Bob Dylan at Fifty

'Happiness is not on my list of priorities. Anybody can be happy.'

Bob Dylan and Jack Nicholson laugh onstage at the 33rd annual Grammy Awards at Radio City Music Hall.
AP Photo/Ron Frehm
Bob Dylan and Jack Nicholson laugh onstage at the 33rd annual Grammy Awards at Radio City Music Hall.
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It was one of the odder moments in the history of televised rock & roll.

Bob Dylan had been invited to play at the 1991 Grammy Awards ceremony, on the occasion of receiving the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award. In theory, these tributes are bestowed to acknowledge a performer's invaluable contribution to the history of popular music. In this case, though, it was a ludicrously belated recognition: Though he had affected both folk and popular music more than any other figure had in American culture, Dylan hadn't been honored – by NARAS, nor most of the established music industry for that matter – during the period of his greatest innovations, a quarter century ago. Indeed, in 1965 – the year that Dylan released "Like a Rolling Stone" and single-handedly changed rock & roll – the Grammy for Record of the Year was awarded to "A Taste of Honey," by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Dylan himself would not receive a Grammy until 1979, for "Gotta Serve Somebody."

Maybe Dylan was thinking about this when he took the stage that night. Or maybe he had other matters on his mind. In any event, on this occasion, Bob Dylan proceeded to behave precisely like Bob Dylan. Accompanied by a motley rock & roll outfit, he delivered a snarled, throttled version of his most embittered antiwar song, "Masters of War," at the peak of America's most adamantly prowar season. It was a transfixingly weird performance: Dylan sang the song in a flat, rushed voice – as if he realized that no matter how passionately or frequently he sang these words, it would never be enough to thwart the world's appetite for war – while the band behind him blazed like hellfire. For days afterward, critics would debate whether the performance had been brilliant or embarrassing (why bother to protest a war, some asked, when the song's lyrics couldn't even be deciphered?), but this much was plain: Dylan's appearance was the only moment of genuine rock & roll abandon at the Grammy Awards in years.

Moments later, a deliriously amused Jack Nicholson presented Dylan with his Lifetime Achievement Award. Dressed in a lopsided dark suit, Dylan stood by, fumbling with his gray curl-brim fedora and occasionally applauding himself. When Nicholson passed the plaque to him, Dylan looked confused. "Well, uh, all right," he said, fumbling some more with his hat. "Yeah. Well, my daddy, he didn't leave me too much. You know, he was a very simple man. But what he told me was this: He did say, 'Son . . .'" And then Dylan paused, rubbing his mouth while silently reading what was on the plaque, and then he shook his head. "He said so many things, you know?" he said, and the audience tittered. "He said, 'Son, it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if this happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your ways.'"

After that, nobody was laughing much. Dylan gave a final tip of his hat, spun on his heels and was gone. One more time, Bob Dylan had met America, and nobody really knew what to make of him.

If there is any central message in Bob Dylan's early music, perhaps it is that it isn't easy for a bright, scrupulous person to live in a society that honors the inversion of its own best values, a society that increasingly turns away from the notions of community and democracy toward the twisted politics of death and abundance. To live through such a time with conscience and intelligence intact, Dylan says in his music, one has to hold a brave and unsparing mirror up to the face of cultural corruption.

These days, of course, the politics of corruption and death are doing just fine and are fairly immune to any single pop star's acts of sedition. But back in the fevered momentum of the Sixties, when he first asserted himself, Dylan had a colossal impact on the changing face of American culture. With both his early folk writing and his mid-Sixties switch to electric music, Dylan gave voice to the rising anger of a bold new generation. In the process, he recast rock & roll as an art form that was capable of mocking society's values and politics and even, in the end, helping to redeem that society. Next to Elvis Presley, Dylan was the clearest shot at an individual cultural hero that rock & roll ever produced – and though he certainly pursued the occasion of his own moment in history, he would also pay a considerable cost for his ambition.

In July 1966, just a year after he had upended rock's musical and literary possibilities with "Like a Rolling Stone," and immediately following a tumultuous concert tour of the U.K. with his backing group the Hawks (later renamed the Band), Dylan was riding his motorcycle one morning near his home in Woodstock, New York, when the back wheel locked and he was hurtled over the handlebar. He was taken to Middletown Hospital with a concussion and broken vertebrae of the neck. An impending concert tour of America was canceled, as were all future recording sessions. He retreated to his home, with his wife and children, and spent months holed up with his friends from the Band in their nearby basement studio. According to some sources, Dylan was not as seriously hurt as was widely believed and had decided to use the time off to immerse himself in his new family life and to reevaluate his musical, political and spiritual tempers. According to others, Dylan used the sabbatical to recover from the intense psychological turbulence and rumored drug and alcohol bents of his short but seismic season as the king of rock & roll.

