There have been, and will be, so many tributes to Bob Dylan on the occasion of his 80th birthday this coming Monday that the simple act of trying to write something here will hardly be an exclusive one. One can only hope that we offer something in the way of an original theory on the work of probably the most famous singer-songwriter since the Second World War, but that requires us to be candid about our aims from the start.
As such, we come here neither to completely deify His Bobness nor bury him – perhaps the correct term is ‘three-quarters deify him’. This at least allows for the fact that we are not talking about an unimpeachable God but about someone who is, ultimately, just a human being like you or I. The second side of Shot Of Love, where, with the exception of the beautiful Every Grain of Sand, Dylan basically seems to be repeating all the ideas he had on Side One, is not a million miles away from 21st century employee Powerpoint presentations where we, the employee, are coming up with every piece of extemporizing, repetition, obfuscation and bullshit bingo going in order to keep the placid glassy-eyed Suits Watching Our Presentation happy.
For all that, Bob Dylan has produced more than 500 songs and more than 30 studio albums, most of which avoid the Shot Of Love Side Two trap, and he has achieved more in the oeuvres of singing and songwriting and lyricism and art than the vast majority of us will ever manage, so this article is, in a sense, a treatise on how much human beings are capable of when they put their minds to it. It does involve a personal slant and that is the point at which we start: as in, where did we first encounter Bob Dylan?
The answer in our case is at Exeter University in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, when a fellow student put on a quick blast of the 1967 Greatest Hits compilation, a potted overview of the key highlights of the breathless first six or seven years of Dylan’s career. Given that we very quickly bought that compilation ourselves, alongside the blissful but somewhat less edgy foray into country from 1969, Nashville Skyline, he clearly did make a mark on us at the time, but some traits familiar to both critical fans and outright unimpressed critics exhibited themselves early on. We thought his version of Blowin’ In The Wind, the Very Original One From The Wind-Blowing Horse’s Mouth Itself – was great, terse and restrained in its ruminations on war and mortality and as such much, much better than the syrupy, precious renditions that had left us lachrymose and waiting for the interval at the school concerts we were taking part in ourselves and at which the song was being performed some years earlier.
Until that point, we’d easily thought of him as Someone Covered By Other People, in particular Peter, Paul and Mary, rather than a sentient human being playing his own stuff. Admittedly this was when Peter, Paul and Mary were a not infrequent act featured on historical footage within the 1980s BBC series The Rock and Roll Years, and when Dylan’s career had been something of a low ebb during the 1980s itself. This jolting surprise upon first listening properly to Dylan – in the particular case of Blowin’ In The Wind, the surprise that someone could sound so full of bitter and knowing wisdom and possess such crafted beauty as a musician and wordsmith at so young an age – had its flipside as well as far as other songs were concerned though. As a kid, especially before doing weekend and holiday jobs, you don’t always have a huge amount of money to buy albums, and therefore we were often reliant on reading The Guinness Book Of Hit Singles to get an overview of Bob Dylan’s career. In lieu of actually having the albums or songs, we came up with our own idea of what Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 & 35 would sound like (meditative, sombre pining, rainswept). Having heard it for the first time properly on that occasion in 1992, we thought to ourselves in a completely flummoxed way: ‘What the fuck is that?!?!!?!’
Of course, as any real Dylan fan would tell you, there have been plenty of meditative and sombre and pining and rainswept musical moments in the time since then, but this jolting reality that Dylan could be something very different from what we wanted or expected has probably crossed most people who have thought the world of him and then found that he wasn’t what they wanted of their world. (‘It ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for’ is the most succinct disavowal Dylan himself made in a song where Somebody Is Expecting Him To Be Something, and he was 22 then, so maybe he’s spent much of the 58 years since then disappointing people who didn’t really see the writing on the wall in the
One wonders how proscriptive one must be to suggest that Dylan has either covered too many bases in his music (the move to electric instruments in 1965, the move to country and easy listening in 1969/70 and the move to Christian gospel and rock at the end of the 1970s being the most notorious), or to suggest that he has covered too few. Whilst Johann Sebastian Bach has a good claim to be the musician and composer who understood music better than anyone else and reflected that more comprehensively and rewardingly than anyone else in his output, it is surely only fair to point out that no post-war popular musician has managed to cover all going bases comprehensively.
Those people constantly carping at Dylan and expecting more of him are asking a lot of just one human being. His music does not have the swelling, libidinous, outrageous yet revolutionary and danceable inflections of Prince. It does not contain the revolutionary sonic realisations of Kraftwerk and their Krautrock peers, taking us into a new electronic era and refashioning the ideas of minimalism and modernism (and again, via the acts they inspired, danceability). It does not have the sheer frightening and locomotive, yet utterly palpable and valid, discordance and dissonance of Captain Beefheart at his prime (at a time when, as we have seen, Dylan was retreating into the far more tonal and relatively straightforward sounds of Nashville Skyline).
