- 24 May 21
On his 80th birthday, Bob Dylan can look back on a life full of extraordinary music, and songs that will be handed down for hundreds of years to come. He promised to go wandering, and he did. And he took successive generations with him...
Bob Dylan is still at it – and, at the very fine age of just-80, that is an extraordinary achievement in itself. I remember seeing the wild-haired youth from Hibbing, Minnesota for the first time on BBC television way back when, in fiercely grainy black and white, and it was a pivotal moment. Here was someone who had stepped outside the confines of what was called pop music, to deliver songs of immense, imposing narrative power. Watching him, I was changed forever.
Songs too, with a profound sense of mystery. It is a quality that, almost uniquely, Bob Dylan has been able to sustain both in his work, and in what we know of him. Through all of the sometimes tortuous ups and downs of a remarkable – and a remarkably successful – career, he has never forgotten the importance of keeping people guessing. No one can fully pin Bob Dylan down. Not even Bob himself, at times, one suspects.
I remember arguing with one of the more liberal and intelligent English teachers in school that someone like Bob Dylan should be on the English curriculum. I quoted 'Mr. Tambourine Man' enthusiastically to him and he acknowledged that it had a poetic quality, before insisting that we return to our contemplation of 'The Lady of Shalott', by Alfred Lord Tennyson, or something similarly twee and dated. I might have had the last laugh, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." But that was decades later in 2016. It took some people a long, long time to come around.
The acoustic Dylan of the early 1960s, breaking new ground with every record, was just the start of it. Bringing It All Back Home, on which 'Mr. Tambourine Man' featured, was split into electric and acoustic sides, and began with the immortal opening lines of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine/ I'm on the pavement thinking about the government...", condensing a novel's worth of teeming imagery and chewable life advice into a mere two minutes and 21 seconds, before ending with the sorry news that "The pump don't work/ 'Cos the vandals took the handles." They're still at it too – and who can blame them?
It was epic, marvellously real and powerfully elusive. What did it all mean? There was never an easy answer to that question with Bob Dylan.
I still sing 'One Too Many Mornings', 'She Belongs To Me', 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry', 'I Want You', 'All Along The Watchtower', 'Lay Lady Lay', 'On A Night Like This', 'Hazel' – as you can see I loved the Band-aided Planet Waves – 'Simple Twist of Fate', and a whole bunch more. For me, Bob Dylan was always the Songwriter-In-Chief. He still is.
I thought he had gone down a rabbit hole when he became a so called born-again Christian for Slow Train Coming, but 'Gotta Serve Somebody' is a great song nonetheless. The renaissance which started in 1997 with Time Out of Mind – and took him through three albums – did not come as a surprise. It was obvious that Bob Dylan could write an album of great songs again. The only question had been when – and now he was flying. He pulled off further magic and mystery on Tempest in 2012. And finally, so far, on Rough And Rowdy Ways, at the ripe young age of 79, in 2020.
That album is all of 70 minutes long. It achieves a majestic lyrical power throughout, with big songs like 'I Contain Multitudes', 'Murder Most Foul' and 'Key West (Philosopher Pirate)' to the fore and no room whatsoever for padding. It is variously sad and wry, vulnerable and profound and full of striking proverbs and allusions. It is playful and carefully crafted, repeatedly spinning out narratives and images that strike a new, rich vein or spark ideas and recognition that we didn't know we had or felt.
It is the work of a master, weaving that life-long spell one more time, and with a depth of easy assurance that allows the listener to sit back and marvel, and recognise something vital in what is increasingly an age of arid intellectual browbeating: that we look far too often for simplistic answers when, more than ever, to be properly truthful in art, as in life, we need to reflect the reality that everything is desperately complicated and perpetually shifting into the bargain and there are always new jokers in the pack, and new threats, whose sinister depths we must at least try to conjugate.
And so. Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, is 80 years of age today, 24 May, 2021. As a callow youth with a guitar slung over his shoulder, and under the influence of Woody Guthrie, he may not have had anything in mind other than to sing, and to write, great songs, and to see where it'd take him – but since he first stepped onstage, and through all of the ravages of time and history since, Bob Dylan has succeeded in transforming popular culture and in doing so, he has influenced people from street level to the summit of power, enriching the world of everyone who listens, with songs that will be remembered and sung, honestly, forever.
On this your 80th birthday, we owe a whole Alaskan mountain of thanks to you, Mr. Bob Dylan. Without your work, we'd be living in a very different world. The planet waves to you. Hopefully, our salutations will raise even a brief, Mona Lisa smile.
Pick up your copy of the Bob Dylan special issue of Hot Press in shops now – or order online below: