Happy Birthday to Mr Dylan, who turns 70 today. He still tours, and tops the charts—but is he a golden oldie, or a tarnished one? Tim de Lisle decides ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine Spring 2011
A few years ago a concert promoter took the BBC television series “Walking with Dinosaurs” and turned it into a stage show that toured the world’s indoor arenas. Seen from one angle, it was an enterprising move. Seen from another, it was quite unnecessary. The world’s arenas were already crawling with dinosaurs, in the form of old rock stars.
The early years of the 21st century have been the age of the veteran in rock and pop. Records are now trumped by live music, a field where the oldies can dominate. The golden age of popular music, the Sixties, is just close enough for the central figures from it to be still on the road. The Rolling Stones do a world tour every few years; Paul McCartney, with a small child to think about, does a short tour every few months. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, now a doddery old teddy bear propped up by a dazzling young band, turns out every other year. Simon & Garfunkel, not always on the best of terms, manage a month here and a month there. And then there is Bob Dylan.
Dylan tours even more than the others. In the 20 years to 2010, he gave 2,045 concerts, according to the fan site ExpectingRain.com, where you can study the setlist for every one of those nights. In April he will play in Singapore, Australasia and—if Beijing lets him in, after rebuffing him last year—China. In the summer he is expected in Europe. Not for nothing are his wanderings known as the Never Ending Tour.
Dylan’s gigs are unlike those of all his peers. If a show by McCartney or the Stones has a fault—apart from some creaking on the high notes—it is that it can be predictable. The Stones always play “Satisfaction”, “Brown Sugar”, “Jumping Jack Flash”; McCartney always does the Beatles classics he wrote himself—“Let It Be”, “Get Back”, “Hey Jude”. With Dylan, the only sure thing is “Like a Rolling Stone”, locked in as the first encore. Otherwise, he reserves the right to leave out any song. And often it’s a relief when he does, given the way he treats the songs he does play, which veers between indifference and outright sabotage.
Most of the time, he stands not centre-stage, but to the side, in the shadows, and spurns his guitar, preferring to poke at a keyboard. He brings a skilful band, but they take songs that were once folk-pop anthems, strummed on the acoustic guitar, and reduce them to a blues-rock mulch. Dylan’s voice, never a thing of beauty but always heroically distinctive, sags into self-parody, going from a whisper to a lifeless buzz, the sound of your neighbour’s vacuum cleaner.
If there’s a video relay, he forbids the camera crew to show close-ups of his face. Between songs, he barely speaks to the audience. He is there, yet not there. The only consolation is that you can at least be sure it’s him. If it wasn’t, if this character was a tribute act, he would have been laughed out of business for not remotely resembling the real thing.
Dylan in concert seems to be doing all he can to explode his own myth, to knock himself off his pedestal. But it isn’t working. However much he plays the iconoclast, the public still insist on treating him as an icon.
The deal is usually this: if a superstar dies young, their stock stays high; if they grow old, it slowly sinks. The classic case in point is Lennon and McCartney. In the Seventies, they stood level in the pantheon, and rightly so: each had written just under half of the Beatles’ great songs, and, solo, each had been fitfully great (“Mother”, “Maybe I’m Amazed”), mostly adept, and occasionally poor; if Lennon had been the greater solo icon, McCartney had had more hits. Since his murder in 1980, Lennon’s stock has risen, while McCartney’s has bobbed about below it. In this galaxy, immortality is best achieved by dying young.
Dylan, who will be 70 on May 24th, ought to be in McCartney’s boat, but somehow finds himself in Lennon’s. His albums have been getting more successful, not less. “Modern Times”, released in 2006, went to number one in America, the first Dylan album to do so since “Desire” 30 years earlier. His last set of new songs, “Together Through Life” (2009), went to number one both in America and in Britain, where he hadn’t topped the chart for 39 years. No living person had ever returned to number one after such a long gap.