by Steve Downing
I have a friend in Hibbing who went to school with Bob Dylan and loves to re-live the first time he heard Bob Zimmerman perform, five-plus decades ago. This was at a school assembly, where Bob did a couple of songs. Afterward, my friend and his buddies moved on to English class, where they rendered their consensus opinion of Bob Zimmerman. Can’t sing. Can’t play. The opposite of tall, dark and handsome. Born to be an iron miner.
The English teacher, a generation ahead of them, thought they were wrong about Bob’s music but couldn’t sway them. Their evaluation mimics a much older off-the-mark assessment, concerning Fred Astaire, after an early screen test. From the director’s notes on Fred: Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance, a little.
I saw Fred Astaire on TV the other day, in “It Takes A Thief”, filmed during the 1960s. He appeared to be a thousand years old. He was not well preserved, his face wrinkled and gaunt and grey, his neck baggy, something the goofy foppish scarves didn’t hide. The forward-combed hair, blonde-brown, drooped like a rug over the trademark high forehead. And the old guy’s ears positively dwarfed every other feature; they were elephantine.
Until that moment, my image of Fred Astaire had been stuck where it started, in black and white cinema. He’s wearing tux and tails, shiny black shoes. He’s trim and tight-skinned, everything in proportion, hair slicked back from the big brow, and the man is just always dancing, whether he’s dancing or not. He exudes charm. Also: he manages to look elegant smoking a cigarette.
We age right along with our stars and heroes, but the process seems to happen in parallel universes. We grow old in our small, private, quotidian ways, they out there in the bright public eye, doing everything on a grand scale (including their mess-ups), with responsibilities and advantages we don’t even wish we had. Then, without warning, if we’re not dead: geezerhood.
I love knowing Bob Dylan is now 70. I might be taking more comfort in this than I ought to. I’m okay with that.