(Written for a U.K Newspaper to coincide with the 1998 Glastonbury Festival)
Maybe you know Bob Dylan as someone your parents listened to and wonder what the fuss is still about. After all, the guy’s been around forever and why should he be different than any other oldies act, singing songs he wrote 30 years ago? Maybe you think he sings strange, looks strange and perhaps you saw him on television and think he acts strange. Or maybe you think he’s just some left over ’60s protest singer and that his songs couldn’t possibly have any relevance to you today. As the 20th Century nears its end, it has become quite obvious that more than anyone else Bob Dylan changed the face of popular music and in doing so helped change the world. That is a really pompous statement you’re probably thinking . And it is a pompous statement but it’s also a true one.
Bob Dylan emerged in the ’60s a rebel folksinger who wrote songs the likes of which hadn’t been heard before. There were quite a few other singer-songwriters in New York City (where Dylan was based) and elsewhere around the world who were doing the same thing, most of them following the trail blazed years before by Woody Guthrie, but Dylan stood out and in the years to come when some historian or musicologist looks back at this period, it will be Dylan’s songs they will examine. Take “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song written during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and still one of Dylan’s major works. This song, based on the English ballad “Lord Randall,” through a series of answers to simple questions, “Where have you been?;” “What did you see,” “What did you hear? “Who did you meet?” and finally “What will you do?” encapsulated all the fears and horrors of a world on the verge of self-destruction — and it did it with a chain of poetic images that are not only unforgettable, but just as scary if not scarier today than when they were written. Recently on an internet discussion group, someone pointed out a line from this song, “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” wondering how prophetic it was in terms of the recent Arkansas murders of four students and a teacher by two boys, aged 11 and 13. Prophetic or not, the reason Dylan’s songs will stand out above those of his contemporaries is the insight. Where other songwriter’s “protest songs” might ultimately conclude that war is bad or racism is wrong, Dylan delved into the reasons behind the protest, whether it was the weapons manufacturers in “Masters of War,” or the entire Southern United States social and political structure in “Only a Pawn In Their Game.”
Protest songs however, were only a small part of what Bob Dylan produced. As soon as he became the new rebel folk hero, he abandoned the role and started writing songs of a more deeply personal nature. Very quickly, he started performing these new songs with a rock and roll band, and with the added electric backing, the words began to take a more absurdist tone with imagery that recalled Rimbaud as well as the beat poets, and stories that described impossible situations where everything was mixed up or reversed, leading many of his fans to ask “What is he talking about?” Some of them have been asking that question for over 30 years. What Dylan was talking about however, was life itself. Life in a society that perpetually inhibits, instead of encourages and life in a world where the horrors seem to arrive more quickly than the pleasures. What his folkie detractors never got, or if they got it, they didn’t like it, was that Dylan was still protesting, only now the targets of his discontent weren’t as obvious or tangible.
Horror and discontent weren’t Dylan’s only topics. There was love and romance, humor, fantasy and dreams as well as glimpses of paradise. Pick out any verse of the still-remarkable “Mr. Tambourine Man” for a glimpse of this paradise The key word to understanding what Bob Dylan is about is change. As soon as he conquered the world of rock ’n’ roll, causing just about every musician working in popular music to re-examine what they were doing in the process, he vanished. Laid low by a motorcycle accident, he retreated to the hills of Woodstock, NY, re-emerging a year-and-a-half later with an entirely different sound and songs. The songs on John Wesley Harding were deceptively simple ballads, performed with an acoustic guitar and harmonica backed by bass and drums. Gone was the absurdist imagery, though the mystery remained. Then just as quickly, he abandoned that sound and the following year released Nashville Skyline an album of straightforward country-and-western based love songs sung in a new voice that at times sounded like crooning only to disappear again.
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Dylan only performed occasionally, finally returning to the road full-time in 1974 in a mammoth US tour backed by the Band, the group who backed him in his initial foray into rock in ’65 and ’66. Later that year he recorded what many believe to be his greatest album Blood On The Tracks, which among other things chronicled the breakup of his marriage. Blood On The Tracks not only represented a return to form, but a return to writing. The absurdist imagery was still gone and has not returned, but what is Dylan’s greatest gift, the ability to make you feel what he is feeling was back with full-throttle intensity.
Since Blood On The Tracks Dylan has more or less recorded and toured consistently, but always doing something different. After years of critical acclaim, he had to endure his first critical failures, but always kept going, and always managed to cause controversy whether with the dramatic rearranging of his songs in 1978, or his Christian period in the beginning of the ’80s.
In 1997, following a near-fatal illness, Dylan received universal acclaim for his latest album Time Out Of Mind, a spooky bluesy album that deals with the topic of death among other things straight on. (Interestingly enough the album was completed before his illness). Once again, it was his performance as much as the songs and his ability to make you feel that did it and the album went on to win three Grammies including album of the year.
As I write this Dylan is about to embark on another tour, a tour that will bring him to the Glastonbury Festival. He has essentially been on the road for ten years straight. Performing old songs as well as new ones, he somehow manages to make his shows touch on every facet of his career. And through some kind of magic, he also makes each show completely different than the one before even if he performs the exact same songs.
This ultimately may be his greatest accomplishment. There are no gimmicks at a Dylan show. No fancy lights, no elaborate stage sets. Just Dylan and his excellent band letting the music doing its work, combining in the process, rock ’n’ roll, country, folk and blues, the musical styles that be single-handedly brought together. In the spirit of the greatest jazz musicians, each night for Dylan is a chance to explore, to find something new, and yes, something fun in the process. More at home on the stage than ever before, with such labels as “the voice of a generation” hopefully buried in the past, Dylan is now content to be what he always wanted to be — a musician. He’s a lot more than that of course, but you’ll have to see him to find out why.