Happy 80th to Bob Dylan! Here’s how Dylan helped me discover ‘Dylan’


Bob Dylan in 1991.

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It was just about six weeks after Bob Dylan turned 40 that 12-year-old me learned who he was. It was the summer of 1981, I had just arrived in Bemidji, Minn. where unbeknownst to me, my life was about change. From this starting point in the Lodge at Camp Thunderbird, I would go on to meet the most influential people of my life, including my future wife, my best friends and my rabbi. I would also learn about Bob Dylan.

A tradition at Thunderbird is that all staff are known by nicknames. My first introduction to this tradition was my meeting for the first time with, “Dylan.” This “Dylan” was about 17-years-old, with long straggly curls, wearing a yellow T-shirt with a profile photo on the chest. I’m pretty sure now it was the cover of one Bob Dylan’s albums. In small black print, was one word: Dylan. From my vantage point the teen wearing the shirt, who introduced himself to me as “Dylan” was simply wearing a shirt with his photo on it. At 17, Randy Fleisher really did look like Bob Dylan.

That night, I heard Randy “Dylan” Fleisher play his guitar around the campfire for the first time. It was also the first time I heard the song “Blowing In The Wind,” and I then learned that the man on the shirt and the teenager wearing it were not the same people. And that the man on the shirt had influenced that teenager, and he would soon influence me.

Happy Birthday Bob Dylan

On Monday, Dylan turns 80.  Not the Randy Fleisher Dylan, but the Robert Zimmerman Dylan, whose songs of poetry, influenced multiple generations. It’s in honor of this birthday that I decided to put down how he weaved himself, unknowingly into two souls.

Camp Thunderbird 1981

The year 1981 was when I first heard of something called MTV. St. Louis did not have cable yet, but we knew it was coming and some kids already had seen something called a “music video.” Walkman’s were the hot new thing to have at camp. You could listen to a cassette tape, with headphones, and it sounded like a regular album and not a tape recorder. Music was about to change forever, but it was also the summer that 17-year-old Randy Fleisher taught his kids the art of music. Looking back, it’s almost like he realized the changes that were coming and wanted to make sure we understood what came before. And of course, our schooling began with Bob Dylan.

The introduction was truly through the music. Around the village campfire we would sit, staring at the flames, listening to Randy on his guitar, singing Dylan folk staples like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Times They Are A-Changin‘,” “Forever Young” and eventually he would sing Dylan’s protest classic, “Masters Of War,” which opened our eyes to what the ’60s were really all about.

That summer, I truly learned. I learned about things you don’t learn at school. I heard and read “Catcher In The Rye” and “Slaughter House 5,” for the first time, and learned about Bob Dylan, what he was saying, trying to say, and at the same time, how his words influenced another person. It was the best class ever.

Now, 40 years later, on the eve of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, I asked my old camp counselor Dylan to recall how he first came to learn of Bob Dylan and how the man and music influenced his life till this very day. Although many in St. Louis know him as Rabbi Randy from the Central Reform Congregation, he will always be “Dylan” to me.  Camp gets into your blood, and so do the many wonderful things you learn there.

Dylan On Dylan

Everything you’re about to read was sent a week by Rabbi Randy Fleisher after I wrote the above paragraphs.

“I was in 7th-grade music class in 1976. Our teacher asked us to prepare a report on a current artist or band. I wanted to do mine on KISS, my favorite at the time, however, I was informed that somebody else chose them before me. My teacher suggested I write about Bob Dylan and I reluctantly agreed.

“Maybe I had heard ‘Blowing In The Wind’ at the time but that was about it. I took a deep, pre-internet dive into Dylan’s music and his biography. Before long, I was hooked. Dylan gave my pre-teen self an attitude, a look (check out the cover of ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2’ for an illustration), and a socially conscious worldview to weave into my own developing identity, which began to lean heavily counter-cultural.

“I learned to play guitar using his brilliant and enigmatic songs. When I was 17, I was a first-time counselor at Camp Thunderbird in Northern Minnesota where I had been a camper for many years. I showed up at staff training with a jean jacket, long curly hair, a guitar, and a harmonica rack, listening to a constant stream of Bob Dylan songs on my boom-box. Quickly, my camp nickname became ‘Dylan.’ Because I ended up staying on as a staff member with that camp for more than a decade, there are countless camp people who know me not as ‘Randy’ or ‘Rabbi Randy,’ but forever as ‘Dylan.’ So, on top of everything else, Bob Dylan kind of named me.

“These days, at 57, I still listen to a lot of Dylan music. I have read countless books and essays about Dylan’s life and his art. I own every single one of his albums that he has released between 1962 and 2020, and I have seen Dylan perform live multiple dozens of times, including just before the pandemic when I saw an absolutely stunning Dylan concert at the Stifel Theatre.

“Dylan’s song ‘Murder Most Foul’ and subsequent album ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ that were surprise releases at the beginning of the COVID lockdown, were a huge lift to me (and many others) during an unprecedented, uncertain, and challenging time. I look forward to what Dylan might teach us as a musician, songwriter, artist and cultural force as he moves forward from this 80th birthday milestone, and I greatly look forward to visiting the Bob Dylan Center, which is opening in Tulsa, Okla. in May of 2022.

“Bob Dylan, you were so much older then, you’re younger than that now and so my blessing for you is to keep changing, keep growing and always stay Forever Young.”

“I feel blessed to be alive during the time Bob Dylan has been a creative force.”