By: George Varga
Bob Dylan, who sounded wise and world-weary at 21, remains forever young — at least in some key respects — even as he turns approaches his 70th birthday on May 24. Or as famed film director Martin Scorsese recently told AARP The Magazine: “Bob is ageless because he keeps turning new corners, beating down new paths, redefining himself and his art as he goes.”
Indeed, at an age when many veteran musicians have comfortably or unwillingly settled into retirement, Dylan is still adding to his legacy.
On April 6, he performed in China for the first time in his storied career, followed by his first concerts in Vietnam. In June, he embarks on his latest European tour — during which he will make a quick swing into the Middle East for a June 20 show in Tel Aviv. (His sole U.S. summer date announced thus far is a July 15 date at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, Calif., south of Los Angeles.)
Last fall, the National Gallery of Denmark opened the “Brazil Series,” an exhibit of Dylan’s paintings. “If I could have expressed the same [things] in a song, I would have written a song instead,” he explained, in a statement released by the Copenhagen-based gallery.
In late 2009, Dylan released his first holiday-music album, the unpredictably reverent (if predictably idiosyncratic-sounding) “Christmas in the Heart.”
In early 2010, he performed for the first time at the White House, where he sang his timeless 1964 Civil Rights anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” His performance, if not his mere presence, left even President Barack Obama sounding a bit awed.
“Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be,” President Obama told Rolling Stone magazine.
“He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that.
“He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage … comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves … That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right?
“You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”
Like B.B. King and Willie Nelson, this vital American icon and cultural revolutionary is in perpetual motion, constantly reinventing himself and his vast repertoire of classic and obscure songs.
Traveling from town to town and country to country on what he, in 1988, dubbed his “Never-Ending Tour,” Dylan is a tireless troubadour who has proudly extended the legacy of such role models as Woody Guthrie, Odetta and Jimmie Rodgers, if not Elvis Presley, whose early records also profoundly inspired him. Like no other folk or rock legend who emerged in the tumultuous 1960s, Dylan thrives on taking risks, which enable him to be remarkable one night, dull or discordant the next — inspiring and infuriating, but never safe or predictable.
No wonder Dylan’s legions of admirers are as varied as Rage Against the Machine, Wyclef Jean, Beck, Tracy Chapman, the members of young folk-rock band Fleet Foxes and Jewel, who hails Dylan’s “lyrical genius” and his staying power.
“He is the biggest, and still the best,” agreed English singer-songwriter David Gray, 41. “He will not be eclipsed in my lifetime as a songwriter. Bob is the man.”
Longtime fan John Mellencamp, 59, echoed that sentiment.
“Dylan is the guy,” Mellencamp declared. “He may not have been able to sing his songs the best, but they were always the best-written. Even to this day, I have to scratch my head and say: ‘How does he do this?'”
That question became increasingly pertinent during much of the 1990s, when Dylan’s muse for creating the eloquent, multidimensional songs that made him a star in the ’60s had apparently abandoned him.
After going seven years without a new album, he returned to the fore with 1997’s revelatory “Time Out of Mind.” It was as heartfelt and unflinching a work as such classics as 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.” He followed it with 2001’s even better “Love and Theft,” 2006’s “Modern Times” and 2009’s “Together Through Life.”
Even without a new album, his 70th birthday is an event, especially for the many baby boomers who came of age with such provocative, generation-defining songs as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
For them, this no-longer-so-freewheeling legend’s march into senior-citizenship and his songs of growing existential despair are a reminder of their own mortality. They hear in him at least an echo of some of the youthful ideals and aspirations they once shared with America’s caustic folk-rock laureate, while younger fans regard him as a creatively vibrant elder.
“His songs are so thought-provoking, but leave enough space for you as a listener to make up your own mind,” said the 37-year-old Jewel, who toured as Dylan’s opening act in the mid-1990s. “And he’s still passionate and keeps the fire inside burning.”
Since leaving Minnesota in 1961 — shortly after changing his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman — and meteorically rising to fame two years later, Dylan has steadfastly avoided the spotlight when not on stage. In his private life, he’s lived such a stealth existence that only in 2001 was it disclosed that he’d been secretly married, from 1986 to 1992, to one of his former backing singers, Carolyn Dennis, with whom he had a daughter, Desiree, now 25.
A complex enigma, partly fact and partly fiction of his own making, Dylan is a multimillionaire nomad, and the only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has also won an Oscar and been nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature. An inveterate road dog, he’s done more than 2,000 concerts over the past 23 years, preferring to spend time in tour buses and out-of-the-way motels to his homes around the world (which reportedly include two in Baja California).
He has performed for heads of state and the pope, civil-rights activists and West Point cadets, the crowd-surfing masses at Woodstock ’94 and folk-music purists outraged by his controversial decision to “go electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. His impact is so great and far-reaching that, during a 2008 Supreme Court hearing, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. substituted a reference to legal precedence by instead inserting a quote from the lyrics to Dylan’s 1965 classic “Like a Rolling Stone”: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
In a recent review of legal databases conducted by Alex Long, a University of Texas professor, it was found that Dylan’s songs had been cited 186 times in court filings and law review articles. The next closest contender was The Beatles, with a comparatively meager 74 citations. That doesn’t mean Dylan’s word is law, but he can still inspire near-religious fervor in his most devout followers.
Dylan has spent periods as both a Jewish fundamentalist and a born-again Christian, an increasingly reluctant musical prophet and a down-and-out drunk, a happily married father of five and a chronic womanizer.
He’s transcended the myth-making mystique he created through a combination of skill, tenacity and the willful obstinacy required of a legend who refuses to repeat himself or become a fading Vegas lounge act. Wisely and defiantly, he won’t look back — not when he can still reinvent his music nightly, on stage, for audiences that range from teenagers to their once-rebellious grandparents.
Dylan has endured and thrived because of his disdain for convention and his passion for the music that he’s embraced and revitalized for more than 50 years. He continues to stay tangled up in blues, rock, folk, country and gospel, among other traditions.
Determined to avoid complacency, he reshapes his songs in unexpected ways, much as Duke Ellington revamped his own music nightly. Dylan’s idiosyncratic vocal phrasing enables him to make decades-old songs sound different every time. His daring can inspire both goose bumps and groans, but the opportunity to repaint his musical masterpieces sustains his enthusiasm.
Yes, Dylan has faltered with erratic albums and concerts, and his voice at times is barely more than a croak. He’s also made controversial decisions, seemingly designed to dismay longtime fans and tarnish his legacy, such as allowing his galvanizing “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” to be used as advertising jingles for the Bank of Montreal and the giant Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm, or appearing — with a young, scantily-clad model — in a TV commercial for Victoria’s Secret.
But if anyone’s earned the right to poke holes in this legend, it’s Bob Dylan. His single-mindedness is as impressive as his willingness to fail at an age when his most of his contemporaries are retired or coasting on automatic pilot. He’s an artist, he don’t think twice or look back. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to.
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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