Monday, May 23, 2011

Bob Dylan is 70!

“Don’t trust anyone over 30" was one of the few memorable phrases from the 1960s that did not originate in a song by Bob Dylan, but many others did:

“To live outside the law you must be honest”

“You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”

"He not busy bein' born is busy dyin'"

Hard to believe, but Dylan turned 30 way back in 1971, and now it’s forty years later. On Tuesday, he turns 70, older than Bing Crosby was in any year of the 1960s, and the same age Frank Sinatra reached approximately one month after Columbia Records released Dylan’s career-spanning boxed set, Biograph, in 1985. Unlike Crosby, whose career began in the ‘30s, or Sinatra, who was the world's most popular singer in the '40s, Dylan’s age was important when he first arrived on the national scene in 1963, the year his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released. He was, indeed, the voice of a generation, and that generation was defined by its age. There was never any talk about “youth culture” in Crosby’s heyday, and if there was a generation gap during Sinatra's prime it went unacknowledged at a time when children were seen and not heard. In the mid-1950s, the rise of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll gave young people a voice, but it wasn’t until Dylan that they had anything significant to say.

Old age has reduced Dylan’s always rough, raspy voice to an often indecipherable gargle, but it hasn't diminished his appeal among the faithful. He performs more than 100 concerts a year, and when he releases a new album, as he does infrequently these days, it shoots straight to number one on the charts, something his records rarely did even in his 60's heyday. No matter how much he loathed the title, Dylan was the spokesman for a generation in ways that no musical performer has been before or since. He was there at the 1963 March on Washington, singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” on the historic occasion that Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He chronicled the changing times and gave a voice to the voiceless in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and challenged the power structure in “Masters of War.” What he never did, to my knowledge, anyway, was specifically address the Vietnam War in any of his songs, nor did he ever have much to say in interviews about the conflict. And yet, when he recently performed in Vietnam for the first time, the mainstream media, clueless as ever, suggested he did little else. He certainly didn’t advocate extremism, but the Weathermen, a group of radical left-wingers, took their name from the “weatherman” reference in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Of course, anyone who has followed his career and continues to do so knows that Dylan shuns labels, and he is impossible to pin down. The only thing for sure is that he’s an artist, a great one, and whether he likes it or not, he’s an icon and a legend, as well as a survivor in a field in which self-destruction has often been the rule. Death, particularly when it’s self-induced, is so much a part of the rock culture that it once seemed unlikely that any of the music’s icons would live to see middle-age, let alone cash a Social Security check.

Comparing rock ‘n’ roll to a religion, author Nick Tosches observed that popular idolatry shares with Christianity the requirement that the idol sacrifice his life for his followers. “When one man idolizes another, the hate and envy in his heart are as great as the love and respect of his outward homage. The idol, whom the idolater would, but never can, be, is both the object of his adoration and the cause of his effacement and insignificance. So overwhelmed is the being of the idolater by that of the idol that only the latter’s supreme sacrifice, martyrdom, can justify and sanctify the relationship.”

Dylan’s crucifix almost came in June 1966 with the motorcycle accident that led to rumors that he was dead or reduced to a vegetable. Instead, it was an excuse to shake-off the expectations of his audience, and momentarily free himself from contractual obligations. Some of those idolaters were disappointed by his survival. “I wish Bob Dylan had died,” some asshole in The Village Voice wrote in 1978.

Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all followed rock ‘n’ roll’s scripture by dying young, then being resurrected in death as cult figures. Through no fault of his own, John Lennon also became a rock ‘n’ roll martyr. Though he came close to fading away and may have even burned out in the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, Dylan would not be nailed to a cross. Maybe, to paraphrase one of his early songs, he has God on his side.

“I don’t care what people expect of me,” he told People in 1975. “Doesn’t concern me. I’m doin’ God’s work. That’s all I know.”

It’s quite possible that many people under 30 haven’t a clue as to who Bob Dylan is, and if they do, they'd shrug their shoulders and think of him only as that old guy who was on the Grammy Awards this year and sounded like a frog. But as Newsweek reported in 1997, in a cover story to coincide with the release of Time Out of Mind, "Some 30 years ago, Dylan's work mattered more intensely to more people than anyone's does today." And to those of us who continue to listen, it still does.


