Bob Dylan–Rock’s Poet–Turns 80

National Review – By Dan McLaughlin – May 24, 2021

His milestone is a generational one, his career a grand tour of artistic independence and intellect.

Today is the 80th birthday of Robert Allen Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., better known to the world as Bob Dylan. Few American musicians have attracted more praise or influenced more artists than Dylan. He even won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his lyrics. Dylan is loved by some and respected without affection by others, yet, for many, the sound of his voice and the words of his songs produce a reflexive revulsion. Either way, Dylan has always been more complex and interesting than the public image embraced by casual fans and bitter detractors alike.

Dylan hitting “the big 8-0” is a generational milestone. Eighty is now the age at which “old” becomes, undeniably, “elderly,” and this is an alarming thing to see in our youth-culture icons. He is not the first rocker to hit 80; several of the figures of the Fifties rock scene made it to 90. He is not even the first Sixties rocker to reach that round number: he was preceded there by Ringo Starr, Tina Turner, Smokey Robinson, Grace Slick, Mike Love, Neil Diamond, Aaron Neville, Manfred Mann, Dion DiMucci, and Dylan’s sometime girlfriend and collaborator Joan Baez, among others.

But this feels bigger. With the arguable exception of Ringo, none of the others were quite so prominently identified with youth culture in the 1960s. In a May 1971 Peanuts strip, Linus is staring into space and tells Charlie Brown, “Bob Dylan will be thirty years old this month.” After a panel of silence, Charlie Brown responds, “That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.” Charles Schulz, a connoisseur of depressing things, was two decades older than Dylan. He recognized that Dylan’s passage out of his 20s signified something larger than one man’s birthday. The music industry sensed it, too, which is why studio executives and critics were constantly trying to brand early-Seventies (white, male) singer-songwriters as “the next Bob Dylan.” Some of those, most notably Bruce Springsteen, went on to monumental careers of their own. But there was never another Dylan — in part because there was never another Sixties.

Dylan was the first musician to be widely branded the “voice of his generation,” to the point where that phrase is practically synonymous with Dylan. It’s the title of one 2005 biography of Dylan, and the Washington Post used it as the headline for a review of another in 1986. Ironically, as with much about Dylan, the image is slightly off-center: he was far out of step at the time with his own Silent Generation, but he would later rebel against the embrace of the Baby Boom generation that came up behind his. Dylan was the sound of a generational shift, but at least from the mid Sixties on, his voice was his alone.

Rebellious Youth

Dylan burst into American popular consciousness in his early 20s. He found stardom with his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released just after his 22nd birthday. The album came out in May 1963, in a particular interim moment in American music. It was two months after the Beach Boys released “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” the song that rocketed them to fame, abruptly shifting the scene of American music from Southern rock pioneers to sunny California beaches. It was nearly a year before the Beatles arrived in America, touching off the invasion of working-class Brits who were nursed on the American blues. There was never an apt cultural moment for cerebral Jewish folk singers from Minnesota. The album’s cover featured Dylan with his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo clinging to him in the cold of Manhattan’s West Village, the pair looking like a hipster greeting card. Bob does not really seem that impressed with New York City winters. Being unimpressed with his surroundings has been a lifelong hallmark of Bob Dylan.

It was Dylan’s first three albums, recorded before his 23rd birthday, that established him as a political folksinger. He was working in the footsteps of his idol, Woodie Guthrie. He wrote from a protest-music scene alongside contemporaries such as Baez as well as older and more forceful political influences. These were the years when he wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” the civil rights anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the vaguely apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and barbed satires like “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”:

Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy
Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy
To my knowledge there’s just one man
That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell
. . . So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself!
Hope I don’t find out anything

Yet, if the young Dylan was absorbing his immediate surroundings, he was not only far outside the center lane of “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” he was doing things nobody in the mainstream was then doing. For example, the classic “Masters of War,” a jeremiad against arms manufacturers, was released in 1963. Singing against war profiteering was fashionable in 1969, and cliché in 1985. But during the Kennedy administration, the apex of muscular Cold War liberalism, it was deeply out of step with the public mood and the last thing you would expect to hear from a man who would have a chart-topping hit on pop radio two years later.

