Bob Dylan turns 70 today. Many happy returns Bob.
It is impossible to quantify the impact that Dylan and his music has had on popular culture and the world at large. His never ending search to ease his restless spirit has brought with it multiple generations of fans, disciples, and fellow travellers.
For over fifty years he has been honing his craft, not afraid to turn his back on his audience physically and metaphorically to follow the path and to remain inspired. He has sat at the knee of folk and blues giants to give voice to the human condition in a way few others have, in fact too few to mention over such a sustained period of time.
The twisted, eerie darkness of Robert Johnson and other delta bluesman and the relentless stoic staunchness of Woody Guthrie amalgamated in a young man that was to be defined as ‘the voice of a generation’ before he was ready. Who would ever be ready for such a heavy label?
Unlike most Dylan fans that claim to have fallen in love at the first decibels off the needle impacted their eardrum, it took me several years of maturing as a listener and exponent of music to even begin to comprehend Dylan’s greatness. Growing up in the musical sound scapes of the 80’s and 90’s it was difficult to see any connection or path to Dylan’s music from mine and dare I say my generation’s point of view.
That was until, by chance and via community radio, I heard Not Dark Yet, Dylan’s 1997 ode to the civil war. It’s the closest experience that I could get to all of those British musicians that scrambled their radio dials to pick up the short radio waves of Radio Luxemburg in the 50s. What the DJ from the much closer, western suburb of Melbourne couldn’t have realised was that he was giving me a life changing experience, just like those Radio Luxemburg DJs did for so many all those years ago.
I didn’t know what the song was about but I knew it was about something heavy, I knew the singer was trying to make sense of his own world through defining his own mortality by explaining what it was to be alive. It was clear that he was singing not to himself but for himself.
This realisation opened up a whole world of acoustic blues and folk music for me by the master proponent of its ache and search for meaning. It gave me a golden bricked path back directly through the roots of 20th music, American music.
One hears a great deal from musicians and/or rock stars that claim that would write and perform even without the recompense or fame, I take such statements with a degree of scepticism but with Dylan you know it’s true.
This can be witnessed in his stage presence and performance. Dylan continues to hone his craft through his Never Ending Tour that circles the globe constantly.
Unlike many of the loner bluesmen that were also master showmen and performers, Dylan takes his stage persona from the folk scene. You quite often get the impression that Bob wouldn’t mind whether the audience were in the room or not. This doesn’t distract from his performance, it only enhances his mystique, a persona that has been carefully crafted by Dylan throughout his career. In the brilliant Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Dylan told his interviewer that he always wanted be the type of artist that came across as knowing something his audience didn’t. To this end, Dylan is resoundingly successful. With over 450 songs released throughout his career and many more written and not released, the audience is really none the wiser as to what lays at the core of the artist. That is what art is about; to stand still is to die to reach a destination is to stop creativity. With this in mind maybe Dylan is the most generous performer to ever grace the Rock stage.
While I always thought the blues and folk influences made Dylan more rock ‘n’ roll than either of the aforementioned. The reverence in which Dylan is held by his contemporaries and students can not be understated, their idolisation of his song writing abilities leads to even the biggest egos in rock such as Bono to say, “It's why every songwriter after him carries his baggage and why this lowly Irish bard would proudly carry his luggage. Any day.”
One could opine all day about Dylan’s songs and their meaning, what they meant for me and try and guess at what they meant for him. I’ll leave that for the thousands who have already done that over the years and the countless more that will do it in the years to come.
So how would I sum up this enigma, this voice of a generation, this musical giant? Quite simply – a great American songwriter.