In honor of his 70th birthday, Rolling Stone, the magazine that was once a voice of the counterculture that Dylan did so much to create, has recruited various "experts" and artists to compile a list of “The 70 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs.”

Of course, 1965's “Like a Rolling Stone” tops the list. As much as I love it, it’s not my absolute favorite, but what other song could be designated his greatest? The 1965 recording put him in Billboard’s Top 10 singles chart for the first of four times, and was revolutionary in many respects, including its 6:13 length at a time when a “pop” song rarely exceeded three minutes. Its mood was distinctive, too: a vindictive song filled with put-downs delivered in a snarling nasal voice. “The verbal pugilism on display here cracks open songwriting for a generation and leaves the listener on the canvas,” Bono of U2 writes of the song in his typically pompous style. The rest of the top 10:

(2) “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
(3) “Tangled Up in Blue”
(4) “Just Like a Woman”
(5) “All Along the Watchtower”
(6) “I Shall Be Released”
(7) “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
(8) “Mr. Tambourine Man”
(9) “Visions of Johanna”
(10) “Every Grain of Sand”

Few Dylan fans would be shocked by the selections, but fewer still could resist challenging them. If I were putting the list together, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” would be in the top 10, not at # 25, three slots above “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” his most famous and enduring “protest” song (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” its gentler cousin, comes in at # 20).

In his message to fans about his recent concerts in China, Dylan noted that the Chinese press “did tout me as a sixties icon,” posting his photo beside those of Joan Baez, Che Guevara, and others from the era, and it is his ‘60's output that dominates the list with 45 of the songs written and recorded in that decade, a figure that includes such Basement Tapes titles as “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that only saw official release in the following decades. The ‘70s come in second with 19 songs, including 7 of the 10 selections from 1975's Blood on the Tracks, as well as “Up to Me,” an out-take from those sessions. Another four are from 1976's Desire, with that disc’s total reaching five through the inclusion of “Abandoned Love” which did not see release until 1985's multi-disc anthology, Biograph. There are three more from 1974's Planet Waves. Rounding out the decade, there’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from 1971's Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and “Gotta Serve Somebody” from 1979's Slow Train Coming.

The ‘80s are represented by a mere three songs (“Every Grain of Sand,” “Jokerman,” and “Blind Willie McTell”). The ‘90s were a decade in which Dylan was barely on the media’s radar. The Never Ending Tour, as fans came to call his yearly series of concerts that began in 1988, was in progress, but not only was he reduced to playing small halls that rarely sold out, he released only two albums of new original material, the second of which, 1997's Time Out of Mind, would win a bunch of Grammys, sell more than a million copies, and see him reborn as the grand old man of rock ‘n’ roll. Number 50 on Rolling Stone’s list is that album’s somber “Not Dark Yet.” There are two songs from the 2000s - the Oscar winning “Things Have Changed” from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, and “Mississippi” from 2001's Love and Theft.

The most conspicuous omission is probably “I Want You,” a highlight of 1966's Blonde on Blonde, an album whose lesser “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” did make the list. “Tough Mama” from Planet Waves and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?,” a single that failed to crack the top 40, were also considered worthy, but not “Sweetheart Like You,” “Foot of Pride,” “Brownsville Girl,” or “Shooting Star,” far superior songs from the ‘80s when Dylan was in a commercial slump and overshadowed by Bruce Springsteen, one of the many artists slapped with the “New Dylan” label in the ‘70s.

Rolling Stone also provides a 10 song list of “The Greatest Dylan Covers of All Time,” and, once again, I have to disagree with some of their choices. Jimi Hendrix’s blistering hit version of “All Along the Watchtower” is rightfully included, along with the Byrds’ # 1 cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and George Harrison’s version of “If Not for You,” but some of the others (“Highway 61 Revisited” by P.J. Harvey? “Up to Me” by Roger McGuinn?) seem to have been chosen simply as a way to avoid putting Cher on the list. The diva’s version of “All I Really Want to Do” deserves a spot regardless, and so does Elvis Presley’s 1966 rendition of “Tomorrow is Such a Long Time,” a cover that Dylan himself once said was his favorite.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks