Bob Dylan at Fifty

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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."

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