Bob Dylan's revolution in the head

David Hayes
24 May 2010

The greater and more influential an artist, the harder she or he can be to see. Can this be true of Bob Dylan, who turns 65 today? It is difficult to imagine the history of the last four and a half decades in popular music without him, so pervasive has his impact been – and not just in the west (dozens of countries around the world, from Russia to Japan and Chile to [South] Vietnam, had "their" Bob Dylan in the 1960s).

In the last three years, the sense of his prolific omnipresence in the culture has if anything increased, as technology, marketing, film (especially Martin Scorsese's superb documentary No Direction Home), books (including Dylan's astounding first volume of autobiography, Chronicles) and the artist's own relentless touring schedule make his work freshly available to old fans and new generations alike.

Indeed, the burgeoning interest in Dylan's life, concerts, back catalogue, current and future projects (which range from lingerie advertisements and DJ slots to endorsed biopics) in the 2000s arguably makes him as unavoidable, more "visible" today than at any time since that transforming 1960s breakthrough moment. The opportunity to encounter Dylan – from attending his shows to hearing his recordings and reading his lyrics online on his impressive official website – has never been greater. What is hard to see here?

There are two ways to answer this question. Each can be accompanied by a recycling of one of the many tropes beloved of Dylan aficionados. The first is to focus on his characteristic elusive, mercurial, chameleon-like artistic identity. Dylan is always moving on, quicksilver, a shapeshifting troubadour. He is hard to see because he contains plenitudes. Let Dylan be Dylan, is the cry.

The merest engagement with Dylan's prolific, multifarious work across the decades is enough to confirm that there is so much truth in this. On its own it suggests a valuable way to make sense of a career and an oeuvre that defies simple classification. It can also be unsatisfying, and for a reason that becomes more compelling as Dylan's place close to the centre (even the "mainstream") of popular music and culture seems more and more secure. If Dylan is both diverse and uncategorisable, ever the wanted man and ever uncaptured, he can be viewed as embodying – rather than challenging – the conformist neophilia of a media-drenched order that totemises the creative figure as differentially marketable "brand".

When the elusive is accommodated as part of a new and commercially powerful orthodoxy – promising endless tantalisation and sales as the brand finds new vehicles of distribution – the excitement of discovery can be accompanied by a more melancholy sense: that of a loss of edge, of sharpness, of the subversive definition that originally made Dylan's work an active presence in the lives of millions. This can lead to the second answer to the question of why he is hard to see: that there is a real or true Dylan accessible to the privileged (and usually hardcore) follower, which has either been forgotten by the artist himself or is routinely overlain by a cultural system that creates efflorescence without depth. Dylan is not yours (or even his) but ours, is the cry.

The promise of a return – to form, to greatness, even to politics – is part of the impulse that keeps commitment alive. Many who experienced directly the unique cultural moment of the 1960s which Dylan dynamised and rode – what Ian McDonald calls in his brilliant book of that title the "revolution in the head" – cannot allow themselves 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.

Also on Bob Dylan in openDemocracy:

Todd Gitlin, "Rock of Sages"
(19 December 2001)

Rob Cawston, "How it feels: Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan"
(30 September 2005)

Both those who are content to celebrate Dylan and those who seek to contain him have many ways to try to bring him into focus. A growing number of books cater to the effort, whether meaningful or obsessive, to get "behind the shades". It seems a long time since a few shrivelled minds in Britain sought to establish and police acceptable cultural boundaries by embracing John Keats and excluding Dylan. Their efforts were demolished by Christopher Ricks, and by Michael Gray in the third, magnificent edition of his Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan.

Before and since, the exploration of the work of this great artist has been conducted by fine writers as different as Wilfrid Mellers (A darker shade of pale: a backdrop to Bob Dylan), Betsy Bowden (Performed Literature), Greil Marcus (Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads), and Christopher Ricks (Dylan's Visions of Sin) and Michael Gray themselves (the latter's forthcoming The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia will keep home fires burning for another decade). The range of websites devoted to his work is extraordinary, with Expecting Rain one of the pioneers.

Anyone who wants to can find out more information on Bob Dylan than they can ever use. If he remains hard to see it is not for want of looking. Those of us who revere him will continue to find ample reasons for our devotion. Perhaps too we can learn to listen to the silence amid the thunder and pay him another kind of tribute: to recall "the inspiration behind the inspiration" that first made it all real for us – to look back, and then beyond.

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