The most influential and original musician of the 1960s generation remains a figure of protean creativity half a century on. The wealth of attention still devoted to Bob Dylan is testament to a career of astonishing range. It also reflects the complex legacy of a formative decade which Dylan’s songs and persona helped to define, says David Hayes.
(This article was first published on 24 May 2011)
A great artist’s landmark birthday tends to be a retrospect. Here too Bob Dylan, born on 24 May 1941, extends the pattern of a lifetime in subverting expectations. For the American singer and songwriter, whose pioneering work in the 1960s made him the most influential figure of popular music in that decade, became in his own 60s if anything even more famous than he had been in his meteoric 20s.
The media deluge that surrounds his 70th birthday - tributes, articles and profiles galore, new books and new editions of books, career reviews, and countless items in the “Dylan and me” sub-genre - is evidence of this rediscovery of a figure who (it is hard to recall now) was regarded during parts of the 1980s and 1990s as no longer of fresh interest artistically.
In great part the recognition is owed to Dylan’s immense and diverse creative efforts since the late 1990s. The turning-point may have been 1997, when the singer received emergency medical treatment for a serious heart infection. In the same year Dylan issued the first of what would become a series of three acclaimed albums of original songs (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Together Through Life).
These alone represent a musical renaissance in terms of the preceding decade. But there have in the post-1997 years also been well packaged compilations and “official” bootlegs of earlier material from his prolific oeuvre (including to date nine volumes of The Bootleg Series, with many live performances and out-takes), and covers (Christmas in the Heart); an astonishing autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, which seems both to absorb and extend the literary lineages it belongs to, much as his music does; hosting an exuberant weekly radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, where songs of many styles and periods loosely connected by subject are presented with an inimitable mix of affection, learning and bone-dry wit; having his drawings and paintings exhibited, and reproduced in book form (Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series); and not least a concert schedule often described as the “never-ending tour”, which has seen Dylan perform live around 100 times a year across two decades and forty countries.
Dylan’s appearance in a range of advertisements (for lingerie, cola and cars) has, meanwhile, extended his commercial profile in what would earlier in his career have been unthinkable ways. More beneficial to his artistic reputation has been the work of film directors who have explored his achievement and beguiling persona via documentary (Martin Scorsese’s superb No Direction Home ) and drama (Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There , where six actors portray Dylan at various stages of his life).
All this - and there is both more, and more to come - is enough to make Dylan’s “late period” (assuming he really is mortal) worthy of note as a further rich phase of an already epic journey. This “mature” work also casts a fresh light on his career as a whole, in that the 1960s era of cultural and psychological transformation which his music helped define can now more clearly be seen as but one (albeit the founding and decisive) period in an ongoing achievement of astounding range. The arc of decades now, for example, allows the potent aura of ageless wisdom conveyed by some of the most renowned songs of Dylan’s 20s (Man of Constant Sorrow, All Along the Watchtower) to be heard alongside moving reflections on age, change and mortality (Blind Willie McTell, Not Dark Yet) composed decades on.
Bob Dylan has now spent fifty years doing what any great artist does - elaborating and sharing a distinct vision, and seeking to remain true to what he once called “the inspiration behind the inspiration”. The core of this achievement - songs, writings and performances (and some of the best “Dylanologists”, Betsy Bowden, Paul Williams, Greil Marcus and Michael Gray among them, emphasise how important the latter are to any assessment of his musical genius) - is more than ever available to anyone who cares and can afford to explore them.
Two ways of seeing
The sheer fecundity of Dylan’s career since his inaugural explosive, catalysing burst of the 1960s makes it natural that the current celebrations are so varied. There is, after all, so much material to draw on, so many reference-points - not least for members of the generations he did so much to create, even taught how to live and feel, and who have repaid the debt by counting out our lives in Dylan albums.
The way Dylan’s music and persona entered the lives and influenced the self-understanding of the generations of the 1960s and after is thus the fuel for countless assessments. In addition to the familiar and satisfying litany of favourite songs, albums, and career moments, many of these strike one of two registers: identifying Dylan’s artistic “elusiveness” or capacity to “reinvent” himself as a key aspect of his enduring appeal, or using the evidence of his own songs and (especially) lyrics to pass judgment on his work.
