Bob Dylan turned 80 the other week. Does that seem to consign not just the vanished twentieth century but the long stretch of modernity we identify with to the filing cabinet of history? Well, maybe not. Before the Sixties, everyone thought that rock music, pop music– whether it was Elvis or Little Richard – was a pastime for teenagers but every-one would eventually put away the things of childhood and invest in jazz or the real blues of a Robert Johnson, in folk, or indeed in classical music. After Dylan all that changed. The ‘unwashed phenome-non / the original vagabond’ as Joan Baez called him, reinvented the idiom of rock music. He not only radically shifted what it sounded like, he created a wholly new idiom for what could be said in it.
‘You who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fear’ he grinds out in ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll’. Who had ever used words like that in a pop-ular song? Substituting philosophise for rationalise intuitively, but with a tremen-dous suggestion of depth.
The tattered truisms about protest songs and transpositions from folk to electric won’t get you far with Dylan. In fact he found a way for the rock song not just to metamorphose effortlessly from a broad folk Woody Guthrie-ish base – which seemed somehow to encompass the myth of America in its homespun twang while also miming the rhythm of the blues – but to lasso language with an extraordi-nary Shakespearean elasticity and unpre-dictability. Indeed, with a Shakespearean poignancy and power. Who but Dylan could sing-speak to the plaintive accom-paniment of that harmonica in ‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘I was hungry and it was your world’? Who could sing in ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ of being ‘lost in the rain in Juarez when it’s Easter time too. And your gravity fails. And negativity just don’t pull you through’?
It’s a standard quotation in this con-text that Dylan said to Keith Richards, ‘I could have written ‘Satisfaction’ but you couldn’t have written ‘Desolation Row’.’ But it’s a fair one because it admits the high and mighty viability of the lesser thing. There are no greater rock songs than ‘Satisfaction’ but ‘Desolation Row’ – and in fact all of Dylan from that golden handful of years in the mid-Sixties – is in a different category.
You could not have had a Dylan without the forces that produced the Bea-tles and the Rolling Stones and the Who and Velvet Underground and ultimate-ly David Bowie (as well as opposite and staggering figures like Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell) any more than you could have had a Shakespeare without a thea-tre that could accommodate Marlowe and Jonson and Webster. But Dylan was the defining point. It wasn’t just the obvi-ous cloak-trailer like ‘Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower’ or ‘You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.’ It was the tremen-dous fluency and power of feeling that these name-drops were a pointer towards. ‘Someone who will die for you and more’ he thunders in ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ just as he can sing about how his ‘love she speaks like silence / without ideals or violence / she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / yet she’s true like ice, like fire.’
It’s not for nothing that one of the greatest literary critics Christopher Ricks is the staunchest admirer of Dylan. Of course there’s a tremendous pulsation in the music. It’s not for nothing that Dylan could command the loyalty of Robbie Robertson and The Band. But the Dylan who can be so baroque and so verbal-ly lush in ‘Visions of Johanna’, say, or ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ – that 12-minute lament for all bereaved prin-cesses – could also in ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ write ‘I can’t help it if you might think I’m odd if I say I’m loving you not for what you are but what you’re not’.
There is a tremendous intimate familiarity in Dylan – a shock of recogni-tion which is enough to make you believe in Plato’s cave – and there’s also, on occa-sion, a bareness of utterance that’s there in songs like ‘Tomorrow’s Such a Long Time’. Today’s kids recognise him as a classic. They realise quite rightly that he is a mesmeric power who originated the sensibility they inherit.
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