In 1976, my mother, recently divorced, broke up painfully and protractedly with her first real boyfriend since the collapse of her marriage to my father. I turned thirteen that May, and her birthday present to me was Desire. It was my first Dylan album. I had been talking for a while about this song I’d heard, only once, playing over the speakers in a Washington, D.C., bookstore sometime during the preceding winter. I stood there in the aisle, with a copy of Dune in my hand, trying to catch the lyrics, to guess the singer, to figure out what the hell was happening in the story. I remembered the song like a promising face, vividly and erroneously, for months afterward, without hearing it again, until I unwrapped the disc my mother handed me and put it on the turntable.
I lay down on the rug, between the speakers, with the mysterious record jacket in my hands. On the front there was a fey Jewish cowboy in furs and windblown scarves; on the back, Tarot cards and a hermetic set of liner notes shorn of punctuation, in an all but illegible type. As the record began, I was aglow with the dewy pessimism of adolescence, ready to extend the limits of my ignorance as far as I possibly could in the hope that I might receive, as if from the perceived contour of those limits – what? Some kind of negative confirmation of the path or pattern of my destiny? A valuable secret about the universe or girls? At thirteen, you put on a record for the first time with not merely a dire hope but a good possibility that it is somehow going to alter the course of your life.
It turned out that I had heard the first cut, “Hurricane,” on the radio, several times, without ever associating it with that other elusive tune, the one about a “mystical child” smiling in the rain and driving a man insane. Then came the song itself: “Isis.” Isis was an Egyptian goddess, the mother of Horus and wife of Osiris – I knew that story. Isis was also the lead character in a CBS Saturday-morning television show, about a librarian or scientist or other type of bespectacled woman who spun around while saying “O Mighty Isis” and then was able to stop a Chevy van with her bare hands. I knew that story, too. But as the story of Isis – Bob Dylan’s Isis – began, I felt, I sensed, or maybe I finally just recognized, that another story was beginning, one that would take place in a “wild unknown country,” in “a high place of darkness and light.” So much has been written about Dylan’s voice – a voice I knew well enough, or thought I did, from the Sixties standards, the classic rants and rambles. But this sounded, to me, like a different man entirely. In the situation he described – a man and a woman united by failure and the memory of happiness, by passion and the memory of bitterness; the pursuit of some unknown treasure through wonder and hardship, to end in futility and a laugh at one’s own expense – I thought I recognized, in the ache and the ardor of that windblown, Jewish-cowboy voice, the contours of a world I was just beginning to know.
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I can’t remember a time when Bob Dylan’s voice wasn’t in my head, but I first met him when U2 were recording The Unforgettable Fire at Slane Castle in Ireland, and he played there. His family was around, and I remember being struck then – as I’m continually struck – by how he seems to have a certain old-fashioned attitude toward his family. For example, he asked me if I’d take a photograph with him, and I was just about to fall backward, when I realized it was so his kids could be in it.
Then one time I interviewed him and Van Morrison for the [Irish magazine] Hot Press, and in the interview I told him, “U2 have no roots.” He just said, “Well, you’ve got to look back, that’s the riches in Ireland.” He’s like this ancient voice that tells you that you need to know where you come from. There was a moment in the Sixties when he came off all mod, but he’s been combating the filthy modern tide, as Yeats called it, for a long time.
His words have always had an almost Biblical uprightness. No matter where you are in your life, there’s a Dylan record that helps you map out the locale. When you’re filled with teenage idealism. When you’re falling in love. When you’ve just been divorced. When your kids are growing up. Even when you’re facing the shock of illness or a brush with mortality. Bob is like religion: He’ll get you one way or the other!
I’m sure he has his demons – the records pay tribute to that. But he’s still alive and doing his best work. He started out as sort of a Rimbaud figure, but he just refused to die stupid. There’s a lot of mystery about him, but he doesn’t turn mystery into melodrama. He’s dealt with celebrity with a smirk and a mask of indifference. The same stare he gives the outside world, he gives himself.
When Dylan played Dublin recently, he walked to the gig! He had his hood up, and he just walked past the punters on the way to see him. I think that’s how he wants it. He’s lost interest in playing the game, and he’s just gotten on with his life as a writer and performer. He’s more of the Middle Ages than the New Millennium, the troubadour who will play wherever there’s a meal on the table – whether it’s Las Vegas or in front of the pope. God bless him.
There was nothing in your demeanor that would have suggested that you’d be among the last ones standing. You seemed unaware that at least one green vegetable and one yellow one should accompany every meal. You abused your nervous system; you drove a motorcycle. You burned your bridges, leaving managers, girlfriends, journalists and hardcore fans shaking their fists at you from the other side. You seemed fragile, vulnerable – you seemed like that terrible, exhausting cliché: the vagabond poet fated to an early demise. I doubt that anyone who loved you imagined you’d still be making music in the twenty-first century.
Forty years ago, in 1961, you were twenty and making your first record. This is what the world was like: The East Germans were constructing the Berlin Wall, and Cuban exiles and U.S. operatives were launching the Bay of Pigs invasion. Now bricks from the wall are sold as post-Communist memorabilia, and Bay of Pigs veterans are invited to symposia and reunions back in Havana. The world you came from has all but disappeared, and most of the people who were in the business when you were starting out have come and gone. The year of your first record, people were listening to Bobby Vee singing “Rubber Ball” and Neil Sedaka trying his luck on “Calendar Girl.” In the music business, careers and reputations rise and fall, fortunes are won and lost, fates rule with a heavy hand – why intrude upon the birthday cheer with a long list of fallen rock & rollers? Yet you, who once seemed so marked, so mercurial, continue to command our attention. And right now what we need to celebrate, even more than your survival as a creator of songs, an illuminator of the reality behind reality, is your simple human here-ness. Not only have you somehow continued to exist, prancing like Pan through a forest of drugs and Jesus, highway wrecks and heart infections, but you’re still hip, you’re still mysterious and enigmatic, you’re still writing lines like “I’ve been to Sugar Town/I shook the sugar down/Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door.” The Bob Dylan Story, when they make the movie of your life, won’t follow the genre conventions of watching the suffering artist on his forced march from early genius to madness and on to suicide or overdose. We’ll leave that to Vincent van Gogh – and Basquiat, Elvis, Lenny Bruce, Charlie Parker and all the other careening supernovae of the tragic-artist biopic. Your birthday marks another milestone in your longest, most surprising and ironic song, the song that is your life: Talking Survival of the Fittest Blues.
Scott Spencer is the author of ‘The Rich Man’s Table’ and ‘Endless Love.’
Bob Dylan is the quintessential enigmatic character – he’s been able to maintain a certain mystery that he cultivated from the very beginning. I think there’s both more and less to him than meets the eye. I have an enormous respect for what he’s brought to popular music, particularly as I get older. His survival is very welcome in this shallow musical climate we have today.
We used to do a cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” with my band back in Texas. I first responded to Dylan’s lyrics. He’s one of the pioneers of thoughtful lyrics that are about something besides boys and girls. And even when they were about boys and girls, they weren’t about boys and girls in a normal way. That most recent song he did – “Things Have Changed” – really knocked me out. I was driving around one day, and I’d never heard it before, and I thought to myself, “Wow, somebody is really doin’ a good Bob Dylan.” I was saying, “This is better than Bob,” and it turned out to be him. He’s a cyclical person, as all great artists are – he sort of comes and goes. And he’s not afraid to go off on tangents – the Christianity thing, for instance. But at the same time, I think “Gotta Serve Somebody” is a great song.
Back in the Sixties, when a lot of people were flaming out at a very young age, rock & roll was supposed to be a young man’s game only. You weren’t supposed to live long enough to do it forever. And even if you lived, you weren’t supposed to continue doing it. But now, it doesn’t seem so strange to me that Dylan’s still doing what he’s doing at sixty. The question is – why not? I think he does what he does because it’s what he has to do. I know that critics like their icons dead at an early age, but obviously it can be otherwise, and Dylan is a grand example of that. Birthday wishes for him? Keep on going.
The first birthday I remember spending with Bob was his twenty-fifth, when we were playing in Paris in 1966. This was that infamous tour of Europe when Bob, the Hawks and I were being booed and laced with tomatoes and coins. But when we played Paris, somebody had the bright idea of covering the whole back of the stage with a big American flag. It was like, “Hey, here’s an idea – this should really piss the French off.” For the show, he used to go out and do his acoustic bit, and then we would all come out and manage to assault and offend most of the people in the house. He did his acoustic thing that night, but he couldn’t seem to get it in tune. Sometimes this happens – you keep tuning and it just keeps getting worse. So he stood up there tuning it for, like, fifteen minutes, and between the tuning and the flag, the audience didn’t have to wait until the band came out – they were already pissed off.
