"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again."
-- Quote from "Field of Dreams" by Terence Mann (James Earl Jones)
When Sonic Rainbow music store owner Jude Carino heard Bob Dylan would be playing Mike Lansing Field in Casper, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. Or was it Iowa?
"He could spend all of his time performing in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York," Carino said. "Not minor league ballparks."
To be sure, the veteran singer-songwriter hasn't been relegated to the minors in the fifth decade of his hall-of-fame career. Dylan, who turns 70 in May, still hits home runs.
As with any artistic path Dylan chooses -- and there have been many -- there was a purpose to his scheduling stops at America's rural ballparks the past three summers.
Of course, the famously guarded Dylan wouldn't come out and explain exactly what that purpose was. Contrary to popular perception, Dylan has almost always been less about telling others what to think and more about suggesting what they might contemplate.
"Dylan himself never acknowledged his status as 'voice of the '60s' except drudgingly, as an element of his popularity then," said James Baird, who teaches a course on Dylan lyrics at the University of North Texas. "I think he couldn't think of himself as a voice because people had not actually thought through the implications of his viewpoint."
Dylan appears to be closer to the middle of the road than the radical leftist image projected on him by some fans, music critics, fellow musicians and even politicians. Through his artistry he has denounced the extreme left and extreme right factions.
"There is little difference in Dylan's moral viewpoint from the '60s songs, say, 'Tombstone Blues,' and today," Baird said. "Because of our own stupidity and corruption, the world is messed up beyond our ability to fix it … i.e., we need to be intelligent and honest, but are incapable of acting on these qualities."
In his intensely personal 2004 autobiography "Chronicles, Volume One," Dylan wrote angrily about the "demagogues," "moochers," "nomadic homeless" and "gargoyle-looking gals" who haunted the grounds of and sometimes broke into his Woodstock, N.Y., home in the late 1960s looking for the "Prince of Protest."
"I don't know what everybody else was fantasizing about but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard," Dylan wrote.
"I tell my students maturity is caring less and less about more and more," Baird said. "That sounds jaded or disaffected, but it doesn't mean that you quit caring; you get down to what really matters, like the feelings you have for your friends.
"… [Dylan] can see through the surface crap of modern society and describe and lament the real crap beneath."
'Running off a cliff'
Dylan still challenges listeners to ruminate on colorful metaphors relating to social injustice, greed, violence and crime, the chaos created by both total anarchy and totalitarianism, religion and spirituality, and the randomness and irrationality of love.
"It's like great art. You don't come away from it unmoved," said Casper musician and music teacher Kathryn Kirlin. "You might not come away from it with the artist's own intended meaning, but you develop your own interpretation."
These days, Dylan carries an added concern: the ever-increasing pace of a society still reeling from the effects of 9/11, war on two fronts, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, political partisanship and, now, the Gulf oil spill.
In a 2009 "Rolling Stone" interview, he railed against modern technology like cell phones, video games and iPods and what he perceived to be their adverse effect on our youth.
"It robs them of their self-identity," he said. "It's a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. Of course they are free to do that, as if that's got anything to do with freedom. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all those gadgets."
The irony in the title of his 2006 album, "Modern Times," was not lost on Dylan aficionados and scholars.
The opening track, "Thunder on the Mountain," featured ominous, end-of-days lyrics juxtaposed with a rockabilly beat reminiscent of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry during Dylan's formative years in 1950s Hibbing, Minn.
The solemn, eight-minute closing track, "Ain't Talkin'," featured the caretaker of a "mystic" garden (Gethsemane? Eden? Earth?) who struggled to maintain morality in a chaotic, amoral world. In the end, with the line "Ain't talkin', just walkin'," Dylan appeared to be saying, "I've run out of suggestions."
"He's telling us that we're running off a cliff," Baird said.
Interestingly, those who purchased the "Modern Times" CD on Dylan's website were treated to a bonus disc culled from the "Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour" on XM satellite radio. The theme of this show was baseball, and the disc included such folksy, baseball-as-art offerings as the Les Brown Orchestra's "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's reading of "Baseball Canto," a commentary on the game's role as America's true melting pot. Dylan delivered an a cappella version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Carino and Kirlin believe Dylan's ballpark shows are metaphors for timelessness, simplicity, community, friends and family (children 14 and under are admitted free when accompanied by paying adults).
And, of course, the ballparks themselves are monuments to the civil rights struggle. Where else in America can you consistently hear whites, blacks, Latinos, Hispanics and Asians cheer one another on?
"I don't think he's necessarily saying life was better in the 1950s. He's more intelligent than that," Carino said. "But I think he's saying there's a slower, more peaceful way to live."