At age 60, with a career that spans four decades, he remains one of rock's most eloquent, sexy and unpredictable singers.
Bob Dylan's twilight is an iconoclastic one, but a twilight nonetheless. Agreeably, he appears on the awards shows, blinking like Ishi. He says something inscrutable and wanders away again. Examine his career of the past 20 years or so, and you can be repelled at the stridency, the carelessness. See him in concert, and you may be greeted with a compelling performance -- or an indifferent one.
Dylan turns 60 Thursday. Is he sad? Pathetic? Mighty? Indomitable? It's tough to tell. You can think about Dylan in any number of ways on any given day or at any given time. Start with the five verses of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," his first epic songwriting effort. It's a simple story: A guy gets up, goes out, comes back. What did you see? his father asks. The singer tells him. What did you hear? What are you going to do now?
In the decades since he wrote it, Dylan has retold that tale several times, with all sorts of twists -- it's the story of "Tangled Up in Blue," his most exhilarating love affair, and of "Isis," his most murderous one.
I left; I saw stuff; I came back. Dylan -- a paragon of self-invention if there ever was one -- has had a lifelong thing for doubles, mirrors and doppelgängers: The person who comes back is changed, in essence a different person, a double. His recurring use of the tale of the journey lets Dylan leverage that double in all sorts of ways. In "Hard Rain," the singer, grandiose and full of himself, becomes a prophet in a time of torment. In much the same way, Dylan himself became an uncertain, and perhaps unwilling, spokesman for a restless, migrant generation, one more self-consciously aware of itself as "special" than any other.
Yet it's important to remember that Dylan was slightly detached from his generation, imbued as he was in both '50s rock and the pre-rock 'n' roll Dust Bowl poesy of Woody Guthrie. He was once Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., and unquestionably hardened by his own abrupt departure from home, family and childhood in his late teens. By 1966, the rechristened Bob Dylan was 25 and already fully reinvented when a great wave of kids embraced civil rights, free speech and the fight against the Vietnam War.
But he understood the urge to move.
Dylan saw the transformation of his own life and those of the fans before him; he understood that you leave behind a version of yourself when you go, and that a new one is created along the way. The idea sang in his head, and reverberated in a generation's. In "Hard Rain," the most immature of journey songs, yet still the most visionary, he takes this to an extreme. Hidden in a catalog of nuclear horror and social breakdown is something more prosaic: an adolescent's dream of adulthood, when a father is turned into a straight man so the child, newly adult, can tell of the wondrous things he's seen and, not least, brag of the things he's going to do to make everything all right.
Is that the point of the traveler's yearning for home? To experience it as a different person, to change the past by bringing to bear new skills and knowledge against it? A trip like this is a species of self-hatred, a rejection of self, something most everyone goes through on the road to adulthood. It also contains echoes of that American jones -- the journey west (fueled by a hunger for what's just out of view), finding an extreme, running until you can't go anywhere else.
The career of Bob Dylan -- 40 years, 40-plus albums, hundreds and hundreds of recorded songs, 1,500 or more live performances -- is broad enough to encompass anything from the trivial to the minute. Dylan is a rocker, a visionary, a poet; a persuasive student of folk and blues, a beautiful songwriter, a rebel; the coolest, most detached of stars, and maybe the cruelest. And among other things he's the man who first burst pop's optimistic bubble, who told the audience something it didn't want to hear.
Dylan is the most unstarlike of all of rock 'n' roll's unquestioned giants, fighting and dampening his fame with an uncompromising, matter-of-fact fury for nearly 40 years now. He is also the oddest star: His life is more bizarre than Elvis Presley's. He may also be the best. No one has written songs so charged, beautiful, complex, unforgettable: songs like "Hard Rain," "Chimes of Freedom," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Visions of Johanna," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Hurricane."
His career, four decades on, is huge, contradictory and impossible to grasp. Something as trite as "the journey" makes no sense of it at all.