Bob was in a frame of mind that it was all somehow quite enjoyable. I don’t know if it was because it was his birthday or he just didn’t give a shit anymore – that because we’d been booed so much, calluses had built up on his soul. I’m not sure why it happened, but it completely annoyed everyone in the audience – they thought it was a put-on. Then it became such an issue that it doubled back on him. He was like, “Well, shit, this is driving everyone crazy, maybe I’ll just stand here and tune for a couple more minutes.” And then you realize you can’t get it in tune – something’s gone wrong here. And I remember I was standing at the side there, because we were waiting to go out and do our bit, and he was looking at me and shrugging his shoulders like, “Can you tune this fucker?” I think he came over, and we turned a few things and got the guitar happening.
When we finally did come out, they were already used to the tuning and the flag and didn’t even mind us all that much. That was one of the only shows we played that whole period in which we didn’t get booed. And we were like, “Wow, this is a great birthday present.”
We’re all just lucky that we live in this particular time when we get to have Bob’s great influence, and that he’s still out there performing and coming out with great music. Bob is really sort of supernatural in the way he can keep writing these great songs.
I spent a couple of years with Bob, on the road with the Heartbreakers and in the studio with the Traveling Wilburys, and I got a sense of songs from him. He has a vast repertoire and an incredible knowledge of other people’s music. He can draw a lot of material off the top of his head, and every song is a jewel.
What drives Bob? I think he really is a kind of roving-minstrel type, like from the medieval period, or, if you want to update it a bit, like a Dust Bowl Woody Guthrie type. Despite the trappings of success, he seems to be a dedicated guy who goes around and plays his music everywhere and, through that, shares what’s on his mind. I most value Bob’s honesty – he’s a very upfront person and a true gentleman. The truth is that I and everyone else are forever in his debt. He opened the door to a multitude of things, and you can only compare him to the Beatles, or maybe Elvis. Hey, I wish him sixty more years and all the best.
Bob Dylan was a hard sell in 1985, when I first began teaching HU 417, “The Art of Song Lyrics,” at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin – all these groups were respectfully listened to in class by the student musicians for whom I created the course.
But Dylan was another matter. To my shock, young people who had never heard Dylan before found his voice irritating, his lyrics confusing and his worldview incomprehensible. It was horrifying to realize that so titanic an artist of my own college years in the 1960s could have fallen so completely off the cultural map.
This story has a happy ending. Step by step through the 1990s, students taking that course began to be intrigued, then mesmerized, by Dylan’s classic songs. Why the change? First, the grunge movement, whose tragic falling star was Kurt Cobain, revived the image of the suffering, alienated artist and refamiliarized audiences with an abrasive, nasal (and probably white proletarian) vocal style that is half a strangled howl.
Second, the commercial triumph of hip-hop among white teens sparked new interest in socially conscious lyrics after a period in which lyric substance had diminished, thanks to production-heavy recreational disco and operatic heavy metal. Dylan’s compassion for the poor and dispossessed (as in the epic “Desolation Row”) was back in fashion, and alongside rap, his packed, speed-freak lyrics suddenly made sense. Listening for the first time to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan’s first hit single, students would laugh in amazement as they recognized rap’s rhythmic ranting.
But if Dylan’s homage to the agrarian “talking blues” helps reveal the artistic ancestry of hip-hop, exposure to his work can partly undermine rap lyrics, which are sometimes formulaic and limited in scope. After twenty flourishing years of that urban genre, surprisingly few rap tag lines have passed into general consciousness or can stand as exempla of their era in the way that dozens of Dylan’s axiomatic one-liners have (e.g., “But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked”).
Despite his pose as a Woody Guthrie-type country drifter, Dylan was a total product of Jewish culture, where the word is sacred. In his three surrealistic electric albums of 1965-66 (which remain massive influences on my thinking and writing), Dylan betrayed his wide reading, sensitivity to language, mastery of irony and satire, and acute observation of society. Next to his dazzling achievement, with its witty riffs on mythology and its vast perspective on history (as in “All Along the Watchtower”), the lyrics of too much current popular music look adolescent and parochial.
