Bob Dylan turned 60 on May 24, which is pretty amazing. It seems like just yesterday Linus said to Charlie Brown, "Bob Dylan is 30" and Charlie Brown said, "Suddenly I feel old."
The New Yorker and PEN, the writer's organization, just held an evening in New York of authors and songwriters paying tribute to Dylan. They compared Dylan to Whitman, Emerson, Twain, and Joyce Martin Amis, Bobbie Ann Mason, T.C. Boyle and Rick Moody.
There are a stack of books about Dylan, some new, some reissued to take advantage of his birthday. There is one is about his films, which is kind of a slim subject; Dylan's films consist of a few documentaries and two supporting roles. Another one is about Bob Dylan's recording sessions, which is funny because Dylan's basic attitude toward the recording studio has been, "Get me out of here!"
There is an erudite exegesis of "The Basement Tapes" (a bunch of demos Dylan recorded with the Band in 1967). There is also a book about Dylan's concerts, and the thing about concerts is, if you weren't there, it's just not that much fun hearing that he switched the verses of "Tangled Up in Blue" in Phoenix in 1994.
The book that grabbed me was "Positively 4th Street" by David Hadju. It's about the brief period early in Dylan's career when he found himself anointed the prince of protest singers. It was a very short period. His first album of original material, "Freewheelin'", came out in 1963, and it contained all kinds of material: love songs, blues songs, comedy songs. But the one that got the most attention was "Blowin' in the Wind," which was very quickly picked up by the civil rights movement.
Around the same time, Dylan was himself picked up by Joan Baez, the voice of the New Left. She sang his material and introduced him to her audience, and he soon found himself acclaimed across the country as a great protest singer.
Dylan reacted as any ambitious young musician would: "Oh, I guess this is what I am." He quickly wrote a lot of protest songs like "The Times They Are a Changin'" and he played at Martin Luther King's march on Washington and became famous as a protest singer.
What makes Dylan remarkable is that as soon as he was put in a box, he had to break out of it. If being famous and revered meant he had to keep writing the same kind of song over and over, he wanted nothing to do with it. So he began writing impressionistic songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages" in which he disowned what he called finger-pointing songs.
And then he got an electric band and played rock 'n' roll. The folkies booed him, but he won a whole new audience with records like "Subterranean Homesick Bues" and "Like a Rolling Stone."
By 1966, Dylan was the biggest rock star in the world, but true to form, as soon as that became a burden, he went to Nashville and made country records. Every time he changed, his old fans thought he'd lost his mind. But he always made more new fans than he'd lost.
'Cause here's the important thing: He was really good at all of it. No folk singer wrote better ballads than "Don't Think Twice" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." No rock star had better material than "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." No one in Nashville could top "Lay Lady Lay" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." The guy was just unbeatable. Almost certainly the greatest American songwriter of the last 50 years. Maybe the best ever.
And he's still out there today. Dylan plays 100 concerts a year. He offers his music to anyone who cares to listen, in the great tradition of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and B.B. King.
Elvis Costello said that seeing Bob Dylan these days is like seeing Homer standing up there disclaiming. I think that's a pretty good analogy. We're lucky to be alive in a time when you can go see Bob Dylan. Everyone should take advantage of it.
I can't believe it's 30 years since Bob Dylan turned 30. LBJ and Nixon are gone. Elvis Presley and John Lennon are gone. Even Charlie Brown and Linus are gone. But Dylan's still playing concerts, making records and writing new songs. His last CD won the Grammy for album of the year. His last single won the Oscar. And whatever he does next, I'm sure, won't be anything like what he did last.
So happy birthday, Bob. Thanks for taking the high road. Thanks for sticking with it, even when you didn't have to. Many happy returns.
Celebrating Dylan's legacy at MTV.com.
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