The occasion of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday today has already spawned millions of words in the printed media and on the internet (“the whole world is filled with speculation”) about his place in the popular culture of the last half century. Many purport, as much Dylan literature does, to be serious, learned pieces about what status he has as a poet, what religion, if any, he adheres to, what really happened when he fell off his motorcycle in 1966 or even what his garbage tells us about his alleged drug use (the list goes on).
Well, this modest contribution to the cacophany has no more pretensions than to be an unashamedly heartfelt postcard – though not of any hanging – from a fan.
I know that there are many people who don’t “get” Dylan – they say that he can’t sing and he’s no longer relevant, having written nothing worth listening to for over 40 years and so on. As far as the voice is concerned, I’ll grant them that it has always been an acquired taste, and even for many of his devotees, his current growl, the consequence of a lifetime of heavy smoking and punishing tour schedules, leaves them puzzled and dissatisfied. Yet, even today, I believe that, in concert, the passion, intelligence and honesty in his phrasing are unrivalled. But let’s agree to disagree on that one.
These criticisms also tend to emanate from people whose acquaintance with Dylan’s work barely extends beyond a handful of “early” songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are A Changin’, Mr Tambourine Man and Like A Rolling Stone, astonishing works of art though each of those are and enough alone of a legacy for any other artist.
How many of them realise, for instance, that Make You Feel My Love, now a modern standard recorded by artists as varied as Bryan Ferry, Billy Joel, Adele and Garth Brooks, and regularly heard in popular TV shows like Holby City and Strictly Come Dancing, was written and first performed by Dylan in 1997?
His continued relevance in the music world is incontrovertible, manifested in the stream of testimonies by modern day bands as to his influence upon them. And anyone who has been to a recent Dylan concert will know that they are frequented by as many enthusiastic young fans as pony tailed baby boomers. His gigs in Beijing and Shanghai last month drew crowds of mainly Chinese youth turning to him, as their American and European counterparts had done fifty years earlier, for inspiration in their quest for a more open and inclusive society.
In the past decade alone he has issued several critically acclaimed (and chart topping) albums (including a Christmas one with ALL the proceeds going to the World Food Programme and Crisis), published the first volume of his Chronicles, hosted one hundred episodes of his peerless Theme Time Radio Hour, showcasing his vast knowledge of his musical roots and hilarious patter, exhibited his paintings and continued to tour the world with his band. Oh, and he played The Times They Are A Changin’ for President Obama in the White House. No longer relevant huh?
Some people who are kindly disposed towards his art still have difficulty with the man, citing his uncommunicative (sic) manner on stage and perceived instances of “selling out” in recent years But those minor and arguable lapses apart, it is rather his integrity and refusal to compromise in order to curry popular favour, in the manner in which contemporaries such as Iggy Pop and Steve Tyler have, that make him all the more impressive. Like any genius, he is a flawed human being, but I for one am prepared to accept from him what he is prepared to give me, even when, as was the case with much of his eighties output, he lets his standards slip - and that is so much more than I could ever have had a right to expect. The debt is all mine.
Perhaps one day I will attempt the thankless task of listing my favourite 10, 20, 50 or even 100 Dylan songs, but the reason I probably won’t is that I would feel uncomfortable at leaving so many great ones out. What I do know is that any list would include compositions from the whole spread of his career.
Many artists have enriched my life immeasurably – Shakespeare, Mozart, Jerry Garcia, Samuel Beckett, Puccini, Jane Austen and Fra Angelico to name a few. But none come close to providing such profound excitement and sense of challenge that I experience when I listen to the music of Bob Dylan.
So thanks Bob for everything (even though you will never read this). We sure have seen nothin’ like you yet, nor are ever likely to see again. It is certainly not dark yet, carry on being busy being born and may you stay forever young!