to leave the corporate world behind at least temporarily, and
head for the coffeehouse on the weekends to sing protest songs with incomprehensible
lyrics just like Mr. Zimmerman had once done.
And it’s doubly difficult to face the fact that we are not Bob Dylan, because not only
does he embody the peripatetic, bohemian, anti-establishment, take-life-as-it-comes (e.g.
a work/life balance mother lode) individualist, but he got rich doing it, which really
twists a businessman’s mind into a Gordian Knot. And even now, with Dylan doing
commercials for the Escalade, his image as the speak-truth-to-power troubadour persists,
troubling the fragile minds of people like me and my overachieving friends.
What is it about this mercurial, enigmatic hipster that pulls at people who have
succeeded in many other arenas in their own right? Maybe he is the modern equivalent of
the running-away-to-join-the-circus fantasy. Just you and your gee-tar, riding the
rails, passing your hat, claiming no allegiances. The perfect antidote to meetings,
sales figures and hustling for a buck. It’s like that old Twilight Zone episode, with
the guy who wants to get off the train at Willoughby, where life moves at the slow pace
of the turn of the (then 20th) century; except he has to die to do it. In the end, both
choices seem terrifying—one so much responsibility that it can kill you, the other so
little responsibility that you may never find your way.
Another important dose of reality is that the fanciful image of strumming your guitar for
an audience of beatniks actually doesn’t fit the work/life balance bill at all. The
struggle for balance in life has to do with prioritizing not only your own down time, but
managing it to include the people and relationships you care about. No effort need be
expended on such a thing if you roam from coffeehouse to coffeehouse living on day-old
coffee cake and never forming attachments. I have no idea what Bob Dylan’s personal life
entails (part of his air of mystery, of course), but I don’t think even he could survive
in the glossy world we wannabes have allowed ourselves to think of as his wheelhouse.
Which brings us back to it being our responsibility to be okay with where we are. Most
of the time, I’m perfectly happy. But every once in a while, it seems like everything
could have been different if I’d only stepped out on that stage with my harmonica, told
it like it was, and dated Joan Baez.