Preserved in Desire (Bob Dylan)

The Cinch Review

(Marking the death of Hurricane Carter, here’s a reprint of this piece from some years back reflecting on Bob Dylan’s songwriting around the time of his 1975 album, Desire.)

Bob Dylan Desire

Thanks to Jay for sending me links to two stories from NorthJersey.com (one and two) which ruminate on the case of Hurricane Carter, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the shootings in Paterson, New Jersey.

Just past 2:30 a.m., June 17, 1966, Paterson police detective Jim Lawless enters Lafayette Bar & Grill, 428 E. 18th St. A half dozen other officers are on their way to the scene.

Behind the long wooden counter, bartender James Oliver, 51, lies in his own blood, his spine severed by a blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. Dead.

Fred Nauyoks, 61, shot in the head, shot-gunned in the back, ice still melting in the drink in front of him, slumps onto the bar. Dead.

His friend, William Marins, shot in the head with a .32 caliber handgun, staggers around, blood flowing from his forehead and left eye. He dies in 1973, of unrelated causes.

Hazel Tanis, 51, hit in the left side with shotgun pellets and shot in the right breast, stomach, lower abdomen and genital area, has been rushed to a hospital. She lives, in severe pain in St. Joseph’s Hospital, for another month.

The articles take a fairly detailed and long view of the entire case, and are well worth reading if that interests you.

Relevant to Dylan’s famous song, there is this mention:

The New York Times features Carter in a front-page story in 1974, and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan brings out “Hurricane,” a decidedly one-sided account that includes the verse, “Here comes the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for somethin’ that he never done. Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been, the champion of the world.” It has at least one local side-effect: Patricia Valentine, a key witness, finds her dog dead outside her house. Someone puts a bullet through her front window.

It’s not clear how the direct link can be made between Dylan’s record and those attacks on Patricia Valentine, but there you go. There can be no doubt that “Miss Patty Valentine” felt oppressed at hearing her name pronounced on the airwaves in a very unflattering tone.

Certainly, “Hurricane” is a “one-sided account” of the controversy. And it would be hard to think of a ballad ever written to honor or defend someone that didn’t present a one-sided view. It would be strange indeed to hear a song with verse after verse of arguments presenting both the defense and prosecution cases, and ending with something like, “Now it’s up to you the listener to figure it out.” One would guess that Dylan himself hopes to this day that Rubin Carter was indeed innocent. Clearly he believed it at the time: “Hurricane” cannot be dismissed as merely an exercise in writing a very particular type of song (although I think it is also that); it was an unabashed joining of the battle to have him freed. It would be interesting to ask Dylan how he feels about it now. Of-course, he didn’t sit in the courtroom through all the trials and appeals, so he can’t be expected to deliver a detailed and balanced opinion. But the question would be what made him give himself over entirely to this particular cause (when he had most certainly been entreated in vain for the sake of many others) and does he feel any ambivalence about it all these decades later? He hasn’t performed the song publicly since 1975. Continue reading “Preserved in Desire (Bob Dylan)”

Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Bob Dylan played yesterday, April 10th, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. He delivered a set list that was in keeping with the kinds of shows he’s been doing the last couple of years. Reportedly, the venue was “half-empty” (or, as one may prefer to think, half-full) but this didn’t prevent Bob from delivering a relatively rare second encore, with the song Forever Young. This is the full list of songs he played: Continue reading “Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”

Spirit on the Water: A Return to Paradise

Bob Dylan’s song “Spirit on the Water” from his album Modern Times has been mentioned a few times on this website. It’s difficult for this listener to hear the tune any other way but as a kind of playful love song to God, or perhaps more interestingly as a playful dialogue between the creature and the Creator. I don’t think there’s any need (and at any rate this writer doesn’t have the appetite) to go down line by line and impose a rigorous interpretation. Each time I hear the song I hear something a little different, and that’s one of the great joys of Dylan’s work, after all.

One verse that has gotten close attention here previously, however, is the penultimate verse, the lyric of which goes like this:

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

This gets one thinking just because it seems wrong, or seems like a puzzle demanding to be solved. On the face of it, if the singer is talking about joining God in heaven, then why is he saying that it’s impossible for him to do it, due to the killing of a man? It is biblically pretty much beyond question that even murder does not put one beyond God’s capacity for mercy and for love (though far be it from my intention here to unduly promote the behavior). And how could the singer have killed a man in paradise, anyway?