Until you consider this: In the early 1980s, after 20 years of fevered, nearly unrelenting activity and insistent controversy, Dylan slowed down. He barely made American concert appearances during this period, and when he did it was in the form of grinning, easy outings with crutches like the Grateful Dead or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He also spent too much time recording forgettable albums, such as "Down in the Groove" and "Knocked Out Loaded." It was plain that after a quarter-century career, Dylan was winding down. If not bringing his journey to a complete halt, he did, for a time, switch on cruise control.
But then, in the summer of 1988, he formed a small combo and went out on a real tour. In four or five months he played 71 shows, Dylan's remarkable online chroniclers tell us. In 1989 he kept the groove going: He played 99 shows. And in 1990, he performed 96. He worked at this pace consistently through the 1990s -- in 1999 he played 116 shows.
In 1988, Dylan turned 47. Since then, through the decade of his 50s, he has spent nearly half of his days on the road. No other major star performs anywhere near as often. It's probable that over the past 13 years he has played more concerts than all but a handful of performers in the history of popular music -- 13 years spent traveling from city to city, night after night, on planes and buses, in limos and taxis, across America and the world.
What sort of a trip is this? Where did it start? Where is he going? And where will he be when it ends?
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Songwriters created complex, nuanced, bloody, undeniable songs before Dylan, but never in such a torrent; with such arrogance and authority; with such seemingly limitless volubility, symbolism, ambition and grace; and in such a giddy whirlwind of exploration, bravery, dissonance and pain.
Some of it was speed- and marijuana-induced dime-store surrealism, of course. There is filler, nonsense, in jokes, blather. Many of his early famous "protest" songs ("Masters of War," for example) are callow; what are supposed to be love songs are mean-spirited; and some of the tracks on the softer albums from the late 1960s are merely passable. The stoner anthem "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" is unforgivable; it ruins what would otherwise be rock's perfect album, "Blonde on Blonde." "Self Portrait," a forgotten release from 1970, is an inexplicably stultifying two-record set of covers and throwaways. (Columbia Records released an even worse collection, "Dylan," a few years later without Dylan's consent.) And his first album, "Bob Dylan," is, well, a first album.
That said, Dylan's work between 1962 and 1977 or so is without parallel. Even the most superficial songs ask to be taken seriously, and the vast part of the work is nonpareil. Many albums' worth of compositions ("The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Live 1966," "Blonde on Blonde," "The Basement Tapes," "Before the Flood," "Blood on the Tracks" and arguably "Planet Waves" and "Desire") must be addressed in any serious account of the farthest and most compelling ends of rock 'n' roll. Dylan is one of rock's most eloquent, sexy and unpredictable singers. And one of its angriest. He is capable of delightful expressiveness on the harmonica; he's an insistent, possibly underrated melodist. And let's not forget that among other things, while he took no production credit on his recordings from this era, he oversaw, in the course of a consistent 15-year period, the creation of what remain rock's most astonishingly evocative and shudderingly atmospheric acoustic-based albums.
He showed up on the New York folk scene in the late 1950s; the chubby youngster on his first record jacket soon became lithe and wiry. Similarly, he began as a conventional folkie and immediately became unconventional, transcending the genre. His second album, "Freewheelin'," contains among other songs "Blowin' in the Wind," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Of these, "Don't Think Twice" is the slightest, but as late as 1999, reworked and expanded, it became a coursing, rueful, unforgettable anchor of his live shows. His third record, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," has the undeniable title song; a frightening rural Gothic, "Ballad of Hollis Brown"; possibly the most focused and precise and persuasive of his protest songs, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"; and, finally, "Boots of Spanish Leather," an abstract classic and one of the purest, most confounding folk songs of the time.
A lesser, "relationship" album, "Another Side of Bob Dylan," contains "Chimes of Freedom," Dylan's lovely hymn to "the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse." After this, he grew into his talents; between March 1965 and May 1966 he released eight album sides -- "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and the two-record "Blonde on Blonde," not to mention "Positively 4th Street," the meanest top 10 single in the history of rock. He outwrote, outsang and outperformed everyone.
