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Bob Dylan turns 70: Why it's so hard to figure him out


This post originally appeared on Slate.

Bob Dylan is turning 70, and here we all come: the writers, the critics, the biographers, the song-quoters--and not one of us with a cake or a candle. Each of us thinks we know how best to celebrate the changeling who has changed our lives. Dylan has been called the voice of a generation. It's true. He's given voice to generations of writers who say he inspired them. If every person has a book in them, it seems every writer has a Dylan book--or at least an essay--in them.

Dylan isn't thrilled with the birthday presents. He's always taken a dim view of critics, even adulatory ones: "40-year-olds trying to explain my music to 10-year-olds," he once called them. In a recent letter to fans he rolled his eyes at the "gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future," dubious about the prospects of a great one. He has made a professional sport of embarrassing interviewers he thinks are trying to put him in a box, most famously Time's Horace Freeland Judson in the documentary Don't Look Back. A key theme of Dylan's music is: You're missing the point. "Ballad of a Thin Man" from 1965 says it most famously and explicitly: "Something is happening here but you don't know what it is." You can even find the message in "Boots of Spanish Leather."

Pictures: Bob Dylan
Video: His underappreciated songs

It's your own fault, Bob. If you made everything so simple and so plain, you wouldn't have so many followers plumbing your lyrics, tweezing your life, and succumbing in the process to the many sins Dylan somehow makes it very hard for writers to resist. I committed one of them at the end of the last paragraph. Call it song dropping. I've tossed off a song title and moved on to the next paragraph. Unless you're a fan, you probably aren't familiar with the song. Even if you are, my point may not be as self-evident as I think. (For the record, my point was that the song "Boots of Spanish Leather" is a conversation between two lovers, each missing the point--maybe on purpose--the other is making.)

Bob Dylan's most underrated tunes

Other sins include endless citations of obscure blues and folk musicians and rhapsodic descriptions of Dylan concerts you've seen--merely to establish that I'm very well read, it's well known. This is another sin, gratuitous quotation of Dylan lyrics. Done sparingly it's part of the clubhouse conversation of Dylan fans--a breadcrumb sin--but it gets tedious fast (almost there) if the writer quotes a lyric with no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means. (See what I'm saying?)

When I started listening rapturously to Dylan as a teenager, in the mid-1980s, I wanted to know what his every word meant, including a, and the, and um. It's the least you can do when you're writing lyrics on your jeans. Emotionally, I was in his thrall, but I also wanted some glimpse of how those words might all add up. He's asking questions that call for answers or at least conversation: Who are you? What's it going to take? What's true? If you had to get out fast, would you use the window?

And as my bookshelves filled up with biographies and cultural histories, I had a recurring question about a lot of the answers I found in those books: Why, in all the time that I've been listening to Dylan, has he so often been judged to be on a comeback from the period before I was born? Caught up in the world of Dylan's fans, which included most of the people who wrote about him, I couldn't help feeling out of step. They were either too hard to please--they said he was no good after he went electric or after the motorcycle mishap or after he became a Christian--or they were so pleased by everything he did, it suggested his genius might be a big hoax.

Though the great Dylan book may not be at hand, even he might approve of the mission that inspires the most recent crop of writing about him: to "celebrate the impossibility of pinning down Bob Dylan," as David Yaffe writes in his collection of four Dylan essays, Like a Complete Unknown. Above all, that means exploring the desire for change that drove Dylan from the start and still consumes him in his latest period, as Daniel Mark Epstein understands in his biography, The Ballad of Bob Dylan. In Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz traces the cultural currents and cross-currents he's constantly navigating. It's the lived Dylan experience--messy, conversational, and expanding--that has engaged Greil Marcus all along, as his incisive Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 attests.

"For an artist who began his career protesting," Yaffe writes, "his most fervent protests have been against his earlier selves and the audience who wanted to embalm him in them." Yet Dylan's fans, these books suggest, may have served all along as a kind of brutal muse--fruitful and destructive, like the romances that have inspired so many Dylan songs. And as is his way with those relationships, Dylan spends a lot of time pretending not to care--or bridling with impatience--even as he privately obsesses. The tension throughout Dylan's career between his drive to keep moving and his fans' deep investment in his current incarnation, or some prior incarnation, turns out to be a crucial catalyst of his restless creative process.

Follow the bouncing Bob since he came to New York on Jan. 24, 1961: Guthrie emulator, protest singer, beat poet, hipster rocker, recluse, stadium-show band-leader, carnival musician, evangelical, gospel singer, faded rocker, American song curator, radio host, filmmaker, and painter. When Dylan is in a comfortable spot in his career, he kicks himself out of it, reaching for some new sound, trying for a new and precise way to capture an idea that's always elusive. He rolls the rock up and then he's the one who pushes it back down again. "This home that I'd left a while back and couldn't remember exactly where it was, but I was on my way there," was how Dylan put it in the aptly named documentary No Direction Home, summing up his career. "I was born very far from where I'm supposed to be, and so, I'm on my way home."