Well, some time back, a reader named Kim wrote and suggested a really neat way of hearing this verse. She suggested that Bob might be referring to an actual Earthly place named Paradise, e.g., Paradise, Texas (pop. 459). This opens up a new and amusing interpretation; basically, this involves hearing it as a pun which the singer is making to his Creator. He’s saying, “I want to be with you in paradise,” as if making a straightforward prayer, and then comically mourning the fact that he can’t go back to Paradise (the town) because he shot a man there — something that maybe only God knows; i.e., it’s like a private joke between them. Of-course, I’m destroying all possible humor in it by spelling it out, but it fits both because we know how much Dylan loves even the silliest-seeming puns and because we also know how he enjoys Western motifs.

So that’s one way of understanding the verse.

However, another reader, recently coming across the post where that idea was discussed, suggests an alternative understanding. Thanks to Kent for his e-mail:

I saw elsewhere on your site where one reader proposed the idea that the line: “I can’t go to paradise no more; I killed a man back there…” Was referring to Paradise as a town, perhaps in Paradise, TX, etc…

May I also make another proposal: Is it possible that in said line, “Paradise” could be referring to the fleshly desires of the old man, aka sinful nature, and Mr. Dylan is saying that it seems unfair, but he can’t go to “paradise” no more (returning to the sinful nature) because he “killed a man back there,” meaning he put to death the misdeeds of his own body when he became “crucified with the Messiah,” upon his salvation through Him?

That’s a fascinating idea. I honestly think that something like it has flitted through my own mind on listening to the song, but I never stopped to put it into words for myself. The reference would be to the New Testament, and St. Paul in Romans, chapter 6. Here’s part of where he writes on the concept of “dying with Christ” beginning at verse 6 (ESV):

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.



So, with this in mind, when the singer refers to the fact that he “killed a man back there,” he’s actually referring to the death of that self which was enslaved to sin. This is very interesting and resonant indeed. The idea of paradise as a metaphor for that life enslaved to sin is not as obvious, but, on the other hand, total indulgence of one’s sinful desires can appear like a temptation of paradise. And who on this Earth isn’t sometimes guilty of mistaking paradise for that home across the road?

At a minimum, it’s another fruitful area of reflection to throw into the mix. It’s an illustration of how even the problematic or difficult-to-interpret lines in some of Dylan’s songs of faith can make their contribution simply by compelling one to ponder what they might mean.

Some might say that’s giving way too much leeway to a songwriter who is not getting across his point with sufficient clarity — but around these parts, we just call it a normal day.

Leonard Cohen: An Inducted Songwriter

The other night, Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

Well, maybe you’re thinking like me: Given that there is such a thing as the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, how come a guy like Leonard Cohen wasn’t inducted twenty years ago or more?

I guess they’ll be getting around to Jerome Kern any day now.

Cohen’s connections to Bob Dylan are many, although I think that the fundamental connection is likely way beyond any of the details.

One of the most quotable quotes regarding Dylan’s art has come from Cohen, who in an interview way back when recalled reading a review of Bob’s Shot of Love album in which the reviewer dismissed it as containing “only one masterpiece,” namely Every Grain of Sand. Cohen exclaimed, “My God! Only one masterpiece. Does this guy have any idea what it takes to produce a single masterpiece?”

Leonard said a lot with those few words, and he’s always been able to say a lot with relatively few words. I guess by that I mean that although he’s far from the most prolific songwriter of the last five decades, his songs resonate massively.

Positively Princeton: Professors, Pickers and Provocateurs

seminar protest music

meditation on music and politics

Yours truly was thrilled to be able to attend a lunch seminar held at Princeton University yesterday, titled “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics.” (Say that five times fast.) It was held under the auspices of the James Madison Program at that university, whose founding director is Robert P. George.

Professor George introduced the speakers: Lauren Weiner and Ronald Radosh (it was Ron who had kindly invited me) and Professor George had also brought his guitar and mandolin, the better to later perform some tunes with those same speakers and with guest Bob Cohen (the estimable Cantor Bob who has been mentioned several times before in this space, e.g. at this link.). Cornel West, also of Princeton, was a guest attendee (and ended up contributing some deft backing vocals to the musical mélange).

