Bob Dylan and the illusion of modern times

To grasp the real shape of recent history, you have to stop using yourself as a measure

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

I was talking the other day to a young woman who knows a lot about the history of rock. We shared an enthusiasm for Bob Dylan’s later work — especially Blood on the Tracks (1975). As we talked, it occurred to me that Dylan recorded this ‘late’ effort 40 years ago, only 13 years into his career. So why do we treat it as belonging more to our time than, say, his folk ballads from the early 1960s? Some baby-boomer journalist must have decided around 1970 that something Dylan did in 1965 or 1966 — maybe his switch to electric instruments or his motorcycle accident — marked a critical break in history.

We stupidly accept this view of things: Dylan is now in his sixth decade as a symbol of American youth. But time does keep moving on. Blood on the Tracks is now closer to the reign of George V (1910–1936) than to our day. For that matter, Dylan’s eponymous first album (1962) is closer to the reign of Edward VII (1901–10) than to us.

We live life forward, as Kierkegaard said, but understand it backward. The problem is, we have lost the habit of looking backward. We assume anything that happened to us is somehow part of the ‘present day’. If you were born in 1971 and are due to turn 44 this year, then you will consider 1971 part of the era that contains this new year of 2015. You were there then and you’re here now — a member in good standing of the era of Uber, Twitter and Tumblr. Therefore, 1971 is surely hip, new and interesting to talk about.

Yet the very process that makes you consider 1971 a recent birth year reveals you to be an old geezer. To see how far you really are from some event, count the same number of years back from the event itself. While 1971 may be ‘only’ 44 years from today, it is just as close to the 1920s — the decade of Lenin, Bright Young Things, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, ‘Yes We Have No Bananas’, Weimar inflation and Thomas Hardy’s last poems. How young and hip do you feel now?

For some reason music always sounds newer than it is, and this is not true just of baby boom music. You might think Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ (1984) is edgy and subversive if you danced to it back in the day, but it now stands at the some chronological distance from Patti Page’s ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ (1953) as from the stuff kids are listening to today. The Sex Pistols’ first concert (1975) is closer in time to Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony (1936) than to us, and Rachmaninoff wrote much of his music in the 19th century.

Literature is not much better. Take your eye off a writer you consider an enfant terrible and he turns into a grand old man. Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers (1973) belongs as much to the era of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) as to that of novels now at the printers. Philip Roth is still thought to operate on the racy frontier of American thinking about sexuality, but his breakthrough story collection Goodbye Columbus (1959) is closer to Mark Twain’s final short-story collection The $30,000 Bequest (1906) than to anything recent.

Something similar happens in politics. Only a few years separate young Turks from elder statesmen. Kenneth Clarke served as a minister under David Cameron, yet his first race for parliament (a seat in Mansfield in 1964) is closer to Asquith’s premiership (1908–1916) than to the present day. Tony Blair’s takeover of the Labour party (1994) is closer to the last episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1974) than to us. Carl Benz’s invention of the automobile engine (1879) is closer to the Battle of Culloden (1746) than to us.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is closer to the second world war than it is to the next presidential election. Reagan’s birth (1911) is closer to the publication of Goethe’s Faust (1808) than it is to us. When you consider this, the United States as a civilisation comes to seem older, too. Ben Franklin’s birth (in Boston in 1706) is closer to the 14th century — the century of Dante and Chaucer — than it is to us. The settlement of Jamestown, Virginia (1607) is as close in time to the life of Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199) as it is to the present.

You begin to see why people take refuge in gadgetry. Our machines are about the only thing that doesn’t carry with them associations of ancient days. But that, too, is changing, now that Bill Gates’s founding of Microsoft (1975) is as close to László Bíró’s invention of the ballpoint pen (1935) as to us. A year, it turns out, is not so much a unit of velocity as a unit of acceleration.

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  • Samuel Johnson

    What’s this got to do with Bob Dylan though? As someone who was born after Reagan (yikes) I prefer to listen to his more recent, post-1997 work than Blood on the Tracks, great as it is. Is that “using myself as a measure” though, or just being honest about what I prefer? In a very real sense (as the clergyman sayeth), we are the only reliable measure of events, since time is not just a chronological, linear sequence, but something we subjectively experience within Time.

    Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
    I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
    But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
    I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me


    But me, I’m still on the road
    Heading for another joint
    We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point
    Of view

    • There’s an interesting point to be made of how Dylan tried to write ‘outside of time’, in the present moment. It goes back to his painting days in the early 70s. So I think in some sense Dylan’s not a good example of an individual defined by the past as he self-consciously rejected that frame of mind.