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan performs onstage during his concert at The Worker's Gymnasium in Beijing on April 6, 2011. LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The constant recreations are what pull us in as fans. Dylan is discovering something new and we're going along with him. He's giving us a map to understand our own lives. It's not just the evolving music and words that draw us onward, but also the promise of a gateway into feeling like a member of a special new group, one that is always ahead of the curve. "We thought we were advanced and special," Wilentz writes of seeing Dylan in 1964 at the Philharmonic Hall in New York. "For us the concert was partly an act of collective self-ratification."

That is where the struggle started. A sense of identity rooted in Dylan-allegiance made for a very demanding audience, avid for precisely what its hero withheld: certainty, a promise either of more of the same or of absolutes. Now instead of just chasing after something, Dylan felt pursued.

Nothing, it seemed, could go more against the grain of his creative style, as an inside look at Dylan in the studio reveals. In a great chapter on the making of Blonde on Blonde, Wilentz captures the determined musician at work--abandoning recording in New York for a new venue in Nashville--and in Epstein's portrait of Dylan at work on Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft 40 years later, little has changed. The recording sessions are experimental and off-balance, yet Dylan runs them in a way that gives him maximum control. Sometimes he'll start a song in a new key. Musicians just have to catch up. He resents his producers who he says have watered down all of his albums. (He's produced his last three by himself.) If that's how he feels about professionals chiming in on his work, imagine the whole world telling him what his music was supposed to say and sound like.

How fast did Dylan start moving to elude entrapment? His third album, Times They Are A-Changing, filled with the protest songs that would help cement him as a protest singer, came out in the same year--1964--as Another Side of Bob Dylan, which marked his move entirely away from political protest songs. Of all the periods of change in Dylan's career, 1964 to 1966 is the most intense. His iconic decision in July of 1965 to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival and the negative reaction (Pete Seeger wanted to take an axe to the cables!) isn't the half of it. What followed was far more radical: a total commitment to creative risk in the face not just of uncertainty but hostility.

Dylan spent much of that year after Newport getting booed. It's one thing to try something out. It's another to live with that roll of the dice, following your idea for month after month. Dylan felt the new amplified sound matched his in-your-face attitude and his Kerouac and beat influenced lyrics. "I had to get where I was going all alone," he said at the time. "And I know it's real. ... They can boo till the end of time. I know that the music is real, more real than the boos." His drummer Levon Helm was so undone by the audience abuse that he left the tour to join an oil rig. Dylan just kept following his way.

And it nearly killed him. Shortly after this period Dylan had a collapse and didn't tour again for eight years. But he was musically still on the move. He retreated into seclusion to write some of his most beautiful songs of repair on John Wesley Harding (1967) while also finding joy in dickering around with his friends in The Band in their home recording studio. The Basement Tapes (1975) that emerged from those sessions are "less a style than a spirit," writes Marcus, "a spirit that had to do with delight in friendship and invention ... a spirit that shoots a good smile straight across this album."

It was his fans, in no small part, who pushed Dylan into that fertile period, which lasted a decade and produced some of his best music. Even Dylan himself seemed to acknowledge his embattled reliance on his audience to propel him forward. He couldn't forge ahead alone. There was a reason everyone was talking nostalgically about Dylan's greatest years by the time I started listening to him in the mid-'80s, after his followers panned his Christian phase. Dylan himself felt adrift, "a missing person inside of myself," he said. He'd lost a connection outside of himself. I traveled to shows he played with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, where he looked out into the audience and told us we all looked like "cutouts from a shooting gallery."

If the audience he needed didn't exist, he would create it. In his autobiography Chronicles, Dylan writes that he was about to hang it up and stop the "marathon stunt ride"--until he had a revelation at a show in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1987. Instead of running from his fans, he would "put myself in the service of the public" He'd leave behind his old followers and find a completely new set. "The kind of crowd that would have to find me would have to be the kind of crowd who didn't know what yesterday was." Dylan seemed to be recognizing afresh something Marcus wrote in 1960 after the release of the lackluster album Self Portrait. "If the music Dylan makes doesn't have the power to enter into the lives of his audience, his audience will take over his past."

Dylan has been working hard to hold off that takeover. He's put out enough good albums since the turnaround he writes about that Dylan fans have a new debate: Which is the better comeback album? He plays more than 100 shows a year, mixing old standards with new work. This year he made his first trip to China, prompting criticism from fans who thought the author of "The Times They Are A-Changin' " shouldn't play in an authoritarian country--since presumably he wouldn't be allowed to perform his signature protest songs.

Responding on his Web page, Dylan sounded like--what else--a musician who refused to be pinned down: He wasn't censored by anyone other than himself. He wanted to play new stuff. He bristled at being presented as a '60s icon. "They responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last four or five records," Dylan said of his audience. It wasn't a crowd of expats, either, he pointed out. Actual Chinese had flocked to hear him play. Fifty years after his career began, Dylan is still wrestling with his fans, leaving some behind and attracting new ones a long way from America. It's all part of trying to keep moving and find his way home.

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