I didn’t take any notes at all, but I’ll offer my flawed reporting on the seminar anyhow. The genesis for the get-together was Lauren Weiner’s fascinating and entertaining article (in the forthcoming issue of First Things) titled “Where Have All the Lefties Gone?” (Lauren is a writer who has written on history and politics for the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion and many other publications.) Her article traces some of the history of various folk revivals in the United States and the efforts to turn the songs and the whole genre towards the goal of promoting, well, Marxist revolution. Her talk was very much centered on the same themes as her piece. One of her most interesting observations was on the way in which the whole effort finally gained its greatest traction by becoming focused on anti-anti-communism (in the wake of events in the 1950s related to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate investigations of Joseph McCarthy). To quote a little from her article:

Betty Sanders did a jaunty 1952 version of “Talking Un-American Blues” about the subpoena (eventually canceled) that she and her coauthor Irwin Silber received from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Alan Lomax and Michael Loring sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”): “Re-pu-bli-cans they call us ‘Red,’ the Demmies call us ‘Commie.’ / No matter how they slice it, boys, it’s still the old salami.”

This was a new, coy art that was to grow in significance: ridiculing one’s adversaries for correctly discerning one’s politics. […] The 1962 song “The Birch Society” by Malvina Reynolds has the typical Pop Front blend of brazenness and coyness — with an extra dollop of sanctimony, a Reynolds specialty. “They’re afraid of nearly everything that’s for the general good,” she sang, “they holler ‘Red’ if something’s said for peace and brotherhood.” The fact that they also hollered Red if somebody actually was a Red got lost in the shuffle. For here, at last, was a rallying point — anti-anti-communism — with a potential for wide appeal. It became fundamental to the politics of nearly everyone who was left-of-center and was adopted by legions of middle-class young people unmoved by concepts of such as worker ownership of the means of production.

Dylan’s song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” had to get a mention in this context and did. One observation I would make myself about Dylan is the following: Even while he was flirting with these themes and entertaining his left-wing friends and audiences, he also in some way seemed to be looking right through the transparency of it all. It might be summed up by a verse of “I Shall Be Free No 10”:

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Those so inclined would hear that as a slam on Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican. Yet, the humor is double-edged and, to me, the sharper edge is the one that has the intolerant “liberal” as the real clown. (And obviously that’s underlined all the more by Bob’s statement in his memoir Chronicles that his “favorite politician” during his early time in the Village was none other than Barry Goldwater, although he felt he couldn’t share this fact with anyone at the time.)

Anyhow, Lauren’s talk also proceeded to reflect on some of the ironies in how that which was once serious-left-wing-movement-music became assimilated into the capitalist musical culture, and transformed, and largely defanged.

Ronald Radosh then spoke. (Ron is the author of many books including his really essential memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and most recently A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, coauthored with Allis Radosh.) Unfortunately, I don’t have an article to which to refer and with which to cheat when it comes to Ron’s talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize its main points, but it was a wide-ranging trip through related territory and beyond. He talked in particular of the role of Pete Seeger in the movement (under whose tutelage he himself learned to play banjo). He recalled watching a recent tribute to Seeger, on his 90th birthday, where Bruce Springsteen specifically gave him credit for having been “singing songs of peace since the 1930s.” As Ron observed, what was ironically left out and is doubtless unknown to many who watched the tributes is that those “songs of peace” in the 1930s were in defense of Joseph Stalin’s then-ally, Adolf Hitler. Ron was also interviewed for a tribute to Seeger, apparently at Pete’s own suggestion, so that a mention of Seeger’s errors (e.g. his persistent refusal to criticize Stalin until very recently) might temper all of the adulation. However, Ron’s remarks about such matters ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving only his pleasant recollections about learning how to play the banjo from Pete.

Ron also shared some memories of the late musician Erik Darling, who replaced Pete Seeger in the group The Weavers, and then had a fish-out-of-water perspective on the whole milieu, being himself actually more of a fan of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx.

There was some discussion after Ron’s talk but the people who had brought instruments were obviously eager to start using them, and things progressed quickly to a melodic exploration of the same landscape. One of the themes was the way in which old tunes are turned to again and again (or co-opted, if you prefer) with new lyrics applied; in particular the way old gospel and spiritual numbers were recruited for new causes. So we heard how “Jesus walked that lonesome valley, He had to walk it by Himself” became “You gotta go down and join the union, You got to join it by yourself”.

On a different but related angle, Bob Cohen illustrated how the great Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin leaned heavily upon a Yiddish tune called “Dem Milner’s Trern” in writing his song “Do Not Forsake Me” for the film High Noon. Bob also pointed out that the same melody can be heard prominently in the film A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. Later, Cohen also sang a little of “When The World’s On Fire,” a hymn recorded by the Carter Family, which provided the tune for Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Lauren Weiner sang one of her favorite songs of the coming revolution, “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” with the support of the ensemble. Ron Radosh led the band in “Which Side Are You On,” also giving us some lines from the late Dave Van Ronk’s humorous rewrite of the tune, where he was looking back on some of the ironies and conflicts of the leftie/folk revival and asking “Which side are we on?” Robbie George also gently performed a beautiful folk gospel song (the name of which, to my great consternation, is escaping me today) with Cornel West’s poignant supporting voice. A rousing version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive” ensued, and the proceedings ended with a boisterous “This Land Is Your Land.”

So, I couldn’t tell you exactly what may have been established by the seminar, but one thing in any case seems clear to me: music is bigger than politics, certainly more enduring, and makes a much deeper connection to the human spirit. It seems that even when songs are turned to the most utilitarian ends and strapped to some flawed cause du jour that—if they are genuinely great tunes—they will ultimately be reclaimed by music herself.

And I couldn’t really close without mentioning this: When I had the pleasure of being introduced to Professor West, he told me that he had gotten the subtitle of his memoir from Bob Dylan. He was on his busy way and I didn’t ask for specifics, but I later checked, and his recently published book is titled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Well, that’s not a Bob Dylan line with which I was familiar. I wondered if it might be from Tarantula or something. But no; some Googling eventually supplied the answer:

The title of the memoir comes from a chance encounter with Bob Dylan’s drummer in an airport, who remarked to Mr. West that Mr. Dylan had said that “Cornel West is someone who lives his life out loud.” It was natural to add love into the title to produce Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

So there you go.

Bob Dylan and Professor Gates: One More Time

What with going off on a sentimental tangent about Mr. Limbaugh in that last post, I forgot to make one more point that I had intended to make about Bob Dylan’s encounter with the police and that of Professor Gates. I did already touch on it in previous posts but just wanted to emphasize it one last time before dropping the subject.

It is regarding the time-line of the events. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had his encounter on July 16th, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bob Dylan was picked up on July 23rd in Long Branch, New Jersey. That is, exactly one week after Gates’ blow-out and arrest. It should be recalled that Gates’ arrest was not huge national news overnight. It took a few days to build. But one week later, on that Thursday, July 23rd, when Dylan was walking in the rain and admiring the architecture in Long Branch, the Gates story was certainly big news, and all over the media. In fact, the press conference in which President Obama famously declared that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” ( something from which he later back-pedaled) was held the day before, on July 22nd.

Therefore, as I said in an earlier post, the Gates story was peaking in the news just as the incident with Dylan was taking place. Dylan, as we know from interviews, pays pretty good attention to the news, even if he casts a jaundiced eye on a lot of it. But there is no way that Dylan wasn’t aware of this story.

So, this is simply something to add to the mix when thinking about Dylan’s mindset that day, and how he chose to deal with his own situation. Like Gates, Dylan had done nothing wrong, and yet was being questioned and asked to verify his identity by police, who had arrived on the scene in response to another citizen’s concerned telephone call. Knowing what had gone down with Professor Gates, and the furor still going on over it, Dylan might have used it as an outrage-multiplier. It’s easy enough to see how someone would do that — and no doubt some people across the country did do it around that time. He could have said, “What the hell is this? What do I have to prove? What are you gonna do — arrest me for nothing, like you did that professor?” A lot of people would’ve said that, and much worse.

As we know, Dylan took a different approach, one based on empathy for the cop’s situation. As a result, we didn’t even hear about the incident till Friday, August 14th — three weeks later. (I don’t know what in particular made it public at that time—of-course the police records are public information—but I suspect it may have come from Long Branch business administrator Howard Woolley, who was heavily quoted in the first story from the Associated Press.)

