Bob Dylan, the single most important artist in the history of popular music, will be 70 years old on Tuesday, May 24.
He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in the flinty, scruffy city of Duluth, Minnesota, which teeters on the hills that plummet down to the shores of Lake Superior — a lake so large it has tidal movement. But when he was 6 years old, his parents moved further north and west to the iron-ore town of Hibbing up on the Mesabi Range.
Iron ore built the town, and built the remarkably lavish Hibbing High School that Dylan attended: a school whose concert hall has a hand-plastered, hand-painted ceiling whose crystal chandeliers imported from eastern Europe are lowered three times a year for cleaning, and a stage large enough to accommodate the entire Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.
This is the hall in which the schoolboy Zimmerman first performed, on piano, with his rock’n’roll group The Golden Chords. He hammered out Little Richard numbers on a 1922 Steinway Grand. And when he was leaving school in 1959, he wrote in his high school yearbook under “Ambition”: “To join Little Richard.”
But by the time the young Dylan had spent a semester at the University of Minnesota, and then dropped out, Little Richard wasn’t really available to be joined, having renounced secular music for gospel.
Meanwhile, the rock’n’roll of that generation of artists — including Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis — was being pushed off America’s airwaves by nervous advertisers and replaced by a milksop kind of pop that held no interest for the young man from Hibbing. In any case, by this point he had encountered the prewar blues recordings of Leadbelly, the campaigning songs of Woody Guthrie, acoustic folk guitarists in Dinkytown, the bohemian enclave of Minneapolis-St.Paul, the writing of Jack Kerouac and more besides.
All this made sense to him as, with his usual impeccable timing, he arrived, calling himself “Bob Dylan,” in New York City’s Greenwich Village at the very beginning of 1961 — a 19-year-old already making up romantic stories about his past — just in time to take part in the most exciting period of the the folk music revival then in full flow. A fearless performer, a charming urchin and a pushy, slippery youth, he soon got attention; an attention he held with the striking, forceful songs he began writing so prolifically.
“How many years can a mountain exist / Before it’s washed to the sea? / Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free? / Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn’t see? / The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind . . .”
It’s hard to feel this now, but back in the early ’60s, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a wholly new, exciting song — and in a time of racial struggle and conflict across America, a time too of general repressive restraint, this “protest song” spoke out, articulating what so many young people were feeling.
When black gospel-turned-soul star Sam Cooke heard it, he was rocked back on his feet. “How come it took a little white boy to write this?” he asked — and in response he was moved to write his own great anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
It’s a long time ago. While we’re not looking, everyone in popular music moves from symbol of youth to senior citizen — unless they fulfil the callow wish The Who once hurled at us: “Hope I die before I get old.” Ask Pete Townshend or Roger Daltry how they feel about that now. For sure they’ll say, “Er, maybe old is better than dead after all.”
Dylan obviously thinks so. He’s seen innumerable contemporaries — musicians and colleagues and friends — fall by the wayside; but he’s a survivor. And not because he’s looked after himself. His attempts at doing so have been fitful at best, and somehow always incongruous, from giving up smoking to taking up fitness training, boxing, cycling to work . . . even playing golf, a most unDylanesque hobby introduced to him by country star Willie Nelson.
Nor has Dylan ever made much attempt to keep on looking youthful. He’s consented to one or two howlingly obvious airbrush jobs on album cover photos, but not many. Certainly not for him the eerie reconstituting of the visage like Cher or Michael Jackson.
Dylan usually looks his age (and the rest); he’s often appeared on stage stiffened by corsetry, not to pull in his stomach but to support his back; and it’s been 10 years now, since accepting an Oscar for the “Wonder Boys” film-soundtrack song “Things Have Changed,” he launched the innovation of a small pencil-moustache, the effect of which has been to make him look oddly like Vincent Price, and at least as sepulchral.
No, the secret of Dylan’s ability to keep on keeping on is nothing to do with any urgings to put on an ageless front. He grows old, he grows old, but he stays alive because he’s always been ready to die.
This is a philosophical position, a spiritual stance, and one acquired early. It didn’t emerge with the sometimes disconcerting 1980s and ’90s Dylan who licks his lips over an imminent apocalypse. Nor does it date only from his Born Again period of the late ’70s, when the Jewish-born Dylan converted to Christ and started evangelizing at us with alarming venom. “Are you ready are you ready? / Are you ready to meet Jesus?” he demanded to know back then (on the 1980 album, “Saved”) — clearly implying that we weren’t and he was.
If this alone were the quality and provenance of Dylan’s readiness to face death, it wouldn’t perhaps add up to much, or explain his continued unconquerable insistence on plowing his own furrow.
