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Bob Dylan at Fifty

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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.


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