Eighteen months after the accident – at the peak of rock & roll's psychedelic era – Dylan returned to the pop world with John Wesley Harding, an acoustic-guitar and country-rhythm-section album. Along with The Basement Tapes (the sessions that Dylan had recorded privately with the Band in 1967), John Wesley Harding set out to find what could be salvaged of the American spirit – what values of family and history might endure or help to heal during a time of intense generational and political rancor. It was as though Dylan were trying to work against the era's context of rebellion and refusal – a context that he, as much as anyone, had helped make prevalent. Or perhaps he had simply lost his affection for a cultural momentum that, in his rush toward fame and invention, had almost cost him his life and his sanity. But Dylan had changed rock & roll too much to undo or stop its drift, or to be released from the promises of his earlier visions. To many fans it seemed that he had lost a certain vital sense of commitment. As a result, nearly all his subsequent releases would be evaluated for what they lacked – that is, for how they failed to live up to the standards of his explosive mid-Sixties work. Though Dylan would go on to make much lovely and resourceful music, he would never again produce work that would change or redefine American music and culture. Instead, he would make music that staked out the dimensions of his own change – music that, often as not, spoke to how the artist tried to outdistance the claims of his own past. Dylan's surpassing moment had come, and then, more quickly than any admirers ever expected, it had passed. For the last twenty-five years, Dylan has had to cope with that knowledge – and he has also had to cope with the knowledge that an increasingly capricious pop world has never really forgiven him for losing the momentum of his frenzied, world-breaking vision.

* * *

Iit is now 1991, and Bob Dylan — who turns fifty years old on May 24th – is still an active figure in rock & roll. In fact, recently he has been busier than any time since the mid-Sixties, releasing collections of new recordings on a near-annual basis, writing and singing with the first major group he has ever joined (the Traveling Wilburys) and touring almost constantly on his own. It's as if Dylan were committed once again to the restless troubadour life that he effectively renounced following his motorcycle accident, as if he had more invested in the music's sustaining power than ever before.

Yet despite this renaissance, and despite the enduring influence of his Sixties work, the modern pop world has lost much of its fascination with Dylan. In the last decade, artists like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, U2, Public Enemy, Metallica, Ice Cube and Guns n' Roses have produced vital work that has transformed what popular music is about and what it might accomplish, and some of that work has affected the culture at large, fueling ongoing social and political debate. Dylan hasn't made music to equal that effect for many years, nor has he really tried to. At best, he has tried occasionally to render work that taps into pop's commercial and technological vogues (such as Empire Burlesque and Oh Mercy), or he has mounted tours designed to interact with the massive audiences that his backing bands attract (such as his ventures with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). More typically, though, he has produced records that many observers regard as haphazard and uncommitted (like Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove and last year's Under the Red Sky), and he has also been given to playing live shows that take some of his best material and flatten it beyond recognition or rescue.

At least that's one way of looking at it. It is also true that there remains much that is illuminating and beautiful – and also profoundly unsettling – in Dylan's recent work. His best modern songs – including "Man in the Long Black Coat," "Brownsville Girl," "Under the Red Sky," "Dark Eyes," "Every Grain of Sand," "Death Is Not the End" and "Blind Willie McTell" – aren't that much of a departure from earlier touchstones like "I Shall Be Released" and "Like a Rolling Stone." That is, they are the testament of a man who isn't aiming to change the world so much as trying to find a way to abide all the heartbreak and disillusion that result from living in a morally centerless time. In the end, that stance may be no less courageous than the fiery iconoclasm that Dylan once proudly brandished.

* * *

It is tempting, of course, to read Dylan's modern songs as a key to his recent life and current sensibility – but then, that has long been the case. That's because, following his accident, Dylan became an intensely private man. He did not divulge much about the details of his life or the changing nature of his beliefs, and so when he made records like Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning – which, in part, extolled marriage and family as redemptive forces in life – many fans assumed that these works also signified the truths of Dylan's own personal life. Later, in the mid-Seventies, when Dylan's marriage began to come apart and he made Blood on the Tracks and Desire – with their accounts of romantic loss and disenchantment – his songs seemed to be confessions of his suffering, and the pain appeared to suit his artistic talents better than domestic bliss had. Well, maybe . . . but also maybe not. The truth is, there is still virtually nothing publicly known about Bob Dylan's marriage to Sara Lowndes – how it came together, how it survived for a time and why it ultimately failed. Since that period, there is even less that is known about Dylan beyond a few simple facts: that he has never remarried (and has apparently never found a love to take the place of his wife, except perhaps his love of God) and that he reportedly maintains a close relationship with his children. Past that, Dylan's personal life pretty much remains hidden; in fact, his is one of the best guarded private lives that any celebrity has ever managed to achieve. Dylan's friends do not disclose much – except, that is, when they leak his unreleased recordings – and Dylan himself likes discussing these matters even less than he likes discussing the meanings of his songs.

