Bob Dylan turns 70: A tribute

2011-05-24 09:25
I promised a friend that when I wrote about Dylan’s 70th birthday that I wouldn’t mention the word legend; I won’t mention the word icon either.

I’ll let you be in my dream, if I can be in yours.

 Bob Dylan wrote those words when he was 22 years old; we have had a shared collective consciousness with him ever since. He thought and rhymed for us, his angst and turmoil, often imbued with sadness, was always underpinned with his unique style of ironic humour and an almost childlike sense of joy and exuberance. Dylan has led us on a unique musical path through folk protest to the birth of folk rock, country rock, gospel and finally, in the last decade, mature reflective rock.

 He chose to take us with him - had to take us with him - we, the fans are his Muse; we are the sad-eyed Joanna, the Brownsville Girl, and Mr Jones; we are his inspiration and reflection. Dylan has always examined what he sees and feels; requited and unrequited love, sex, pain, and death, ordinary human emotions are sifted and shifted through his extraordinary mind. He puts his finger on our pulse. He grabs at our collective emotional throat; on May 24, he blows 70 candles into the wind; to many, Dylan doesn’t blow in the wind, he is the wind.

I’ll know my song well before I start singing.

Dylan didn’t wait too long, aged 21, he was on his way. Of course, for the first 20 years of his life, he wasn’t Bob Dylan at all; he was Robert Zimmerman, son of Abe and Beattie and elder brother of David; the family lived a normal post war American existence in Hibbing, Minnesota.

But, young Robert knew from the first that he wanted to make it; as a teenager, he grabbed at the coattails of rock ‘n roll before that flash flood ebbed.

In the late 50s and early 60s, folk music was the new form of musical expression; so he clambered onto that bandwagon, but he always remembered his rock ‘n roll roots.

Somehow Dylan would have succeeded, he wasn’t a skinny acid head into weird lyrics; he has always been so much more. Today he would have been a rapper, in the 70s, a Rastafarian or a punk rocker; in another age he would have been Stephen Foster. He would have ridden the caboose of any current musical train. He had no choice. He had to.

Within three years, Dylan had exhausted the potential offered by folk music; even before he plugged his guitar into an amplifier, Dylan played folk with a rock attitude; he began giving his audience relevant music to dance to.

The Beatles with their grasp of American Rhythm and Blues gave all the young American quasi-folksingers an electric shot in the arm. Lennon and McCartney at the time of The British Invasion returned American music across the Atlantic, refreshed and refurbished; not for nothing is Dylan’s first electric album called Bringing It All Back Home. It was really a two-way switch, when Dylan brought literacy to rock ‘n roll, he influenced everybody just as everybody had influenced him.

As Dylan went one step further, it must have been very stressful for him to invent a completely new sound, one that had never been heard before; he found it pretty scary, he could hear the chords in his head, now he had to record them; chemical stimulation steadied his nerve, helped him stir in all the elements, get the musical broth just right.

Dylan has always led the pack, he was always on the musical move; while others soaked in the summer of love, he was already planting and reaping his spring garden, filled with John Wesley Harding, Nashville and a Band that lived in Big Pink. From the early 60s, Dylan began selling albums when his kind of sound was seven single fodder, he and the Beatles changed that. No more bland Middle of the Road dominating the top of the charts—the rock industry as we know it today, was born.

The 70s brought the breakup of his first marriage, two great albums and two atypical songs "Knocking on Heaven’s Door" and ‘Forever Young’ that are more famous than "Blowin’ in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin’".

The end of the decade saw his conversion to Christianity; many fans and critics cannot understand the Christian years; possibly, when Elvis died Dylan became aware of his own mortality; musically, gospel music was a bit like coming home, songs about salvation and retribution are just another form of folk protest.

The 80s were shaky for Dylan, until his work with George Harrison and Tom Petty as one of The Traveling Wilburys. Unfortunately, there was only that and one good album, the magical Oh Mercy, before writer’s block stopped him in his tracks. In the early 90s, he drew strength as he went back to his roots, the rich folk lyric of his early years. Songs about trains, love, the inevitably of death. The two almost throw away, if excellent folky albums portend the amazing trilogy, the award winning and chart topping Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times.

In his fifty years as a recording and touring singer he has sold millions of albums, spawned a vast army of serious fanatics; he may appear enigmatic and slightly aloof, but all of us have been touched by him, each of us has a private, personal relationship with Dylan, he speaks to each of us in a different tongue.

While other bands in concert give us a dose of nostalgia, as comfortable as old shoes, Dylan always pinches our toes; he is always reassessing and revamping. We owe Bobby a huge vote of thanks, music would not be as it is today without him.

So far this century, he has won an Oscar; a Pulitzer Prize, more Grammys and watched his son Jakob win Grammys of his own. Like many men of his age, and had grandchildren; whom he likes to serenade.

In every decade since the 60s, some part of his fan base writes him off, only to have him bounce back. Is the King of Reinvention finally finished? If his heart holds out, stick around for the next musical chapter, there’s sure to be one – let’s face it, even at his weakest, Dylan is better than most people at their best.

We tip our hats to a man who would sooner not be seen accepting our praise and respect. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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