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Killin’ Dylan: The Fascinating Horrors Of Jim Irsay’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”

Jim Irsay was asked early into Monday night’s press conference, announcing Jeff Saturday as the new head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, why the hell he hired a guy with no coaching experience. He had no sensible response. “It’s an intuitive decision,” Irsay said early on in his rambling retort. “I don’t know how to make sausage,” he said later. 

He should have simply warbled—"the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind"—which is something, I’ve somehow just learned, that he’s warbled before. Check him out.

“Blowin’ in the Wind”? In the shadow of the Washington Monument? The same grounds where Peter, Paul and Mary sang it in August of 1963 as the opening act for Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech? Sadly: yes, yes, and yes.

Peter, Paul and Mary had a Top 10 hit that summer with the Bob Dylan tune. “A sailor’s lament with lyrics of social significance” is how Cash Box magazine described the song, while asserting the single was a smash “because [of] its anti-war message for today's cold-war world.” (Dylan had released a single of his own version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” just two weeks before the March on Washington, and also performed there on the same day.) Yet here we are! In the video, Irsay dons a black suit, a black cowboy hat, and sunglasses while clinging to a tree throughout the whole tune. Could it be to keep from falling? At the very least, Dylan fans might need something just as sturdy for support while listening.

Turns out there’s a lot of footage of Irsay crooning rock tunes out there. His renderings of “The Weight,” “Turn the Page,” and “Hurt"—all in the key of off and executed without any obvious irony—reminded me of the music of the “outsider art” era of the late 20th century. That’s when songwriters like Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston had critics arguing that performances can be so far from good that they’re great. A billionaire football heir, however, doesn’t qualify as an outsider artist or get the goodwill granted to Willis and Johnston. Sometimes bad is just bad.

Buffoonery is in Irsay’s genes. I remember his father, Bob Irsay, insisting through interviews that he would not move the Baltimore Colts out of town—right before he went ahead and did it. The older Irsay was known for incredible coaching shenanigans, too. He was a Chicago-based HVAC oligarch who acquired the Colts through a bizarre trade of franchises: Irsay bought the Los Angeles Rams in 1972, then quickly exchanged that team for Carroll Rosenbloom’s Colts. He had five head coaches in his first four seasons as owner. Three games into the 1974 season, he fired head coach Howard Schnellenberger and replaced him with general manager Joe Thomas, a guy with zero coaching experience to that point. 

Like son, like father. 

Head coaches weren’t the only unqualified hires in the Colts’ woeful Irsay Sr. era. Jim Irsay rose up the Colts’ organizational chart despite having no experience working for anybody but his dad. On Feb. 8, 1984, with the whole organization in a shambles after the firing of general manager Ernie Accorsi, a respected and well-liked veteran of the Colts front office, Jim Irsay told the Baltimore Evening Sun, “I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll step in as GM." The next month, the team packed up and left for Indianapolis in the middle of a snowy night, with Jim Irsay as GM. He was 24 years old.

All those years ago, even with the incredible job handed down to him, there were signs Jim Irsay would rather be rocking. A sportswriter I know with strong rock leanings told me Irsay hid his musical dreams in Baltimore. But The Indianapolis Star occasionally runs a photo taken of him in early June 1984, mere months after the team arrived in its new Midwest home, showing Irsay onstage in an Indy bar playing a Gibson Les Paul backed by a band made up of Colts employees. 

His bent for bands got wider attention in late 1990, when he was credited as the writer of a song called “Colors." He’d written the tune as a tribute to Ryan White, the Indiana teenager whose life with and death from AIDS brought a lot of mainstream media attention to the brutal epidemic. Irsay brought together a semi-supergroup made up of members of R.E.M. and John Cougar Mellencamp’s band to record the tune. (A song put together for such a noble cause should be completely criticism-proof, but … hell if the title doesn’t sound too much to me like Cyndi Lauper’s peerless 1986 queer anthem, “True Colors,” and I dare anybody to tell me the damn opening of “Colors” isn’t full-on thieved from Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”!) His passion for Dylan has also gotten some ink. In 2002, The Star described him as "a jock-beatnik hybrid who can talk football one minute and quote Bob Dylan the next." The paper said Irsay "fell in love" with Dylan songs "one day in the 1970s, listening to an album with Colts tight end Raymond Chester."

Irsay has since spent millions of the dollars he’s gotten from the team that he inherited buying rock 'n' roll memorabilia. In 2013, for example, Irsay bought the Fender Stratocaster that Bob Dylan played when he first went electric at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Irsay paid $965,000, reportedly the most ever spent to that point on a guitar. He’s broken that record many times since: He spent nearly $4 million in 2019 for another Strat, this one owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

I understand Irsay’s urges and even share his fetishes, if not his finances. I also hoard guitars, though Irsay buys museum pieces to add to his collection while I’m more of a guitar rescuer. (My record expenditure is $1,600 for a 1964 Gretsch Country Gentleman with some binding rot.) I, too, am better at acquiring guitars than playing them. But for a couple of decades, my musically inept ass and some multi-talentless-but-otherwise-wondrous buddies have had a band. We’ve even desecrated Dylan—Irsay's video made me flash back to our own cataclysmic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” marathons from long ago. Yet I can't regret a single bad note. Life can only be so fun and, sorry as we know we are, heck if we don't hit the glass ceiling every time we plug in. So, I'm not the right guy to question Irsay’s impulses.

But why inflict his dreck on so many others? Who told Irsay he should do “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the Mall for public consumption? Or was that, well, intuitive? 

Good God, is that video horrendous. I’m gonna go watch it again.

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