Professor offers up his love for Dylan as law school fundraiser

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

He didn’t know it at the time, but Pat Bauer was Bobsessive in high school.

He wrote a paper for a sophomore English class about the lyrics of Bob Dylan, then in the midst of one of the most productive musical hot streaks in history, whose stories about regular people struggling against the world captivated Bauer. The fact they were both from Minnesota—Bauer from Plymouth, Dylan from Duluth and Hibbing—made him even more relevant.

Bauer still has the paper, tucked inside one of his many books about Dylan.

The Equal Justice Foundation auction is an annual fundraiser to support students who work during summer break in unpaid public interest law jobs for legal aid groups, public defenders offices, and government and nonprofit agencies.

“Look at that, I got an A,” says Bauer, now a UI law professor.

That was 1966, and Bauer has been Bobsessive—a term Dylan fans coined to describe themselves—ever since. Lately, he shares some of his affection for Dylan with a few law students every year by offering an evening of Dylan discussion as an item in the law school’s annual auction to benefit the Equal Justice Foundation (EJF). The auction is a fundraiser to support students who work during summer break in unpaid public interest law jobs for legal aid groups, public defenders offices, and government and nonprofit agencies. The auction will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, at the Coralville Marriott.

Donations come mostly from the law school alumni, students, and faculty, often with a whimsical bent: a murder mystery dinner with professor Emily Hughes; mini-golf with professor Tom Gallanis; lunch with Iowa Supreme Court Justice Thomas Waterman; a Cedar Rapids Roughriders game with hockey fan and professor Joe Yockey (“Hockey with Yockey”).

And, as he has for the past several years, Bauer will offer “Examining Canonical Dylan,” an afternoon of discussion about what makes Dylan one of the most profound lyricists and musicians in recent history. Bauer says he started putting up his Dylan discussion for auction seven or eight years ago because he wanted to help the EJF but didn’t have much to offer.

“It’s all I had,” he laughs. “Other faculty will make dinner or play golf or tennis, but my interests are such that this is the only thing I’ve got.”

In advance of the event, he provides the students loaner copies of Bob Dylan Live 1966 CDs and No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary that Bauer characterizes in the EJF Auction Catalog as reflections of a period (July 1965 to May 1966) that “many regard…as a musical annus mirabilis.”

The shelves in Bauer’s home are filled with every Dylan album ever recorded (he’s purchased every LP or CD on the day of its release since Blonde on Blonde in 1966), and hundreds of books about Dylan’s life, music, lyrics, and overall artistic and cultural influence. On the couch in his living room he has a knit cotton throw that copies the cover of the Self-Portrait album that Bauer bought from Dylan’s website a few years ago (Dylan is both a sharp critic and innovative practitioner of capitalism).

Bauer has stuck with Dylan through all his phases and identities, his breakneck style shifts—folk to rock to country to blues—and his struggles and controversies—the electric guitar at Newport, the motorcycle accident, the creative funk that left him bored and uninspired for the better part of the 1980s. Bauer even likes Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove, Dylan albums from 1986 and 1988 that many Bobsessives consider to be Dylan scraping bottom.

“I’d play them once or twice initially but didn’t go back to them,” Bauer says of Dylan’s fallow period. “Years later, however, I listened to them again and found redeeming qualities.”

What drew you to Dylan as a high school kid?

I really liked the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and I wanted to learn more about the guy who wrote those songs. And then he was from Minnesota, and I was from Minnesota, and that was a connection. But it was mostly about politics. I’ve always been interested in politics and public service, and John F. Kennedy was one of my heroes. Dylan’s music reflected my own political interests, he sang about civil rights, injustice, righting wrongs. He was a worker poet and a rebel. I liked his attitude.

One other thing about Dylan is that he inspires other creative people, artists, authors. I haven’t read a fraction of the books written about him, but when I retire I’m planning on catching up on them.

Does he factor into your teaching?

I sometimes will quote a line from one of his songs that comes to mind as I’m trying to reinforce a point in class, and on occasion that can lead to a moment of connection with a student. There’s a line from “Tangled Up In Blue” that I use in Debt Transactions to capture the furor in northwest Iowa in the early 1930s as Farm Holiday protesters stopped foreclosure sales and brought out the National Guard—"there was music in the cafes at night, there was revolution in the air."

A lot of people have a difficult time listening to Dylan because his voice is so……eccentric.

It’s not pretty, I’ll grant you that, but the combination of the lyrics and the music carries such emotional heft. The critic Greil Marcus wrote once that Dylan had the most expressive voice of any singer in the 20th century. His phrasing is so unique, and the way he fits the lyric into a phrase makes it even more powerful. A college dorm-mate had a copy of his “Royal Albert Hall” concert, and the part where it’s just him and his acoustic guitar, I thought and still think is some of the most beautiful music ever recorded.

Dylan’s music is the kind that whatever you put into it, you get it back—he doesn’t disappoint.

You’re known for traveling to see him perform. How many times have you seen him live?

Between 20 and 30. I didn’t see him in concert for the first time until 1986 because before that, I was a college student or in law school or starting my career. I saw him in 1994 with my older son at the Adler Theatre in Davenport and our tickets turned out to be temporary seats over the orchestra pit, right up next to the stage, and that was a “Bob moment” for me and to a lesser extent for my son. I’ve traveled throughout the Midwest to see him, and once went to California to see three shows on a tour he did with Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, staying with my law school roommate who’s now a federal district court judge out there.

What do you hope your students will come away with after spending an evening of discussing Dylan with you?

To see a person who has a passion for something, who’s just crazy about it, and to hear from them the sorts of things they find equally compelling. I try to do a little evangelization about Bob with them, but most of them are too busy with all their law school work to take on something completely new.