Which only causes one to wonder: Are Dylan's songs truly the key to Dylan? Does his life pour into his work at all? And is he a happy man? Or have his history and vision forever robbed him of the chance for peace and happiness? There are, of course, no definitive answers to questions like these – and maybe they aren't even the right questions. Then again, with Dylan, it isn't always easy to know just what are the right questions to ask. A few years ago, during the recording sessions for Knocked Out Loaded, I conducted some interviews with Dylan for Rolling Stone and once or twice tried broaching some of these topics. One night, at about two in the morning, Dylan was leaning across a pinball machine in an L.A. recording studio, talking about 1965, when he had toured England and made the film Don't Look Back. Though it was a peak period in both his popularity and his creativity, it was also a time of intense pressure and unhappiness. "That was before I got married and had kids of my own," he said. "Having children, that's the great equalizer, you know? Because you don't care so much about yourself anymore. I know that's been true in my case. I'm not sure I'd always been that good to people before that time, or that good to myself."

I asked him, Did he think he was a happier man these days than twenty years earlier?

"Oh, man, I've never even thought about that," Dylan said, laughing. "Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I'm happy, I'm happy – and if I'm not, I don't know the difference." He fell silent for a few moments and stared at his hands. "You know," he said, "these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, 'Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.' Now, that must be a happy man. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that's much more important than just being happy.

"Anyway, happiness is just a balloon – it's just temporary stuff. Anybody can be happy, and if you're not happy, they got a lot of drugs that can make you happy. But trust me: Life is not a bowl of cherries."

I asked him if, in that case, he felt he was a blessed man.

"Oh, yeah," he said, nodding his head and smiling broadly. "Yeah, I do. But not because I'm a big rock & roll star." And then he laughed and excused himself to go back to his recording session.

That was about as far as we got with that line of questioning. A couple of nights later, during another postmidnight visit, Dylan wanted to play the tape of "Brownsville Girl," which he had written with playwright Sam Shepard and had just finished recording. It was a long, storylike song, and it opened with the singer intoning a half-talked, half-sung remembrance about the time he saw the film The Gunfighter, about a fast-gun outlaw trying to forsake his glorious, on-the-run life when another fast-gun kid comes along and shoots him in the back. The man singing the song sits in a dark theater, watching the gunslinger's death over and over. As he watches it, he is thinking about how the dying cowboy briefly found a better meaning of life to aspire to – a life of family and love and peace – but in the end he couldn't escape his past. And then the singer begins thinking about all the love he has held in his own life, and all the hope he has lost, and all that he gave up for his own life on the run – and by the time the song is over, the singer can't tell if he's the man he's watching in the movie or if he's simply stuck in his own memory. Finally, as "Brownsville Girl" came crashing to its end, I realized what should have been obvious all along: This was a song about Dylan and about the life he has led and can never leave behind.

I didn't really know what to say, so I said nothing. Dylan lit a cigarette and took a seat on a nearby sofa and started talking. "If I'm here at eighty," he said after a bit, "I'll be doing the same thing I'm doing now. This is all I want to do – it's all I can do . . . I think I've always aimed my songs at people who I imagined – maybe falsely so – had the same experiences that I've had, who have kind of been through what I'd been through. But I guess a lot of people just haven't."

He watched his cigarette burn for a moment and then offered a smile. "See," he said, "I've always been just about being an individual, with an individual point of view. If I've been about anything, it's probably that, and to let some people know that it's possible to do the impossible.

"And that's really all," Dylan added. "If I've ever had anything to tell anybody, it's that you can do the impossible. Anything is possible. And that's it. No more."

On that night, as on so many nights before and since, I realized that it has indeed been something special to be alive during the time that Bob Dylan has been one of our foremost American artists. Dylan managed to speak to and for the best visions and keenest ideals of an entire emerging generation, and he also spoke to our sense of scary and liberating isolation: the sense that we were now living on our own, with "no direction home," that we would have to devise our own rules and our own integrity to make it through all the change. In the process, Dylan not only boldly defined the moment, he also invented rock & roll's future: He staked out a voice and style that countless other budding visionaries, including Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Sinead O'Connor, would later emulate and seek to make their own. And because he did this so affectingly, it became easy to take him and his work personally, to believe that he was still tied to our hopes for pronouncements that might yet deliver us. As Springsteen once noted, in some remarks directed toward Dylan on the occasion of Dylan's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "When I was fifteen and I heard 'Like a Rolling Stone,' I heard a guy like I've never heard before or since. A guy that had the guts to take on the whole world and made me feel like I had 'em, too . . . To steal a line from one of your songs, whether you like it or not, 'You was the brother that I never had.'" It's an understandable sentiment; to some of us, the epiphanies of youth count as deeply as the bonds of family. But as Dylan himself once told an interviewer: "People come up to me on the street all the time, acting like I'm some long-lost brother – like they know me. Well, I'm not their brother, and I think I can prove that."

It may be the only thing that he has left to prove – that he is not, after all, his brother's keeper – though in a sense it hardly matters. The truth is, despite his lapses, Dylan is still attempting to sort out the confusion of the day in the most honest and committed way that he knows. That is probably about as much as you can ask of somebody who has already done a tremendous amount to deepen our consciousness and our time. In the end, Bob Dylan remains a vital American artist – and one that we should be proud to claim as our own.

Happy birthday, Bob – and thanks for all the gifts.

This story is from the May 30th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 605: May 30, 1991
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