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.
Why the late surge? From 2004, Dylan had put himself about in a variety of media, in a way some of his old publicists could only have dreamed of. He published a memoir, “Chronicles”, which was far better than most celebrity autobiographies—vivid, candid, ghost-free yet elegant. In 2005, he co-operated with Martin Scorsese’s film “No Direction Home”, the story of his blazing heyday, from 1961, when he left Minnesota for New York, to his motorbike crash in 1966.
In 2006 he became a disc-jockey, making a series called “Theme Time Radio Hour”, which was broadcast on XM Satellite Radio in north America and syndicated around the world. If the format was nerdy (songs about trains, or goodbyes), Dylan’s presence was puckish and the music bracingly eclectic, an oasis in the desert of the computer playlist. He also held exhibitions of his paintings, and all the while the Never Ending Tour trundled on, and new Dylan albums appeared more often than for decades.
All this was active ubiquity, stuff that Dylan had chosen to do. Bubbling away behind it was the passive ubiquity that is his whether he likes it or not. Like the Beatles, Henry VIII, Marilyn Monroe and JFK, Dylan is one of that band of people about whom, it seems, almost anyone can get a book published at any time. The books come not in spurts of fashion, but steadily, like soap operas. Hundreds of volumes about Dylan have appeared so far, and another nine are scheduled for this April and May, including a book of poems written in his honour, “The Captain’s Tower”. The Beatles’ official biographer, Hunter Davies, has estimated that the Beatles industry employs 2,000 people. The Dylan industry can’t be far behind.
At ExpectingRain.com, they round up stories about him: at least ten every day, sometimes 20. At his record company—Columbia, almost ever since 1962—they scour the vaults for live recordings and studio out-takes: six albums of the stuff in the past six years. As well as the Scorsese movie, Hollywood has produced “I’m Not There” (2007), the quirky bio-pic in which Dylan was played by six actors, including Cate Blanchett. He’s not there; he’s everywhere.
From all this, you might deduce that Dylan was still firing on all cylinders. But it’s not just his concerts that disappoint. It’s the albums too, not that you’d know it from most of the reviews. On Metacritic.com, the site that aggregates and quantifies American reviews, “Modern Times” scored 89%, “Together Through Life” 76%. The people giving him raves are surely reviewing his reputation, his aura, rather than the actual work. On “Modern Times”, Dylan borrows everything from song titles (“Nettie Moore”, “Workingman’s Blues”) to signature styles (“Thunder on the Mountain” is a Chuck Berry pastiche). Nothing wrong with borrowing stuff as long as you make it your own, as T.S. Eliot observed, and showed. But the elderly Dylan seldom bothers. “Modern Times” is an exercise in archaeology more than originality.
The title is a red herring, or perhaps a dry joke. “I’d make this record”, Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine, “no matter what was going on in the world.” In other words, the times they are a-missing. Happily, it isn’t quite true: in “The Levee’s Gonna Break”, he reflects on Hurricane Katrina, and in “Workingman’s Blues” he looks at the price the American workforce pays for cheap foreign imports. These glimmers make you wish he still had his eyes open the way he did in the Sixties, when he could write eloquently about civil rights without even mentioning them.
“Together Through Life” (2009) was no better. Dylan continued his tour of American genres by going mildly Tex-Mex, so the lead instrument was often the accordion. It made for a genial ambience, but couldn’t mask the mediocrity of most of the songs. Dylan, who freely admits he is “no melodist”, wrote the music but not the words, which were largely outsourced to his friend Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. If the words aren’t his, does it count as a Dylan album at all?
Worse was to come. “Christmas in the Heart” (also 2009), Dylan’s first Christmas album, was a big slice of turkey. As he wheezed through “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, he sounded more than ever like a croaking drone. Some reviewers wondered if he was being ironic. “Critics like that are on the outside looking in,” Dylan shot back. “They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to.” He was in danger of echoing George W. Bush—you’re either with us or against us. And he was reading it wrong: most rock critics are firm Dylan fans. Hence the forbearance with which they keep greeting his damp squibs.
If Dylan’s talent had just burnt out, it would be understandable. Jagger and Richards, by common consent, haven’t released a classic since the Eighties—the last was probably “Start Me Up” (1981, begun in 1975). But what is tantalising is that Dylan’s genius still flickers. “It’s All Good”, the last track on “Together Through Life”, may be co-written with Robert Hunter, but it could only be Dylan, and it could only be now. He takes a contemporary cliché, dips it in irony, and uses it to harpoon aspects of contemporary life.
There is one song from Dylan’s dotage that has reached classic status: the gospel-tinged ballad “Make You Feel My Love”. It has got there inch by inch after being released in 1997. You know instantly when Dylan has produced a bullseye because other singers seize on it: with his limited voice, he is a natural for a cover version. Billy Joel recorded it straight away; Garth Brooks took it to number one on the American Country chart in 1998; when Bryan Ferry remade 11 Dylan songs for his “Dylanesque” album in 2007, it was the only one not from the distant past. In 2008 the young British singer Adele covered it, which eventually turned up on “The X Factor”. By February this year, Adele’s version had been in the British Top 40 for ten months—a sure sign that a tune has struck a chord.
The song is slow, stately, warm and wise: an older person’s song, done so well that it can work in young hands too. In January, I was visiting friends and their 15-year-old daughter sang it at the piano. It has the simple force that Johnny Cash discovered late in life (as Dylan sagely remarked, “You could set your sights by him”). The question is, if Dylan can do this once, why doesn’t he do it more often?
My guess is: because we want him to. He has spent a lifetime defying expectations. When the fans wanted him to remain a folkie, he went electric. When they prized his presumed atheism, he went Christian. When they turn up hoping for folk anthems, he gives them the blues. Inside the old man, a sullen teenager is still trying to get out. As he said himself: forever young.
“How does it feel,” Dylan sang on his greatest hit, “...to be a complete unknown?” His predicament raises the opposite question: how does it feel to be so known? Dylan gives an answer in “Chronicles”. “The big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny...I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper...I really was never any more than what I was—a folk musician who gazed into the grey mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze...I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad.” Maybe that is his achievement: to have stayed sane.
DYLAN AT HIS BEST
Blowin’ in the Wind, 1962 Platonic ideal of the protest song.
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, 1962 Apocalypse then—weeks before the Cuban missile crisis.
It Ain’t Me Babe, 1964 A delicate kiss-off: “leave at your own chosen speed”.
Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965 A scorching single, and the first great pop video.
Positively 4th Street, 1965 Literate venom a speciality. John Lennon had this on his jukebox.
Rainy Day Women #12&35, 1966 Sheer joy, brass and all.
Just Like a Woman, 1966 Hardly PC, but piercingly real.
Most of the Time, 1989 Sad, old, quietly scintillating.
All songs bar the last are on the three-CD collection "Dylan" (2007).
Bob Dylan tours Europe in June.