There are critical as well as worshipful variants of each, exemplified in the scorn Dylan received from some journalists for allegedly allowing the set-list of his performances in China in May 2011 to be censored by the authorities (a charge the singer denies in a rare statement on his official website) and for making no reference to the plight of the detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Here, a notable feature of the condemnation of Dylan is that his status as an artist of “social protest” established in the early 1960s - one that from a very early stage Dylan was to question, even disavow - is itself the template against which his violation of a new orthodoxy is measured (in my view an orthodoxy that has less to do with human rights than with the instrumentalist “messaging” of art, including music).
These two prominent “ways of seeing” Dylan - elusive or captured, the restless quicksilver troubadour of modern times or the defined-for-all-time quasi-political wordsmith of his youth - are testament to his unmatched ability to enter both the lives of his listeners and the wider public culture. (A small index of the latter is the survey by a Tennessee law professor, Alex Long, who charts the wealth of citations from Dylan's lyrics in legal opinions and briefs in the United States, including by supreme-court judges). The reach goes so far inside that it shapes even the terms on which the work is experienced.
The idea of Dylan as perennially “elusive”, for example, also draws on a classic theme of his own oeuvre (from Wanted Man to I’m Not There). It might be thought that Dylan has done enough in the aforementioned “late period” to dispel it: how many artists, after all, are so available in so many ways to their audiences and fans as Bob Dylan has been in the last two decades? Similarly, the imaginative confinement of Dylan as the eternal rogue escapee from an always-ascribed political commitment - which was exhausted by 1965, never mind 2005 - can be sustained only by a reductive reading of a portion of his early lyrics and associations.
The world Dylan made
The fact that Dylan’s pervasive presence in the musical and popular culture of the western world since the 1960s shapes routine perceptions of his own work is also testament to the depth of the dynamic released in the era. The profound transformations of that decade - which took a generation to work themselves out - were perhaps above all ones of thinking and feeling: a “revolution in the head”, in the words of Ian MacDonald’s pathbreaking book.
MacDonald’s argument (elaborated in a brilliant song-by-song musicological analysis of The Beatles’s work, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties) that changes of sensibility were central to the experience of the 1960s and the world they made is at once joyous and melancholy: it both maps the liberation in Lennon & McCartney’s sounds and notation and prescribes the impossibility of its promise any longer being realised. Yet the promise is inexhaustible, illimitable, infinitely precious, constitutive of the very meaning of our lives. It demands fulfilment. The evidence of what has come to fill the ensuing gulf is everywhere around.
The world Bob Dylan and The Beatles made remains in its moment of creation all the more compelling to those who lived through it (and to many of subsequent generations) for its tantalising glimpse of a different self and an authentic life. When Dylan is lauded for his shapeshifting or criticised for his desertions (which amount to the same thing), part of what is going on is an effort to recuperate imaginatively this forever lost world of psychic possibility.
Some of the most powerful forces in present-day cultural-commercial life are symptoms of an enduring generational attachment to this world. They include a drenching and consoling nostalgia (including leftist nostalgia), a voracious desire to identify signs or figures which can be portrayed and sold as authentic or as embodying the romantic outsider, and an assimilative alchemy that works by turning “counterculture” (or “alternative”) to “mainstream” and thus makes the categories explanatorily useless.
These forces in one way or another also help to sustain Dylan’s enduring place in the cultural landscape, a place secured by a matchless brand and its multiple “real presences” as well as by the successful mini-industry that his outputs represent. The distance from the promise of the 1960s that he embodied may seem great, yet not so far as to persuade those formed by that decade to “surrender the ideals that it seemed to distil. They continue to invest its agents with the longings of a time when it became possible suddenly to feel freer, clearer and more hopeful. Dylan's continuing creative presence offers both validation and insurance against profound fidelity to that past curdling into mere nostalgia” (see “Bob Dylan’s revolution in the head”, 24 May 2006).
