Bob Dylan still fascinates

Bob Dylan still fascinates

Musical star

Fifty years ago, a baby-faced kid from Minnesota released his first record album. While its title bore the musician’s name, the music, 13 tracks in all, looked backward as much as it did forward.

Iconic : Bob Dylan is as popular as ever.

There were cover versions of songs by traditional stalwarts such as Bukka White, Roy Acuff and Blind Lemon Jefferson, arrangements of older tunes, plus a shout-out to folk singer Woody Guthrie, penned by the young musician for his hero.

The music was of its time, yet out of time, a quality that would mark the course of the artist’s career.

The album, of course, was “Bob Dylan”. While it eventually became a bestseller after Dylan became a star, the LP didn’t crack the Billboard Top 200 in the year of its release.

In the half-century since, Dylan has released 70 albums. He has enjoyed — or been burdened by, take your pick — virtually every honour a musician can receive: lauded as the voice of a generation, though he wisecracked that he was “a song-and-dance man”. Grammy awards. A Kennedy Center honour. An honorary Pulitzer Prize. His lyrics parsed with Talmudic scrutiny.

And more tribute albums and cover versions of his songs than anyone alive.
You could fill entire albums with other musicians’ takes of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, All Along the Watchtower and Blowin’ in the Wind, with 375 known covers. In the Age of Downloading, many fans have.

That is Dylan’s real legacy, the one that matters. Everything else — the early self-mythologising, his flings with Joan Baez (and later, Jesus), his briefly controversial decision to go electric, the motorcycle accident, the shape-shifting personas — will be the stuff of his obituary and biographies to come, nothing more.

The music is everything.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Dylan’s journey is his quick transformation from student to master. He has long been one of the consummate influences in a range of musical forms: rock ‘n’ roll, neo-folk, alt-country and the singer-songwriter movement, which he arguably launched.

He was the reason the Beatles’ lyrics grew more sophisticated during the mid-1960s. For a while you couldn’t pick up a music magazine without someone — Paul Simon, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith — being hyped as “the next Dylan”.
Those musicians, while flattered, shrugged that off as hyperbole. They just wanted to be themselves.

Besides, as legendary producer T-Bone Burnett once noted, Dylan “is the Homer of our time. The next Bob Dylan will not come around for another millennium or two, making it highly unlikely that it will happen at all.”

While that, too, is hyperbole, Burnett makes a point. The circumstances that produced Dylan — the social flux of midcentury America and a morphing cultural scene — proved a one-of-a-kind petri dish for a well-read, intellectually curious artist’s growth.

Still, musicians mine the times they live in. Richard Thompson, the British songwriter and guitar hero, covered Dylan songs during his days with Fairport Convention; more recently he penned Dad’s Gonna Kill Me, sung as a lament by a soldier stationed in Baghdad:

Dad’s in a bad mood, Dad’s got the blues/It’s someone else’s mess that I didn’t choose/at least we’re winning on the Fox evening news/nobody loves me here.
Rappers speak of the streets, some authentically, others not so much. (Then again, how much did Dylan really know about riding boxcars when he penned Hobo’s Lament? Artists live inside their own heads as much as out in the world.)
For all his continued contribution to contemporary music — he is one of our consummate cross-pollinators — Dylan still finds himself looking over his musical shoulder. Something is gaining on him, and it’s time.

Dylan turns 71 in May. A classicist at his core, he is delving ever deeper into the national songbook, mining the music of what Greil Marcus once called “the old weird America.” For some time now, he has pared his lyrics, jettisoning the look-at-me flash of his youth.

He is akin to an aging coin collector, pulling out the pieces of silver and gold to study them anew, turning them in his hands, just as his music will be examined and appreciated decades down the line.