But look back, for a moment, to “Dont Look Back” (sic), the documentary film of his 1965 visit to Britain, when Dylan is young and beautiful. Here he is, just turning 24, with the world of celebrity and glamour kissing his feet and cooing in his ears. He is the most perfectly hip creature on earth. Imagine how you’d cope with that. Even 10 percent of it would turn your head. But Dylan does cope, telling the man from Time magazine:
“You’re going to die. You’re going to be dead. It could be 20 years, it could be tomorrow, anytime. So am I. I mean, we’re just going to be gone. The world’s going to go on without us. All right now. You do your job in the face of that, and how seriously you take yourself you decide for yourself.”
That is the Dylan stance. Forty-six years on, he’s still all alone in the end zone, determinedly unimpressed by the clamor he’s engendered and endured throughout.
After the babble of ’60s approbation, initially for the power, articulacy and originality of songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Masters of War,” Dylan felt trapped by his reputation as “protest singer, spokesman of a generation.”
In the mid-’60s he went electric, and after the folk fans’ booing stopped, he was lauded far more widely even than before — now for the brilliance of his fusion of poetry and electricity and a run of peerless albums, from “Bringing It All Back Home” through “Highway 61 Revisited” to “Blonde on Blonde.”
Here were records that broke down the walls of song — liberating all of us and making it possible for every other musician and singer to seize that creative freedom. They could be as unlike Dylan as they wished, but he made their liberation possible by his revolutionary insistence that popular song, rock music, could handle all subjects and the whole range of human emotion and the life of the mind — and by writing songs and making records that proved it.
But you weren’t supposed to be crass enough to ask him what his songs were about. When Playboy magazine did, in 1966, the answer was this: “Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about 11.”
But then, in the summer of that year, Dylan crashed his motorcycle. Rural seclusion and recovery followed, in the New York State countryside around Woodstock, and from all that emerged the ascetic challenge of his next album, “John Wesley Harding.” In its beautifully pared-down instrumentation, and thanks to the mystery and gravitas of its songs, this effectively rebuked all the excesses of the new rock-star world: a post-“Sergeant Pepper” world of self-indulgent, drug-induced guitar solos and hippy-dippy lyrics sprawled across lavishly packaged double-albums.
It’s impossible now to describe the thrill of being there then, hearing these seminal Dylan records when they were new and each so different from the last — and when his extraordinary voice, or rather, voices, offered such a subtly nuanced and direct a form of communication that he seemed to be expanding your mind when he opened his mouth.
After “John Wesley Harding” came the dramatic switch toward warm simplicity and a pretty voice on 1969’s “Nashville Skyline” — and then the falling off the pedestal that was “Self Portrait” at the start of the new decade. Not only was this a provokingly unhip album, but in the inevitable early ’70s backlash against the so-called Swinging Sixties, Dylan became perceived as a passe pariah, the very embodiment of the decade now being spurned.
In the mid ’70s, Dylan’s fortunes revived, thanks to a vast North American tour with The Band — 6 million people applied for 600,000 tickets — and then the more street-cred and intimate “Rolling Thunder Revue” tours of 1975/’76, on which a troupe of entertainers, fronted by Dylan, recaptured some of the spirit, the troubadour ethic, of their folkier youth.
More crucially, though, there came a huge renewal of admiration (and sales) following the release of the mature masterpiece that is 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks,” and its successor, “Desire.” Then came the giddy success of a “World Tour” of concerts in 1978, after a 12-year absence from Europe.
By this time it was the height of punk, and punks regarded Dylan as that loathsome thing, an Old Hippy — yet in London the police had to supervise nationwide, all-night queues for tickets for his concerts at cavernous Earl’s Court, which were followed by an extra performance 65 km away at rural Blackbushe Aerodrome in Hampshire, for which British Railways laid on special trains to handle a crowd of some 300,000. A live double album of this tour was recorded from concerts at the Budokan in Tokyo, where it started on Feb. 20, 1978.
That was, as it turned out, the last gasp of Dylan’s superstardom, which petered out little by little over the next 20 years. First, unhappy with his personal and artistic life, Dylan became a born-again Christian. Disconcertingly, the man who had warned us “Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters” was now admonishing us with, “There’s only one authority / That’s the authority on high.”
After a couple of albums in this vein, as he began to retreat from evangelizing and struggled to re-find his artistic feet. He stumbled through most of the 1980s, selling only modest numbers of records and performing for smaller audiences. His wretched, inebriated appearance at “Live Aid” in 1985, along with a series of poor albums — “Empire Burlesque,” “Knocked out Loaded” and “Down in the Groove” — was enough to get him roundly dismissed once again as a figure from the past: an aging star of no contemporary cultural significance.