For the sake of it, and before leaving the topic behind, let’s throw into the mix Christopher Hitchens’ recent column inspired by the Gates’ affair, and his own story of taking a nighttime walk in a California suburb this summer:

Suddenly, a police cruiser was growling quietly next to me and shining a light. “What are you doing?” I don’t know quite what it was—I’d been bored and delayed that week at airport security—but I abruptly decided that I was in no mood, so I responded, “Who wants to know?” and continued walking. “Where do you live?” said the voice. “None of your business,” said I. “What’s under your jacket?” “What’s your probable cause for asking?” I was now almost intoxicated by my mere possession of constitutional rights. There was a pause, and then the cop asked almost pleadingly how he was to know if I was an intruder or burglar, or not. “You can’t know that,” I said. “It’s for me to know and for you to find out. I hope you can come up with probable cause.” The car gurgled alongside me for a bit and then pulled away. No doubt the driver then ran some sort of check, but he didn’t come back.

This is almost identical to Bob’s situation — even in the respect of Hitchens being an old white guy too — except that in this case we don’t know that any call had been made to the police. We can probably assume that there wasn’t—that the mere fact of someone moving about with their legs in some California suburbs is sufficient to arouse suspicion in a passing police officer. Hitchens chose to stubbornly (but apparently not obscenely) assert his rights. The police officer let it go on meeting that resistance, probably satisfied at that point anyway that this guy made an unlikely robber or burglar. Hitchens goes on to doubt that he could have gotten away with this, or that he would have tried it, had he been a black man.

On the other hand, if Hitchens had reacted by saying, “Don’t you know who I am?!” (and his mug is a little better known, from TV, than that of Professor Gates) and loudly accusing the cop of violating his rights, then things also might have ended rather more unpleasantly.

And if he had claimed to be Paul McCartney, out on tour, perhaps the police officer would have wanted to give him a ride back to his hotel…

Also see Ron Radosh’s blog on the subject of Dylan’s encounter with the police, in which he picks up on some of what’s been said hereabouts.

A Rush Judgment

U.S. radio talk-show host and living institution Rush Limbaugh mentioned the July 23rd Bob Dylan encounter with the Long Branch, NJ police department on his show today. He highlighted the difference between how Dylan responded to the cops versus how Professor Gates did (which I did in my own way here a couple of days ago).

Now, the situation was resolved uneventfully, the peace officers and Bob Dylan going their own way. There were no problems, not like Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant Crowley. You contrast that with what I call the Boston massacre, the insult that rocked the nation, the Professor Gates affair. The police didn’t recognize a professorial professor, and they reacted when yo mama got confrontational. They said, “Wait a minute, we’re going to arrest you, dude. You’re being contentious here with no reason.” Now, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Bob Dylan, the name, is a zillion times more known that Henry Louis Gates, and so is Dylan’s face, and so is his voice. Now, the learning experience here is that a rock composer and singer 40 years back can teach civil behavior better than a tenured college professor.

Nevertheless Rush made some factual errors in telling the story. That’s not surprising, since he seemed to be referencing (and indeed on his site he linked to) the original “drive-by-media” Associated Press article on it. In that article, it was said that neither of the police officers involved had ever even heard of Bob Dylan. Later reporting by Chris Francescani of ABC, including a direct interview with Officer Kristie Buble, asserted that this was not true. The officers knew in general terms who Bob Dylan was, but they did not, however, recognize the rain-soaked man who’d been picked up as being Bob Dylan.

Mr. Limbaugh also made some swipes at the “Woodstock generation,” particularly in the light of all the remembrances of the Woodstock concert which have been flooding the media lately, with the 40th anniversary of the event. I certainly don’t mind hearing knocks at all that stuff, but it’s not accurate to include Bob Dylan with the same broad brush strokes. I guess it proves there’s still work to do around here. Oddly, Rush noted that Bob Dylan wasn’t actually at the Woodstock gig, but added, “He couldn’t get there because his son was sick.” Where the heck did he get that story? Mr. Snerdly doing some too-fast fact-checking?

Rush also took a swipe at Bob’s singing ability, which is too bad, but there you go. I think there are few if any better (and funnier) commentators on and observers of the political scene in America than Rush Limbaugh — and if you don’t agree you probably haven’t listened to him for any length of time — but when it comes to his taste in music, well … let’s just say that when he invokes something I genuinely dig it’s generally just a coincidence.

