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The CCA lecture series on the ‘60s included a lecture on Bob Dylan

There are a few con­ver­sa­tions that music junkies would kill to overhear, and here’s one of them: Dylan and Cohen on a Cal­i­fornia road trip, rem­i­niscing about the golden days of ’60s rock ’n’ roll.

Several weeks before his death in 2016, Leonard Cohen replayed his memory of the con­ver­sation for the New Yorker.

In Cohen’s retelling, Bob Dylan’s classic 1966 hit “Just Like a Woman” came on the radio. After humming a few bars, Dylan turned to Cohen and told him that a famous song­writer had recently remarked to him, “Okay, Bob, you’re Number One, but I’m Number Two.”

In typical Dylan fashion, he used the oppor­tunity to give his road trip partner a wry com­pliment.

“As far as I’m con­cerned,” Dylan said. “Leonard, you’re Number One. I’m Number Zero.” 

That’s probably the best assessment of the 1960s — a musical moment that a still-shocked-and-awed Jody Bottum out­lined in his CCA talk Tuesday night, with some uncer­tainty about what it all meant: “It wasn’t Beethoven’s Ninth, but it was some­thing.” 

And it was just that: Some­thing new, some­thing unprece­dented and hard to define. In the ’60s music movement, tech­nology, pol­itics, and cheap speakers exploded into a psy­che­delic array of ear­worms, smash hits, and head­trips. It was a musical free-for-all, and amidst the con­fusion, song­writers like Cohen could still score hits by telling love stories with old guitars. But only Bob Dylan’s genius tran­scended and trans­formed pop music. 

Dylan came onto the scene at the right time. In the ’60s, audi­ences and artists made a mutual (and perhaps unspoken) pact that pop music was important and needed to be treated with rev­erence. “Like A Rolling Stone” became an anthem for the dis­il­lu­sioned. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” gave voice to the down­trodden. Even the 11-minute dirge “Des­o­lation Row” was taken seri­ously, and even­tually deemed Nobel Prize-worthy — despite Weekly Standard columnist Andy Ferguson’s vehement protes­ta­tions. 

Cohen stumbled into pop music shortly after Dylan’s nationwide success. Already estab­lished as a failed Beat poet (check out his aptly-titled novel “Beau­tiful Losers”), Cohen turned to song­writing because fiction was not paying the bills. Like Dylan, he was a Jew who drew on a deep reserve of Bib­lical and cul­tural history for his lyrics. But Cohen never waded into Dylan’s free ’n’ easy waters; he stayed fixed on the shore, looking out at the hippies’ so-called “Age of Aquarius” with a lover’s gaze. 

Cohen’s seminal hit, “Hal­lelujah” — and everybody’s favorite Jeff Buckley cover —  did not come out until long after the ’60s had spun into the excess of the ’80s, but it is essen­tially a child of the same era that pro­duced his early break-out hits “Suzanne” and “So Long, Mar­ianne.” Cohen spent five years writing “Hal­lelujah,” and a whole lifetime living its broken victory march.

Cohen and Dylan com­bined their obser­va­tions of time’s passage into eternity in a way that set them apart from their peers. The ’60s was a diverse and ephemeral time, wrapped up in its own con­tem­po­raneity. It put the acid-drenched folk band The Grateful Dead, the hard rocker Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan’s most-attractive cover act Joan Baez on the same stage, but none of these acts (except maybe The Grateful Dead) escaped the era they helped define. Cohen and Dylan were acutely con­scious of their place in the era — and that’s how they tran­scended it. 

This is how these song­writers became voices that still speak for an entire people. Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which was orig­i­nally con­ceived as a ballad about social unrest, still speaks for the deep human longing for respite from the world. Sim­i­larly, Cohen’s “So Long, Mar­ianne” talks about love and loss in a way that still makes its lis­teners’ hearts ache. 

But every work of artistic greatness res­onates from within its own time. Cohen and Dylan’s lyrical music, relatable as it is for all ’60s sons and lovers, is self-con­sciously political as much of the message-driven ral­lying cries of the rev­o­lution-rabid decade. Both song­writers aced a lesson they purified later in their careers: Music is polit­i­cally and cul­turally pow­erful, as long as you can con­vince people to believe it is. 

Dylan isn’t afraid to ask in his music: “How does it feel?”