  • Padova44

    If you made a New Year’s Resolution not to write dull stuff, very dull and pointless stuff, you’re off to a rocky start.

    • tjamesjones

      so are you

      • Malcolm Stevas

        By gum there’s a riposte for you, boyo.

        • Padova44

          To take the time out of his brilliant existence to write such a simple but profound analysis, wowie, zowie.

          • franzdavis

            Hi Padova44. I am in Padova right now so it was a surprise to see a Dylan post with that name. If the article is dull and pointless (which it isn’t) try Padua on New Years day. No public buses! I have been stuck inside the industrial zone with no way of getting foods. No mercato; no ristorante within sight. So here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price I have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.
            If you want a characterization of dull and pointless try the city bearing your pen name on a new years day. Padova/Padua is dull and pointless right now. What could be more dull and pointless than your post? The article was OK and it does put times of events in an interesting perspective. I am going out now in Padove coz there are buses today- I hope.

          • prospero’s child

            Sounds like London 1970
            Practice rolling a joint with one hand whilst unhooking the girlfriend’s bra with the other.
            Hours of harmless fun and a bonus if you get it right.

          • Guest


          • davidshort10

            Bloody bad planning on your part. Are you perhaps aged 12?

          • franzdavis

            Hey David what’s it to you if its bad [planning on my part or not? I guess everything thats happened in your life has gone like clockwork. I have been all around the world many times and have never yet until now found a city that has no public transport on a public holiday. You have possibly been to so few places that you have not encountered any unexpected travails on your exiguous travels. Perhaps your IQ is 12 sport. A city that is purportedly tourist-oriented should have public transport on new years day. I don’t care really anyway. Can’t see why you would care about someone you don’t know being frustrated on their travels. Holidays taken half way round the world cannot plan for everything to go absolutely smoothly. Its justifiable to expect a modern city in the developed world to have reasonable transport. Hey shorty are you 10?

          • davidshort10

            I am 2.

          • davidshort10

            Well, I have been around a bit, but not ‘around the world many times’ – only rich kids could do that. And I have been in war zones and in unfamiliar cites, like the one I just arrived in in West Africa, where ‘public transport’ is taxis if you have money and communal taxis if you do not and ‘legs’ if you really are pushed. Don’t expect public transport or even public services including police in certain countries (in Rome on New Year’s Eve, 87pc of the police called in sick), or just stay at home with mummy. The world is not created for rich western kids.

    • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

      I agree. I’ve met very few people under the age of 50 who regard Dylan as anything other than a musical Ed Miliband. As for “modern”, again I don’t know anyone who regards him as anything other than someone stuck in the 60s.

      As for the rest of the article, padding at the very best.

      • Richard

        Oh, well then all but a very few people under the age of 50 are just wrong, aren’t they. And, he’s not stuck in the 50s. He’s not stuck at all. But his music and its influences span at least a century and, as Dylan said himself, draw on the wellsprings of the American Civil War. Best.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Modern art is rarely ‘modern’ – they call it ‘contemporary art’ instead. Ditto modern music. That said, some aged modern music remains challenging and timeless: Captain Beefheart still seems archaic and utterly new at the same time.

  • Neil Saunders

    I also play this trick of reckoning time backwards from a given event, but it has very little to do with the periodisation, if you will, of Bob Dylan’s recorded output. The work for which he will be principally remembered mostly precedes his motorcycle accident in 1966, and virtually all of it dates from the 1960s. This is why Blood On The Tracks is rightly considered a “late effort”.

    • Samuel Johnson

      Dylan’s work since 1997, particularly ‘Time out of Mind’, ‘”Love and Theft”‘ and ‘Modern Times’, but also I would argue ‘Tempest’, will be seen as the maturation of his early talent. He’s had the most successful ‘late period’ since Shakespeare.

      • Neil Saunders

        Maybe. But Shakespeare, who retired at about 48 and died at 52 never really had a “late period”.

        • Samuel Johnson

          That’s why I put late period in inverted commas. He developed a different style from the style of his youth, not something many poets or writers manage to do.

      • gerronwithit

        “Time Out Of Mind” brilliant. “Tempest” with the long rambling eulogy to John Lennon is miserable stuff.

        • Guest


        • Richard

          Arguably, yes. I’m the sentimental type so I quite appreciate the “Roll On John” song. But I think there is brilliant stuff on “Tempest” too – “Long and Wasted Years”, “Pay in Blood” and “Scarlet Town” in particular. I like the title song too but it’s looong, isn’t it. What it must have felt like to be sinking slowly on the Titanic. Somebody asleep at the wheel. Time out of Mind, indeed.