It’s doubtless not relevant to why Rush doesn’t dig Dylan’s singing voice, but for those who don’t know, including overseas readers: radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh went completely deaf in 2001. He lost all hearing in both ears. While this loss of hearing was occurring, over a period of months, he continued doing his daily three-hour radio talk-show without informing his listeners that he was becoming and indeed had become deaf. I recall that I was listening to him a lot back then, and noticing some strange changes in his voice. Others noticed too, and sent him e-mails wondering what was wrong with the broadcast, or with the microphone, or with him. I remember him point-blank telling his listeners one day that there was nothing whatever wrong at his end, and that they should just adjust their own sets! Of-course he knew very well what was wrong, and thinking back about this later it struck me how that statement was as poignant as it was also typically humorous on his part. Being unable to hear his own voice anymore, he was losing the ability to control how it sounded. And this was for someone who was not merely a radio talker but also a pretty talented mimic when he felt like it (his imitation of Bill Clinton remains the most hilarious and spot-on I’ve ever heard). When he finally told his listeners that he was deaf, I was flabbergasted and not a little devastated also. People who don’t listen to him, or who hate his politics — or both — will sneer, but to me, it was equivalent in its cruel irony to Ludwig Van Beethoven losing his hearing. Limbaugh is a master of the medium of radio like no other. He was clearly born to do what he does, and makes just about every other talk radio host sound like an amateur, a bore, or a screeching maniac. Rush Limbaugh takes his conservative political views, his sense of humor, his timing and just his ability to articulate and day after day pumps out three golden hours of radio, while lesser mortals trying to the same thing just repeat themselves, harangue the air and use callers and interviewees as crutches. Naturally, some are better than others, but I’m sure all of them would acknowledge that there is only one Rush, and that no one else even comes near him.

Rush continued doing his show while totally deaf and even continued taking callers (having their words typed on a screen in real time so that he could have conversations with them). He pulled it off astoundingly well, in fact. I’m convinced that had he not been a conservative talk-radio host, his story — one of great personal courage and triumph over adversity — would have been celebrated with in-depth sympathetic stories on all the major TV networks. But he was a conservative talk-show host, so it didn’t really matter to anyone. Except, of-course, his twenty million or so listeners across the United States of America.

Ultimately he had a cochlear implant surgically placed into one of his ears, and he regained a form of hearing. He has said that it allows him to recognize and enjoy music that he knew previously to going deaf, but that he can’t really hear and enjoy new music with which his brain is unfamiliar.

As far as doing his radio show is concerned I believe that no one today, just turning it on, would think for a minute that he has any hearing problem whatsoever. And he almost never mentions it. But in reality he is still a deaf man doing a radio show — the biggest radio show in the country; I suppose the biggest radio show in history. He can control his voice again. He can do his mimicry. And he is a huge force to be reckoned with in U.S. politics.

Before the blogs, before Fox News, before the “new media,” there was Rush Limbaugh, saying what so many people thought but what was almost never heard in the mainstream media. Contrary to caricatures of him, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t radicalize or rile up anyone; rather, by articulating what so many ordinary Americans perceive anyway, Rush is more like a safety valve and a source of comfort and levity in the face of political conflict. The really bad thing is to feel isolated in one’s political outlook, and to see only decay and doom ahead. Rush Limbaugh daily lets his listeners know that they are not alone, that liberals are rightfully a source of hilarity, and that the liberal agenda, being ridiculous, can be defeated.

When it emerged a few years ago that he had an addiction to pain killers, many of those who hate him rejoiced and figured that a lot of his listeners would abandon him. Conservatives are so intolerant of weakness, right? Instead, his listeners rallied around him. Even President Bush, instead of trying to distance himself from someone who was at risk of being convicted of a crime, publicly expressed concern for Limbaugh and pronounced him “a great American.” There wasn’t any need for him to do that. Limbaugh hadn’t always agreed with Bush on particular policies then and certainly didn’t always agree with him afterward. But Dubya well understood the kind of contribution that Limbaugh had made to political discourse in America.

Rush Limbaugh gets paid very well for what he does. But it’s still worth remembering how rare a gift he possesses and how well he utilizes it.

His comments on Bob Dylan, off-key as they may have been in some respects, at least provided this opportunity to salute him.