There are those artists who never have an unuttered thought. They feel compelled to reveal their most intimate feelings, their nastiest habits, and the messiest clutter of their personal lives. The caution light in their brain has gone out.
And then there's Bob Dylan. He hid behind an adopted name and contradictory, phony biographies until some of his real past was discovered. His brilliant songs seem simultaneously confessional and mysteries beyond our reach, meaning they fail to let us see him. His interviews are notorious jousts with journalists as he reveals, hints at, hides, lies, and attacks. Here he is, having just turned sixty-nine, and we know all about him except that part that is significant and revelatory.
When he was very young discovering what it meant to be a songwriter and singer and charting his future, Bob Dylan created a persona, a character, someone unlettered and untutored with a reflexive, natural grasp of language and a jukebox for a mind. He developed a singing voice that growled. He play-acted at being Woody Guthrie. He wasn't Robert Zimmerman, well-off middle class Jewish kid from, of all places, Hibbing, Minnesota. No, he was Bob Dylan, a man of the people who sprang spontaneously from nowhere, a traveling troubadour for the downtrodden.
The persona was very useful to him in many ways as he began his career. He could in his new identity feel part of the folk. Bob Dylan was a hobo, a rambler and a gambler, someone who knew hard times. Of course, Robert Zimmerman had no experience with such a life. But Bob Dylan, well he was different.
The Dylan who couldn't put two grammatically correct sentences together, who seemed on unfriendly terms with proper English, fooled some people who thought he was a simple rustic. That perception gave him an advantage over those who misjudged him.
His Bob Dylan mask allowed him to gauge people according to how they reacted to him as someone (seemingly) poor and uneducated. Later he could use the mask in anger to assert that people didn't understand him. The mask was a useful device to keep people at a distance.
The folk audiences he originally played for desperately sought authenticity. They wanted a young Woody Guthrie, an heir to Pete Seeger. And here was this young rebel whose vague origins and odd behavior and ever-present song allowed them to fill him in as they wished. They pictured the person they wanted behind the mask without ever being allowed to look at who was really there.
Dylan's persona let him keep the most precious part of himself private, behind the front of a kid on the run, abandoned by parents and society, someone who blew in with the wind. He wasn't Robert Zimmerman, college dropout. He was Bob Dylan, master folksinger, the man who knew, like Woody, that guitars don't lie, who knew words placed just right could lead people over pain, who burned with a fiery drive to sing truth to power.
Dylan's keeping part of himself permanently private has, to understate, worked for him. It's hard to imagine that he will change. Of course, his ongoing march toward an ever-closer eternity may cause some re-thinking. Does he want to be understood or does he want to go out a mystery?
For now, the Bob Dylan mask remains firmly in place.