      • Richard

        Yes, I was going to post along the same times. That’s absolutely right. His albums of the 21st century reach towards ‘timelessness’, and at their best, go beyond the notion of time. The Shakespeare comparison is entirely apt.
        Dylan’s being cheeky, presumably, in titling “Tempest” alongside “The Tempest”. But the comparison is not unworthy. As for “‘Love and Theft'” and “Modern Times” … they seem to excavate very deep elements of American history and culture, and mould them a-new. Thanks Samuel Johnson. The Dylan ‘late period’ will surely be celebrated and enjoyed down the ages. Mark these words!!!

  • ghostoflectricity

    Anyone can play this game. Caldwell’s comparisons are entertaining, even if they serve to pad out his column (which I attribute to holiday-season laziness). Here are a few: The Doors’ debut album, the album of “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” and “The Crystal Ship” and “The End,” was released 48 years ago this month. 48 years earlier, January 1919, negotiations for the Versailles Treaty had just begun. Joyce’s landmark modernist work “Ulysses” was published 92 years 11 months ago (February 1922). 92 years 11 months earlier, March 1829, Andrew Jackson was just taking office as President of the United States, and the beginning of the Victorian era was still more than eight years in the future. The superb actress Luise Rainer, born in January 1910 (God rest her soul- she just died less than two weeks before her birthday), 105 years ago. 105 years earlier, January 1805, Thomas Jefferson was two months from completing his first term as president and it was still more than four years before Abraham Lincoln would be born.

  • Thunderbolt Ross

    I appreciate the idea here but I think it’s important to note that there’s time as in seconds, minutes, hours, days, years — and then there’s “cultural time”, something measured more by change. I think you’re mixing the two.

    Things can change very rapidly in just a few years making the “cultural time” distance between those years greater than in a less dynamic era. So 44 years in either direction is not necessarily equal when talking about music, etc

  • EnosBurrows

    This is an interesting article about what periods of time are commensurable. It is a topic I have been debating internally for much of the past year.

  • EnosBurrows

    This topic is why I get so mad at the use of a “generation” as a meaningful unit of cultural analysis.

    People who live any reasonable period of time live as part of many “generations”. E M Forster was an Edwardian writer who wrote all his novels but one before 1914, but he was also part of the Modernist Bloomsbury set, as well as a fixture in the post-wwII Reithian era at the BBC.

    In a very different context, Rollerena was both part of the Studio 54 Era in New York and part of the ACT-UP era.

    Of all modern novelists I think Kazuo Ishiguro manages best to present the extreme specificity of a given year in Never Let Me Go. In that alternate world of children cloned for body parts, the children/protagonists accept as real and normal the very odd place and time they are born in, but we know from the novel that their class was just about the first to be born and that the cloned people who came after them were treated very differently.

  • Terry Koch

    To someone looking back to our chronological “here” from 30,000 years in the future, Homer and Gary Shteyngart would be part of the same era. Therefore….. ?

  • tjamesjones

    good piece – and you would go and pick 1971….

  • Deep Sepia

    An interesting corollary: things age at different rates, particularly in culture. Peter Max seems ancient; Andy Warhol, contemporary. The Allman Brothers Band have given up touring at a good time– they were dangerously close to becoming an Allman Brothers tribute band, while they performed ’70s jams with earnest authenticity, the form itself has become antique. Meanwhile Can’s “Soon over Babaluma” and the Eno/Byrne “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” could have been recorded yesterday.

    • 1YesterdaysWine1

      There’s no accounting for taste. Your last two examples indeed could have been recorded yesterday. They are terrible and fit right in with the manufactured music of our current era.

      • Jeff Blanks

        Quality aside, what it really indicates is that the creative class’ sensibilities have been held in thrall by the likes of Brian Eno and Andy Warhol since about 1978.

        Meanwhile, the Reagan/Thatcher restoration continues, where crewcuts, bowling shirts, and trilbies–a look of, say, the ’40s and ’50s–abound and not only does no one bat an eye, you’re accused of not being “open-minded” if you raise an objection. How can Peter Max be “ancient” in such a situation?

    • Swanky

      Never really liked the Allman Brothers. Tried. Just didn’t. Much prefer Lynyrd Skynyrd, for all their coarseness and thematic narrowness.

  • kentgeordie

    Why nothing about Bob Dylan? Because nothing that anybody writes about him is as good as listening to his songs.

