Last week, Bob Dylan celebrated his 80th birthday. After sixty years and more than 500 songs, many of them considered classics, this man has been compared to William Shakespeare for the sheer genius of his writing and influence. If you are one of those whose only comment about Dylan is that “he can’t sing”, well don’t think twice, it’s all right. The Bard from Hibbing brought a new morning to how singers are evaluated, a changing of the guards from the traditional crooner to give voices like his, or Leonard Cohen, or Kate Bush, Neil Young, a shelter from the storm. They could have a career because he led the way.
I’m not arguing that his voice is something fantastic. All I really want to do is say that Dylan always knew what he was doing, creating a character, a past and a myth, going from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, from Minnesota to Greenwich Village, from acoustic to electric, from the Gates of Eden to Desolation Row.
There is a reason why he was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature: the way in which he plays with words, with ideas, with language, is truly groundbreaking. He has more in common, perhaps, with Yeats and Rimbaud and Joyce than with Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. He is a poet of wonderful words, a critic, a cynic, one who can shatter pomposity or express deepest feelings, sometimes with simply a change in the tone of his voice. Singing? Yes, he sings, but more than that, he gives life, emotion, intensity to the words.
Everyone thinks of Dylan as the great protest singer of the 60’s, a title he has been trying to lose ever since. But what can you say when he writes songs like Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, Masters of War, and With God On Our Side, among so many, many others? How can anyone better the simple questions he asks of the arms dealers: “Let me ask you one question: Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? I think you will fi nd when your death takes its toll, all the money you made will never buy back your soul .” Before we knew the word rendition, he wrote about, “at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do. Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine is strapped across their shoulders.”
A decade before Nixon and Watergate, he warned that: “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”. He warned of environmental dangers back in 1963, when “the pellets of poison are flooding their waters”. In fact, there can hardly be a subject he hasn’t dealt with in those sixty years and 500 songs. I asked myself if I could write an entire article using only Dylan lyrics, or song titles, and the answer was “yes I think it can be easily done”.
Then there are the movies in songs that Dylan produces on a regular basis. Think of Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, for example. You can see the story play out in your mind like a film. Or Brownsville Girl, which manages to be a movie in which a movie is a central theme. It begins: “Well, there was this movie I seen one time. About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck”.
You can talk about his political songs too, because we live in a political world where everything is broken. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol is a fierce condemnation of one William Zanzinger who killed poor Hattie Carroll, and of the system that let him off with a 6-month sentence. Hurricane is a another masterpiece of reporting, one which led to the release of Hurricane Carter.
Dylan can be vicious. Think of Positively 4th Street, about so-called friends who stab you in the back: “Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes. You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Or the quite exquisite put down of Ballad of a Thin Man: “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”
But, equally, who has ever written more beautiful love songs? Make You Feel My Love; If You See Her, Say Hello; Tomorrow Is A Long Time, or the heart-breaking Most of the Time; most writers would retire after just one or two of those songs.
“Most of the time, I know exactly where it all went. I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide, hide from the feelings that are buried inside. I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend. I don’t even care if I ever see her again.
Most of the time.”
The Jokerman at 80 may be knockin’ on Heaven’s door, but, like a rolling stone, he calls on Mr. Tambourine Man to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free. But for now, the groom’s still waiting at the altar, it’s not dark yet, and we can say in truth, you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go. Happy birthday Bob