Yet that list of postwar popular music figures who have clearly completely altered the way in which we think about the art of music and song itself is incomplete without Bob Dylan himself. As a man more steeped in folk idiom, and in particular American folk idiom, than perhaps anyone else alive, his has been the music of people and of humanity, and therefore an earthy authenticity and compassion. For someone who has continually been portrayed as hard to comprehend or emotionally evasive, it is actually difficult to think of him as anything other than someone singing ‘for the love of Man and in praise of God’, as Dylan Thomas, who may or may not have caused the young Robert Allen Zimmerman to change his name in tribute, once put it. Dylan is a man who has seen and done it all and yet this has made him more receptive to the humanity around him, not less, as articulated in one of his two or three best songs, Mississippi, from 2001, when he was turning sixty: “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free/I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed
This part of our article is where we simply try and succinctly encapsulate for the layperson or the person less familiar with Bob Dylan’s output everything that the man has tried offer in the way of human music (or folk music, what you will) in the last sixty years. In the man’s own words from Martin Scorsese’s 2005 biographical documentary, Dylan has always sought to be a ‘musical expeditionary’. The following words are those we wrote in an email to a colleague at least trying to explain for us the appeal of Dylan. We can only hope they serve the roving expeditionary himself justice:
“Early 1960s: immersed himself in the American folk canon so he ended up like a walking encylopaedia of the stuff. Could have quite easily been an authoritative professional folk historian in his own right but started writing his own songs off the back of these traditional songs and doing something completely new. The debut album, though mostly comprised of traditional songs, is Nirvana before Nirvana. Thin spiky unmercifully shimmering acoustic guitar notes and a voice that would strip paint off walls in a positive sense and an aural earthquake in the staid America only just coming out of the Eisenhower years. The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changing’, Another Side Of Bob Dylan are juggernauts unmercifully exposing the injustices of the world and holding a mirror up to the cruel racist and warmongering injustices of America at the time (Oxford Town and the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol and Masters of War in particular). The sound of his guitar is like a relentless tattoo and melodic at the same time and that frightening juxtaposition works in the context of the song subject.
Mid 1960s: Bringing the eruptive clarion call foghorn of electric music into his canon. These aren’t anthems of hope like some of the previous ones like Chimes Of Freedom though. Desolation Row and Tombstone Blues are both enervating and apocalyptic at the same time. The sound of the beat generation striving to find truth but getting wilder and more off their tits and conscious of their own mortality at a tender age. The albums that define the sound of a generation that has found freedom but wonders if its world is falling apart at the same time.
Mid-late to late 1960s and early 1970s: The sudden startling dive into Americana after the motorcycle accident. The extraordinary tone of the Basement Tapes is that of a man who is effectively writing traditional songs – or authentic traditional songs that just happen to be by someone called Bob Dylan. And yet there are four kinds of Americana in quick succession – the wildness of the Basement Tapes, the quiet terse ascetic sound of John Wesley Harding (which sounds like music that 18th-century pilgrims might have written had they had access to the instruments at the time), the mellifluous tones of Nashville Skyline (including his startling new voice where he becomes a crooner, not a wailer) and the divisive but still valid Self-Portrait as an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink effort incorporating easy listening, folk, covers and new ‘uns. These are songs that evoke for me images like sitting round a campfire in Maine, walking through the Appalachians, hunching in the Wild West whilst a 19th-century gold run goes to pot, or tentatively courting the girl next door on the porch of a classic wooden Deep South house like Tom Sawyer courting Becky.
Mid-to-mid-late 1970s: The return to the zeitgeist. The sound of profound trauma and pain of a break-up (Blood On The Tracks), the sudden explosion of scintillating rawness combining Americana, ancient European folk song-style lament and protest song alike (Desire), the full-on-band giving it some welly there and then in the studio with underrated songs of love, apocalypse and faith (Street Legal), and then BD somehow rolling up in this country, as Jerry Lee did in the past and Springsteen and Prince would in the future, and being the flavour of the month, this time at the age of 37 (his gigs at Earl’s Court and the Blackbushe Aerodrome picnic concert in the summer of 1978). As such him having two or three shots at being state-of-the-art cool in this country (following the early 1960s and then the mid 1960s).
Late 1970s and early 1980s: the born-again years. Not brilliant, not awful, but lending themselves to so much valid analysis of the content immediately before you which, by contrast, you aren’t going to get out of reading today’s Daily Mail. Slow Train Coming is a dreadful album, not because it’s born-again Christian music, but because it’s so dull. Saved is much more raucous and blistering and valid. This is symptomatic of the inconsistency that follows, though.