The worlds that made Dylan
"Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them" - Bob Dylan, “To my fans and followers”, 13 May 2011
The intensity of current media interest in Dylan may wane after his birthday, but an extraordinary touring schedule, further back-catalogue releases, a sequel to Chronicles and future recordings will more than keep the show on the road. For dedicated followers, there are also a mountain of books, valuable magazines (such as The Bridge), many websites (including Dylan’s impressive official one, and the compendious Expecting Rain), and dozens of articles worth seeking out on every aspect of his work.
The fact that, as I wrote in 2006, “anyone who wants to can find out more information on Bob Dylan than they can ever use” is a situation that changes (in ways yet to be fully explored) the parameters of the relationship between the star, the music, the fan and the wider culture. It also creates new terms (and banishes forever the pre-existing ones) for any fresh journey to and through his music.
In this respect some of the most interesting among the voluminous studies of Dylan are those which attempt to retrace his own journey by examining the musical and social worlds that made him, and in which he in turn mined and turned into gold. A fine (and somewhat neglected) study in this respect is the musicologist Wilfred Mellers’s A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan (1974), an innovative effort to identify the source of Dylan’s genius in his ability to assimilate, fuse and make his own the many variegated elements of American musical traditions - from native American chants to Appalachian versions of Scots-Irish ballads, from the Scandinavian cadences and polka-tunes of his home region to the folk-country and blues the young boy from Hibbing, Minnesota would listen to on distant radio-stations through the 1950s.
Mellers (a pioneering scholar who braved critical disdain in the 1960s by taking The Beatles’s work as seriously as classical music) pursues the theme (suggested by the work’s conclusion, Dylan as Jewish Amerindian and White Negro) with subtle analyses of individual songs and portraits of the social canvas of the musics that Dylan absorbed and carried on the way to Minneapolis, New York, and beyond.
Mellers’s mix of musical and social history, not least in relation to Dylan’s northern Minnesota background, allows him to make a persuasive case for Planet Waves (1974) as the unacknowledged masterpiece of his oeuvre and Never Say Goodbye as his greatest song. This regional focus in turn recalls the vivid immersion of the young writer Toby Thompson in the life-world of the singer’s hometown in his Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox First View of Bob Dylan (1969), reprinted as Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota (2008).
The relationship between Dylan and Hibbing has been touched by the same sensitivities as affect any renowned artist who comes from a definite place beyond the metropolis, making this resilient city’s embrace of its native son (such as the local library’s impressive resources) all the more notable.
(My favourite Bob Dylan story connects him with another of his hometown’s famous sons: Kevin McHale, a star basketball player with the Boston Celtics, sixteen years Dylan’s junior. At the end of a match McHale walks towards the players’ exit and notices Dylan in the crowd. He smiles and exclaims: “Dylan!” Dylan smiles back and says: “Hibbing!”).
David Pichaske’s evocative Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan (2010) extends this theme in a detailed study of the regional context of Dylan’s work and how it is inflected by the particular inheritances of the United States midwest.
Sean Wilentz’s Dylan and America (2011) brings new textures and warm insights to the study of Dylan’s roots in a rich examination of American sociological and musical influences on his work, from Aaron Copland to the bohemian-political world of New York where much of the “folk revival” was incubated. Michael Gray too, one of the finest educators on Dylan’s work in his Song and Dance Man trilogy, has broadened the study of “planet Dylan” in recent works such as The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and a moving search for the subject of one his most haunting songs, Blind Willie McTell.
These studies - a small selection of the worthiest products of “Dylanology” - indicate one life-affirming direction in which study of this protean artist may be going: towards the rediscovery and exploration of the rich histories, cultures and peoples - local, regional, national and in several dimensions Atlantic - that have fed into Dylan's work.
Dylan himself, in a century of Theme Time Radio Hour programmes, has done much to revive awareness of some of these. The Smithsonian Folkways project and many other initiatives too are restoring interest in (and original materials of) the worlds that made Dylan. Perhaps this current - there are many others - will help restore connections that have elsewhere been sundered, and find new routes between multiple musical pasts and possible futures.
Meanwhile, Bob Dylan at 70 keeps pressing on. It may be many years yet, an awesome thought, before his achievement even begins to be seen in its true scale.
This article is dedicated to Bechir Bouaicha