Plugged In

Between August 1963, when Dylan performed with Baez at the Martin Luther King Jr.–led March on Washington, and August 1965, when a triumphant Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the left-wing protest movement made significant strides into the mainstream cultural conversation. Yet, that was exactly the point at which Dylan lost interest in being a political figure, and turned from protest folk to rock and roll. He was famously booed at the Newport Folk Festival in March 1965 for playing an electric-guitar set. Dylan could have decided that he was done with folk and avoided the controversy, but he chose to confront his fans head-on, and invite them to move on with him to a new stage. Many did; he never looked back on the rest.

Maybe Dylan is a contrarian, or maybe he has just always preferred to be interesting — to be thinking and saying things of his own, not what everybody else was up to. His efforts to get leftists to stop following him escalated throughout the decade, not because Dylan had become some sort of right-winger overnight, but because he disliked dull conformity.

The electric-rock years of the mid-Sixties were the most prolific and artistically fruitful of Dylan’s career. He released three enduring albums — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde — between March 1965 and June 1966, and broke into the top ten on the Billboard pop-radio charts three times in that period, with “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Rainy Day Women ?12 & 35,” with its unsubtle double-meaning chorus, “everybody must get stoned.” If Dylan was no longer directly political, he was still skeptical of authority and its claims on conscience and truth, as in “Tombstone Blues”:

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

These were the years that imprinted the public image of Dylan, with his sneering voice and his inscrutable lyrics. The knocks on Dylan’s voice are fair, up to a point: he was grating in the Sixties, and reduced to more of a croak on many of his recordings after about 1989. There is a reason why so many covers of his songs by a broad variety of artists are more popular than the originals. But Dylan’s voice was also always an expressive instrument, able to deliver the mood and meaning of his unique lyrics even when the bare words were opaque. Those lyrics evolved over the years, and would become more concise at times in later decades. But even when Dylan’s words made no conventional sense, what he intended to convey was usually grasped easily enough — nobody really had to decipher all the words to “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street” in order to get what Dylan was driving at. And the focus on Dylan’s words and voice have sometimes obscured his enduring gifts as a writer of music.

Dylan has never entirely given up writing political music, even as his politics became more eclectic, incorporating occasional conservative themes alongside his left-leaning sensibilities. His zest for a good story has not always been constrained by reality. “Hurricane,” written in 1975 about the prosecution of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, is a fantastic musical screed against racist law enforcement, but takes many liberties with the facts of the case.

In 1988, Dylan took another turn, and joined a band. The Traveling Wilburys — Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne — produced two albums, the first of them a joyful classic, and generally led to an artistic and commercial revival for Dylan, Harrison, Petty, and Orbison, with Lynne producing albums for the latter three. Dylan turned his satirical pen on Springsteen, with “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” a hilariously loving straight-faced send-up of Bruce’s songwriting style, packed with references to Springsteen songs. Dylan enjoyed greater success since the 1990s and has released (at this count) 15 “Bootleg” volumes of his prior outtakes and live recordings. In 2020, he hit number one on the U.S. Rock Digital Song Sales chart — his first song to reach number one on a Billboard chart — with “Murder Most Foul,” a bizarre, slow, rambling 17-minute reflection on the Kennedy assassination.

You Shouldn’t Let Other People Get Your Kicks for You

Two common threads have run throughout Bob Dylan’s career. One is his piercing, restless intellect. Dylan is not just intelligent, he is literate — his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One talks about immersing himself in books as a young man newly arrived in New York — “it seemed like I’d been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up and would have to pull harder.” He read history; he spends over a page discussing Clausewitz. He read Faulkner, and turned his back on Kerouac: “I’d lost my interest in the ‘hungry for kicks’ hipster version.” He would later testily deny that his stage name was a homage to Dylan Thomas.

The other thread is that Dylan has never wanted the burden of reverence that has followed him for years. He doesn’t want to be a leader any more than a follower, and he has often rebelled against taking himself too seriously. Chronicles veers straight from Clausewitz to how Dylan was inspired by a youthful encounter with the pro wrestler Gorgeous George. By some accounts, he deliberately did not tell the musicians recording “Rainy Day Women ?12 & 35” what the lyrics were, so that their uproarious reaction during the session was spontaneous. Dylan himself cracks up repeatedly during the recording. He has been unashamed to record goofy songs such as “Wiggle Wiggle” and “The Wilbury Twist.” One need only watch the video of him singing the hokey Mitch Miller polka singalong “Must Be Santa,” from Dylan’s 2009 Christmas album, to see a man who does not fear looking ridiculous or uncool:

Dylan has had a great American life, and he has fiercely defended it as his own. Happy birthday, Bob.

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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