"Bringing It All Back Home" begins with his first electric track on an album, "Subterranean Homesick Blues." It also includes "Maggie's Farm," a loping, laconic look at the service industry; "Mr. Tambourine Man," rock's most feeling paean to psychedelia, all the more compelling in that it's done acoustically; "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," the uncharacteristically straightforward love song that begins, "My love she speaks like silence/Without ideals or violence"; and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," which someone once said is to capitalism what "Darkness at Noon" is to communism. (The song also contains a fair collection of Dylan's most famous lines: "He not busy being born is busy dying"; "It's easy to see without looking too far/That not much is really sacred"; "Even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked"; "Money doesn't talk, it swears"; "If my thought-dreams could be seen/They'd probably put my head in a guillotine.")
After he released that album in 1965, he went on a short tour of Europe, chronicled in the documentary "Dont [sic] Look Back." He returned to find a pop audience polarized over "Subterranean Homesick Blues"; he played with a full electric band at the Newport Folk Festival and in Forest Hills, Queens, and was booed for his trouble.
Amid this jet stream of work, he married Sara Lownds (or Lownes or Lowndes) in late 1965. They had four children over the next four or five years: Jesse, Anna, Samuel and Jacob, later Jakob, now successful with his band the Wallflowers. (For 30 years, amusingly enough, Dylan's biographers have been giving the children various ages and names, as well as spelling Sara Dylan's name from her previous marriage in various ways; most of the biographies don't mention her real name, which was apparently Shirley Nowinsky.)
"Highway 61 Revisited" starts off with "Like a Rolling Stone," a pretty good song. Dylan once accepted a civil rights award at a swanky dinner and coldly told the well-dressed crowd, "My [black] friends don't wear suits." In "Like a Rolling Stone" he bites an even bigger hand that feeds him, portraying an entire youth generation as a slumming sorority girl -- and that's just the first verse. Then he gets nasty: The rest of the song is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of one of those scenes in "The Sopranos" in which a mobster systematically kicks the bejesus out of someone who's already down. Is "Like a Rolling Stone" the most powerful, difficult, unexpected and unrelenting performance in rock? Got another candidate?
The song "Highway 61 Revisited" may be Dylan's most disturbing composition, a tone poem of brutal capitalism, incest, biblical farce, warmongering and family entertainment, all set to a carnival beat that to this day gets his yuppie fans up to boogie at his live performances.
On "Blonde on Blonde," his singing alone is a catalog of the human emotion genome, excepting perhaps mercy. One of the great joys of the CD age is listening to that epic tale uninterrupted from start to finish. Dylan swaggers, brags, sighs, loves, loses, smiles, grieves, pleads, lusts, swoons and trips -- and that's just on "Pledging My Time" and "Visions of Johanna." The album contains "Just Like a Woman," a love song so elegant and confused it's not clear today, nearly 35 years later, whether it is insufferably condescending or startlingly loving. Another picaresque, "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," has his most canny female character -- Ruthie, who tells him that his debutante just knows what he needs, but she knows what he wants. The album ends with a song that took up an entire album side back in the vinyl days, a love song to Sara Dylan, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," more feverish and disturbed than even Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks."
Dylan was in a motorcycle accident in 1966; it has never been clear how badly he was hurt. The next few years he spent playing with the Band in Woodstock, in upstate New York, and releasing calmer, subtler albums -- "John Wesley Harding," "Nashville Skyline," the benighted "Self Portrait" and then finally, "New Morning," a blithely titled and performed redux.
In the mid-'70s he really came back. Alone among his '60s counterparts he accomplished an extended burst of creativity equal to his first. From 1974 to 1977, Dylan released "Planet Waves," a spare but twisted collection of songs recorded with the Band; "Before the Flood," a ferocious, loud and harsh double live album with the Band from the acclaimed 1974 tour; "The Basement Tapes," a five-year-old, much-bootlegged collection of Americana recordings from his Woodstock Gethsemane; "Blood on the Tracks," an epic and disturbing romantic song cycle; and "Desire," a shambling, often ferocious rock album.