  • Mister Rible

    i have no clue what this article is about

    • Jeff Blanks

      I thought it was gonna be yet more post-punk Boomer-bashing, but then he started talking about Madonna (who I suppose is technically a Boomer).

  • 1YesterdaysWine1

    These comparisons are meaningless. People still read Homer but his (or their) work is closer to building of the first small cities than it is to our time. The chief problem such a foolhardy writer like this makes is somehow believing that artistic endeavors of any sort are about fashion – and not about meaning, the human condition and the way they makes us feel. We listen to Bach, who was born in 1685 as if he was born recently, in OUR era. Yet, 330 years before his birth (the same period that separates this year – 2015 – from Bach) or 1355, was practically a different universe from ours. What can such oddball splitting of eras or millennia do for us? Don’t get me started on the cave paintings in southern Europe and other really ancient artistic expressions. Art is not fashion. Let that penetrate the thimble that holds this writer’s brain.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    OK, full marks for some entertaining analogies, but as others have noted, a great many of us have played similar games. It’s many years since I first reflected on the fact that when I started grammar school WW2 was in the past – because, see, it was before I was born – and it remained ancient history for me and my friends even though our fathers & uncles and most of our teachers had served in that war. It had finished a mere fifteen or so years previously.
    Now, the Falklands War is more than twice as far back in time as WW2 was to me as an 11-yr-old in my new school blazer.
    And yeah, most of us handle the aging rock music thing with a sense of proportion: I mean, I saw Frank Zappa and the Mothers perform, but for me to tell some schoolboy about that would be like some gnarled old teacher of mine in 1960 telling me about the Battle of the Somme…
    Good fun but not enough on which to hang an article. As for, “You might think Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ (1984) is edgy and subversive,” no, really, maybe a few girlies thought that but most of the people I knew thought it was weird garbage and La Madonna was a weird, freakish poseur of limited talent. Her subsequent celebrity status remains a mystery – but then, medocrity often rises unaccountably. Just look at the government front bench.

    • PeteCW

      It wasn’t ‘weird garbage’ at all – it was very ordinary, uninspired corporate pop garbage. If Madonna had been at all weird or freakish her career may have been of some interest, however limited. But she wasn’t and it isn’t.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Ok so it wasn’t dogshit, but horseshit… I found that song weird, since it was bafflingly hard to analyse its evident appeal for so many – IMO it had none at all. And I found (still find) the woman freakish, as in peculiarly, displeasingly unattractive, not hideous but unpleasant.

      • Benjamin Waterhouse

        All pop and “rock” is garbage…

    • Kennybhoy

      “Good fun but not enough on which to hang an article.”

      Och come on man. it is the season for this sort of reflection…

      Does every article have to be about pressing present concerns?

      “Ah but I was so much older then
      I’m younger than that now…”

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Suspect Bob’s homespun “got religion” lyrics saved him from sharing John Lennon’s fate.

  • Jamie

    Christopher – this article is ” dumb as a rock”. I heard that phrase 1971 by the way, what ever that is worth..

  • FrankS2

    Us baby boomers are back in the 1880s , counting backwards.

  • gerronwithit

    Actually, to focus on time and a little controversy, I have always thought John Wesley Harding was Dylan’s best album (1968) and The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, of the same year, was their best.

    • prospero’s child

      Agreed. Not controversial in my eyes either.
      Sadly, it might be (in part) because we’re old.

      • prospero’s child


        • gerontius


          • gerontius


  • Swanky

    Christ: Bob is the most overrated songwriter in history. I’d put my best up against his, any day. And I sound nicer, into the bargain. A couple of mine: ‘Lavender’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW5pPXGrdTY
    and ‘See You In My Dreams’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKg0HNsEefs

    • prospero’s child

      You look nicer too.
      I can like you both can’t I?

      • Swanky

        Thank you, kind sir/madam. You certainly may. Happy 2015 to you!

  • Swanky

    American music at its best is freedom-loving, truth-seeking, and innovative in the service of both: so we have ‘I’ll be your mirror’ as the German model Nico sings with the Velvet Underground (an exquisite piece, close to my heart), and we have this (the Blues Brothers version of ‘Rawhide’):

  • Sarka

    Engaging observations, but time in history isn’t just a scientific uniform quantitative thing. Major events and cultural changes can represent watersheds, so that gulfs of perception may be greater between some people born ten years apart than from others born twenty or more years apart. I certainly noticed the sense of watersheds as the child (growing up in sixties/seventies) of parents who had experienced the pre-war and war and aftermath. My experience of late childhood and youth was of a fairly continuous, even if changing era, whereas my parents’ experience was of a huge change of era – over just six years.