The inconsistent 1980s and early 1990s: frustrating because he is quite clearly mired in alcoholism and gigging and therefore not writing or thinking or producing to the best of his abilities. But the gems still shine through and I think that is fascinating in hindsight that the brain is still functioning when he wants it to (Every Grain Of Sand off Shot Of Love, Jokerman off Infidels, Tight Connection To Your Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love) off Empire Burlesque, Brownsville Girl off Knocked Out Loaded etc). And the complete madness that perhaps his best song ever (Blind Willie McTell from 1983) is not on any studio album. (The frustrating nature of Bob Dylan is interesting in its own right though.) Again he manages to cast us into America’s past just before The Second Great Comeback – World Gone Wrong from 1993 is folk covers only, but this is the point where he sounds like the minstrel rolling from town to town in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas and learning songs en route and playing them whenever he happens to land up next. Bob Dylan living as a historical figure in the present or vice versa so to speak.
The Second Great Comeback from 1997 to the present. Writing beautifully about age and mortality and desolation (especially Lovesick Blues from Time Out Of Mind) for someone who is supposedly renowned for keeping his cards close to his chest. This is where modern Americana is steeped along with all the other cracking acts like the Jayhawks and Wilco. Mississippi (the song) from Love and Theft runs Blind Willie McTell close as his best song. A man ready for penitence (‘I know you’re sorry babe, I’m sorry too.’). As of 2021, he seems like Mark Twain or Bill Murray – a myth or a piece of American folklore within his own lifetime as well as being a real flesh-and-blood person.”
This takes us through to 2021 where the musical expeditionary remains both palpably enigmatic and one of us, sounding, as he has so often in recent years, weary and mortal (‘Mother of Muses, wherever you are/I’ve outlived my life by far.’) Yet the spirit of generosity is never far away. Perhaps the best way of understanding Bob Dylan and again countering the charge of him giving so little away, and not revealing Who The Real Bob Dylan Is, is that he is by nature interested in the world around him and seeking to articulate this tactile and engaged vision of the world through his music rather than bare his soul in must-tell TV ratings-tastic confessionals in the modern style of Big Brother: in the same song just mentioned, Mother of Muses, he is ready to name-check the famous war generals Sherman, Zhukov and Patten alongside perhaps the most idealistic humanitarian of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, whilst effectively admitting he is ready to be interminably open about these figures as opposed to gratingly self-regarding and navel-gazing: “Man, I could tell their stories all day.”
(Or perhaps we give Dylan too little credence for being ready to be generous in public, not just in the frame of his songs. This is the man whom, as legend recalls, stopped Barry Manilow at a party in 1988, embraced him, and said: “Don’t stop what you’re doing, man. We’re all inspired by you.” The case could be made for Dylan not merely being authentic but inexterminable in his authenticity in some respects – those who thought Dylan might have been jibing would have surely had cause to think again when his album trilogy of modern American song standards more than twenty years later seemed redolent not just of Frank Sinatra, but also, funnily enough, of the man who had done more than anyone in the 1970s to incorporate the sound of those profound, smoky, jazzy, contemplative classics within a more swaggering, showtime style of composition and performance suited to the decade, Manilow himself.)
Many musical artists are guaranteed one short period where they are the cultural zeitgeist and appear to be on top of the cultural world which they inhabit (it could be argued that this applies to the Beatles, Bros, the Bay City Rollers and T-Rex alike, albeit all of these acts coming from very different places in terms of musical acclaim). Some popular artists manage two very separate and successful periods – the obvious example of the 20th century prior to Dylan being Frank Sinatra’s career as first a teenybopper sensation and then as a completely different, more adult, artist in his Capitol years from the mid-1950s onwards.
To actually manage three stages of valid zeitgeist-ness seems to be a nose-bleedingly tall order, and yet there must be a case that Dylan – courtesy of the febrile, sensational early years of his career from 1962 through to his motorcycle accident in 1966, then as the spirit of the 1960s reborn from 1974 through to 1978, then from his much-vaunted illness from histoplasmosis and his remarkable comeback with Time Out Of Mind, both within 1997, through to the present day – has done exactly this. The critical acclaim (deservedly) afforded to him following last year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the man’s palpable anger at the killing of George Floyd, also voiced in an interview last year, nonetheless begs a not entirely facetious question on which to end this post: given that Dylan still has something potent to say in an era where opinions have become a money-spinning industry in their own right, and given that what he has to say is hardly devalued compared to more distinctly poundshop opinion merchants, maybe he has not yet peaked as an artist? To quote perhaps the most celebrated song from Rough and Rowdy Ways, I’ve Made My Mind Up To Give Myself To You, which seems to evoke the spirit of Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour in the process:
I’m giving myself to you, I am
From Salt Lake City to Birmingham
From East L.A. to San Antone
I don’t think I can bear to live my life alone.
Happy 80th to the interminable expeditionary even in lockdown it would seem.