This was the received wisdom for almost two decades. Dylan was regarded with a kind of automatic knowing contempt. He began the ongoing “Never-Ending Tour” in June 1988, but his record company didn’t bother to keep tabs on where he was, and the general public went back to thinking of him simply as the man who’d come up with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
That’s how it was — while in truth his more than 40 albums offer a 50-year exploration of, and make a large creative contribution to, every form of American popular music, while offering a range of literary explorations too. There’s his use of poetry from Blake and Browning to Eliot and the Beats. There’s his imaginative ear for the poetry of traditional folksong, its dark balladry and weird jump-cut narratives; and for the evocative word-power, too, of blues lyric poetry — especially that of the prewar blues, with which Dylan is uncannily au fait. Not least, and winding through all the rest, is his career-long intimacy with, and adept deployment of, the “King James Bible.”
On stage, he still lives in the moment, making his concerts events, not mere shows. The result is that he can surprise even those like me who’ve seem him dozens of times.
In 1989, I watched in delight as he ended a New York City concert by jumping from the stage into the audience and dodging out by a side staircase. Before that,at his two debut performances in Israel in 1987, years after he had retreated from born-again evangelizing on his albums, he chose to give both his Tel Aviv and Jerusalem audiences several Christian songs, though his repertoire was wholly different the one night from the other. Who else could, or would, do that?
More often the unpredictabilities are to do with his mercurial, fleeting moods and his daring to risk where they take him — sometimes in mid-concert, even in mid-song, and certainly from one night to the next. In 2000, I could scarcely believe that the man who performed so badly, so unwillingly, in the hell-hole of Sheffield Arena in northwest England could offer such transcendent greatness two days later in Portsmouth on the south coast.
When he’s on form, he’s still untouchable. There’s simply no doubt, as you stand there, that you’re in the presence of genius, however wayward it might be.
Yet despite all this, and despite his writing and recording of numinous songs in more recent decades (isn’t “Blind Willie McTell” the best song of the 1980s, by anyone?), in the general public’s perception he still remained a left-field figure, a charismatic maverick who operated on the sidelines of our culture. But times really do change.
For Dylan, change seemed to begin with a rush of warm reappraisal when, in 1996, he was taken ill with a heart disease. Even the people running the arts sections of the broadsheet newspapers suddenly imagined the prospect of his permanent absence — and were surprised to find themselves feeling some regret over this.
And then in 1997, with “Time out of Mind,” Dylan’s first collection of new songs in seven years, he succeeded in reminding people of how striking and unique the artist in him was and is and always will be.
He even picked up a set of Grammies and a Kennedy Center Award, presented to him by President Bill Clinton. But it took the New York Times best-sellerdom of Dylan’s carefully crafted memoir, “Chronicles Volume One,” in 2004, and then the 2005 Martin Scorcese film “No Direction Home,” before Dylan was rightly elevated to the rank of mainstream American icon, alongside Brando, Monroe and Presley. Or Whitman. It followed that in 2006, his new album, “Modern Times,” topped the U.S. charts: the first time he had done so in 30 years, and at the time the oldest living singer ever to reach that position.
The media blitz around his imminent 70th birthday confirms this sea change in the way he’s now perceived. He was always somehow minority-interest, even though he had revolutionized popular music. Today, he’s a grand old man of American letters — and at the same time far more commercially successful than ever before.
So there’s a snowstorm of Grammies and Oscars and lifetime achievement awards and, now every year, an argument about whether Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. He may turn up and accept these awards now, but he knows better than to be swayed by the excessive bestowing of honors.
He knows that such things generally come to artists, if they come at all, when they’re felt to be safe and over the hill. There’s nothing he can do about that. He keeps on going and he hasn’t finished yet.
At the center of all this renewed hubbub, Dylan remains a mystery. He is a mystery because what drives the man is the artist, and he is an exceptional artist: a true original of risk-taking range and bravery, who has never been satisfied with finding a popular niche and settling into it. The important thing about Dylan as we look back, prompted by the occasion of his turning 70, is what has always been important: his enormous and variegated body of work.
If you want to know who Bob Dylan is, why perfectly sane people continue to find him compelling, and why he keeps on drawing in intelligent young people in wave upon generational wave, it’s easy. Listen to his records.
© Michael Gray, 2011
Michael Gray is a critic, writer and broadcaster recognized as a world authority on the work of Bob Dylan. He is also an expert on rock’n’roll history and the blues, with a special interest in prewar blues. He grew up on Merseyside, England, and now lives in France. His website is www.michaelgray.net