He then organized and carried out the Rolling Thunder Tour, an aggregation that included Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Ronee Blakely, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, T-Bone Burnett and many other old friends and musicians. He later directed a four-hour feature film based around the tour, called "Renaldo and Clara." This period wound down with an amazing and peculiar hourlong TV concert memorialized on the live album "Hard Rain"; "Street Legal," an often-derided collection of post-Rolling Thunder songs; and "At Budokan," a two-record live set immortalizing Dylan's failed attempt to go Vegas on a worldwide scale.
The apogee of his career is perhaps "Blood on the Tracks." In his infrequent interviews, Dylan snaps when people ask if the record is the account of his breakup with Sara. In any case, with 15 years of fame behind him and the failure of a decade-long marriage in front of him, it is true that Dylan on this album looks at the world through blood-spattered glasses. The losses he is singing about seem fatal; his anger on songs like "Idiot Wind" is Lear-like. "Blood on the Tracks" is his only flawless album and his best produced; the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion, written and rewritten, formed in a way his songs almost never are. It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-'60s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years.
"Early one morning the sun was shining," the album begins. Dylan's voice is quieter and silkier than it ever sounded, or ever would again; each line, each word, on the record is articulated and, seemingly, meant. More than 25 years after its release it provides unexpected and moving moments. A title like "You're a Big Girl Now" seems as if the track will be of a piece with his most condescending love songs; yet it turns out to be arranged, performed and sung in the gentlest of ways. Two lines in, Dylan sings, "I'm back in the rain," and a minute later, at some last emotional end, he whispers, "I can change I swear" -- an ineffable moment in his most vulnerable song.
"Idiot Wind" is about truth, love, hatred and the Grand Coulee Dam; "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is a meticulously constructed abstract western. The last track, "Buckets of Rain," is a throwaway -- rain imagery permeates the album. It seems innocent, until you listen closely and hear the easygoing guitar line that anchors the song echo and break, the strings buzzing against the guitar neck, the guitarist's hands snapping off the frets. And then you notice the album's over.
After "Blood on the Tracks" came a long decline. The problems played out in such debilitating fashion on that album eventually cost the couple their marriage; despite a seemingly genuine plea on "Desire," in a song called "Sara," the pair divorced, nastily, in 1977. He was 36.
Dylan, born Jewish, went Christian in the late 1970s, and recorded two albums of largely devotional songs. Like many other Christians, he became a bore on the subject. "Slow Train Coming," his conversion album, has a production veneer courtesy of the famous R& B producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, but the songs are often puerile. On "Saved," the follow-up, the pair couldn't stop him from sounding shrill and even more intolerant. In 1979, Dylan toured with a gospel aggregation and refused to play any old songs, to a round of catcalls from his audience. A year later he went on the road again, toning down the gospel and deigning to play some unexpected gems from his scrapbook.
The 1980s were a difficult period: There are pretty songs, but many more goofy and unpleasant ones. Successive albums seemed slapdash and unconcerned. They had ugly covers and indifferent song selection; they lacked production values, even production consistency. "Shot of Love," in 1973, has the pretty "Every Grain of Sand." A lot of people like "Infidels," which Dylan again worked on with Knopfler; while the songs are mature and complex, melodically they are similar sounding and the affair as a whole still has echoes of his crackpot Christian days. He seemed particularly upset at the idea of space travel. "Jokerman," which is supposed to be the album's major work, has extended nonsense passages and what appear to be gnomic biblical in jokes. It must have cracked them up down at the revival hall.
"Desire," in 1976, had the jocular credit "This record could have been produced by Don DeVito," but in the mid-1980s, Dylan took the joke to heart, overseeing production of most of the albums from this period himself with the help of