    Also relevant is how the experience of time changes over a lifetime. For the child, ten years is an almost unimaginable eon, forward or back, but then time, and retrospective and prospective experience of time speeds up progressively. I remember that when we were both in our forties, a friend of my youth said to me in wonder, after seeing Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, “I’ve realised I was born exactly ten years to the day after the destruction of the Krakow Ghetto…Only ten years! That’s nothing…it’s always seemed such faraway ancient history, but its’ so close, which is a frightening thought in many ways.”.

  • Simon_in_London

    I don’t think this is a ‘living memory’ effect. There has been a freezing or stagnation of culture since about 1970, and of most forms of technology too – computers/communication is the big exception. 1974 is ‘modern’ because we have changed so little in 40 years, whereas 1934-1974 marked big changes, and the changes 1894-1934 were utterly vast. From first powered flight 1903 to man on the moon 1969 was an era of rapid change. 1970-present is just not comparable.

  • Adam Cooper

    If you were born in the same year as Bob Dylan you are now 73. If you discovered him in 1962 chances are that you like your music enough that you still take an interest when someone new comes along – no one is surprised these days if a 73 year old appreciates a Jake Bugg or whoever. But imagine a 73 year old picking up on Dylan in 1962. He would have been born in 1889, 125 years ago… Now that does sound strange!

  • John Byde

    What is this article about?

  • Sean L

    I’d echo what Sarka says below, time isn’t uniform. Time in the sense of human being, of lived experience, which must be *personal*. And that’s what Kierkegaard was getting at. His philosophy was a reaction to Hegel’s historical philosophy, better known to us via Marx, which completely passes over the subject, the individual person. And that’s pretty much what you’re doing here. If the pop culture of our teenage years is more vivid to us now that’s only because it was our first and therefore freshest experience. Hence one’s formative years tend to occupy a disproportionate amount of one’s memory. And that’s constitutive of what one *is*, what one has already *been* or experienced. One can read books about history and learn dates and chronology. But that learning process is itself part of one’s lived personal experience. That’s why it’s good for children to learn facts and stories. The child prodigy Enoch Powell, whose teacher mother had him translating Ancient Greek as a seven year old, said she also wanted him to learn the Bible and the story of Christ so that he’d always have it to call upon in later life, which he did after his atheist phase. There’s no such thing as time that isn’t personal, subjective. Because finally we must experience things as persons *in time*. The chronological time you refer to we can only acquire second-hand as it were from books and so on. It’s therefore purely intellectual or imaginary.

  • davidshort10

    So is there not going to be a US presidential election for 35 years? This is a really dumb article, making a point I have read elsewhere but scrabbling around for as many examples as it takes to reach the word count. Is this ‘writer’ some sort of intern related to the editor or Andrew Neill?

  • davidshort10

    There is a better and opposite point to be made. Life in 1914 would be recognisable, liveable and enjoyable to an adult transported there from 2014.

    • Jeff Blanks

      ?? Does that include WWI?

      • davidshort10

        Don’t be silly.

  • davidshort10

    During the summer, I showed a friend’s 20 year old son a love letter that had been sent to me in the mid to late 90s. He was as amazed as if I had shown him the tablets of the Ten Commandments – people got out a piece of paper, wrote things on it, put the paper in an envelope, stuck a stamp on it and put it in a letterbox – in his lifetime!

  • Phil Wallace

    This article is weirdly similar to one that appeared in History Today a couple of months ago (“Mirror Year: How Old Are You Really”). Just a coincidence, no doubt. Only the most mean-spirited cynic would suggest that the fact that the central idea is the same – and that some of the phrasing is almost word-for-word – is anything other than pure chance.

  • SarahAB

    Interesting post – though I’d just note that I think today’s young people have a different relationship with the music of the last 50 or 60 years than I did, growing up in the 70s. Whereas it would have been unusual, when I was a teenager, to listen to Frank Sinatra or Glen Miller, today’s teenagers do seem to listen to music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

  • Guest

    “We shared an enthusiasm for Bob Dylan’s later work — especially Blood on the Tracks (1975)” – now THAT makes perfect sense.

  • bengeo

    Dylan wasn’t bad!

  • Stumpzian Farber

    Boy, some of these posters get bored easily. Interesting article, especially because of the author’s choices for illustrating his point.

  • Frank Cipriano

    You’re so full of sh*t your eyes are brown, right?