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
May 30, 1991

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.

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