“Oh, God, it’s so hard,” Bono complained to me recently as we began a conversation about Bob Dylan. “It’s like trying to talk about the pyramids. What do you do? You just stand back and . . . gape.” Dylan’s achievements over the past four decades inspire that kind of open-mouthed wonder. There is no type of song he hasn’t written, no style he hasn’t mastered. And there is no artist in popular music that he hasn’t influenced, whether those artists are aware of it or not.
So, on the happy occasion of Bob Dylan’s sixtieth birthday, how do you begin to get a handle on all that he has done? It’s easy to treat Dylan like a museum piece, a remote and abstract monument, as impressive – and lifeless – as the pyramids. What’s harder, strangely, is to keep in mind that he’s still out there doing it. “Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint,” he sang a quarter century ago, and that’s still what he’s up to – and doing it as well as he’s ever done it.
If you listen to his first album, Bob Dylan, which was released in 1962 when the singer was twenty, and then listen to Time Out of Mind, his most recent album, which came out in 1997, it’s clear that Dylan has become the person he set out to be. For all its youthful exuberance, Bob Dylan is an album on which a young man is trying to sound old, weathered and wise. He’s emulating folk troubadours like Woody Guthrie and bluesmen like Bukka White – singing their songs and making their tone of world-weary experience his own. From this distance it seems as if he is trying on an identity that he prophetically knew would one day become his own.
That day arrived in the early 1990’s – after he had already been the voice of protest; the Beat poet with that wild, thin mercury sound; the Woodstock family man, and the born-again scourge of God. Through most of the Eighties, Dylan didn’t really seem to know who he was, and the Nineties started off very badly for him. For close to fifteen years, even though he had written some great songs and had made at least one great album (Oh Mercy, from 1989), he had been touring endlessly and lurching from style to style in the studio. He seemed uncomfortable in his own skin – and by Dylan’s standard of skittishness, that’s saying something.
In 1990, he released Under the Red Sky, one of the worst albums of his career. In February of 1991, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. His speech was incomprehensible and his performance of “Masters of War” was terrible. For Dylan fans it was a nightmarish period. A friend of mine said to me, “Dylan has become so bad that I’m beginning to wonder if the good stuff is really as good as I thought it was.” Who can say what the man himself must have been going through?
Then, as if to get back in touch with the deepest sources of his inspiration, Dylan recorded two albums of traditional music: Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). Most of his first album had consisted of folk and blues songs that Dylan had not written, and Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong drank from that same nourishing well. In reconnecting with those traditions, Dylan rediscovered himself. He began singing and playing with greater purpose, and he infused his live performances with new energy. For the first time in a long time, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself.
Then, in 1997, came Time Out of Mind, a certifiable Dylan masterpiece. The album is death-haunted and otherworldly, but on it Dylan stares mortality down with all the conviction – and, at times, humor – he can muster. He is an old man longing to be young again, but he’s under no illusions about what lies ahead. The cold hand of time has granted him wisdom along with his years and experience. He realizes now that everyone is walking down the same path to the same inevitable end, and the shared humanity of that knowledge pulses through the album.
Dylan closed his first album with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” His performance is impassioned, but only now does he understand what that “one kind favor I ask of you,” as the song puts its, genuinely means. It means will you think about me and care about me after I am gone. It’s a wish that is not at all abstract to him now.
Not that he needs to worry. People will care about Dylan songs as long as anyone cares about music. Is there any point in rehearsing the astonishing body of work this man has produced? It’s an accomplishment that is Shakespearian in its breadth and depth, not to mention its sheer quality. That he is still creating work that ranks among his best is virtually miraculous.
Best of all, Dylan is still a mystery. His influence is everywhere, he performs 100 shows a year, but he is hidden in plain sight, ultimately unknowable. In an age in which performers are nauseatingly overexposed and audiences grow bored with them after one album, Dylan has eluded our comprehension for forty years. Books have been written and documentaries have been made, but Dylan himself continues to fascinate, confound and delight.
“Nothing is revealed” is the moral of Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” (And you thought Dylan didn’t influence heavy metal – where do you think that band got its name?) That song came out in 1968, and that line is no less true now. It’s why Dylan is the very definition of an artist: He gives everything in his work, and the meanings and interpretations proliferate. But gives nothing away.
I’d say, “May you stay forever young,” Bob, but, of course, you said it first. Still, as on so many occasions, only your words will do. So I’ll offer these, which give some sense of what your songs have meant to so many millions: “Every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burning coal/Pouring off of every page/Like it was written in my soul, from me to you.” May your words continue to burn, generating, as they always have, both light and heat for everyone who listens.