Dylan is a perfect role model to present to aspiring artists. As a young man, he had blazing vision and tenacity. He rejected creature comforts and lived on pure will and instinct. He catered to no one but preserved his testy eccentricity and defiance. And his best work shows how the creative imagination operates – in a hallucinatory stream of sensations and emotions that perhaps even the embattled artist does not fully understand.
Camille Paglia is the author of ‘Sexual Personae’ and ‘Vamps and Tramps.’
Abraham Lincoln grew his beard – the first worn by an American president – between his election and his swearing-in. Things Have Changed, I believe the message was. Similarly, Bob Dylan grew that funny little Clark Gable mustache before being awarded his Oscar but some time since the last time you’d had a good look at his face up close. Only, when was it that you’d had a good look at his face up close? And were you really having one during the Oscars, at that triple remove, peering through your television to watch a crowd of movie stars watching Dylan beamed in like an astronaut from the outback? And yet, for the yearning seemingly beamed back at him by those movie stars – certainly for the yearning and love beamed back at him through screens and across time zones from the room where I sat watching – he was in that moment more present in absence than anyone else in the world.
That face, it was so damn real, I wondered if I’d ever seen Bob Dylan before in my life. Who’s ever been so universal and spectral, and at once, so sweetly homely and strange as Bob Dylan in 2001? And when was it he drifted into that unassailable, holy-humble twilight stratosphere he now occupies? Somewhere in 1997, probably, when the eerie grace of Time Out of Mind persuaded listeners to relinquish can-it-be-as-good-as-I-hope defenses and realize it was better than they’d dared hope. The record achieved its own “I’m here/I’m not” sleight-of-hand, being great in cumulative impact rather than for any particular song. Dylan hid in plain sight in lyrics cobbled from blues sources and his own catalog but capped the album with “Highlands,” a laid-back dirge that felt like the unedited Bob’s diary he’d never actually delivered before, despite all rumors.
Add his metaphoric brush with death – “Bob Dylan Heart Mystery” was the unforgettable New York Post headline – plus the realization that the Never-Ending Tour really never did end, that he had vowed to live his remaining days or decades in a nightly communion of gracious, elegant live performances for those who cared and in complete indifference to those who didn’t, and it dawned: He’d survived the Eighties like a slowmotion motorcycle wreck, and nothing could touch him now. The sublime had secretly appeared in quiet exploration of his folk roots in two acoustic albums, like the face of God discovered in a blown-up photograph of Dock Boggs’ banjo. Then he’d built his way back to songwriting for the third? fourth? time, while singing in the elder’s voice he’d waited his whole life, and ours, to fully inhabit.
So now the Great Emancipator, the old dinosaur-astronaut, had brought down a single song, ancient lyrics turned glinting into new light: “Things Have Changed.” It seemed enough now, one song every couple years, a song so good you were certain he’d written it a dozen times before. Who wouldn’t want to give him an Oscar, really? Or a Nobel, or one more cup of coffee for the road, or a big, sloppy hug, if he wanted one, which it’s hard not to doubt. The mustache might have been there to help you recall: He’s not there, he’s gone. And: It ain’t him you’re looking for. It’s you.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’
No one has come close to being as good a writer as Dylan. He had these grand themes, these cast-of-thousands kind of songs, people running around with cats on their shoulders, street scenes. He did a lot of urban landscapes, like “Desolation Row,” where there’s so much going on. What do I make of Bob turning sixty? Because of the youth-cultish nature of our industry – of every industry, basically – I think it is a very positive thing that someone of another generation survives. The obvious wish I have for Bob is his own line: “May you stay forever young.” For the creature that creates, it’s all child’s play.
People called me a New Dylan a long time ago. Truth is, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a New Dylan – if one hasn’t come around by now, I kinda doubt that they’re coming. I’m not surprised that Bob Dylan is still at the top of his game. One night a few years back, I ran into Bob at Dan Tana’s restaurant in L.A., and we were waiting to take a car, and he said, “Let’s go down here,” and we walked down the street to the Troubadour club. We didn’t know who was playing, but we were going to just go in and take a look. Bob got a twinkle in his eye and said, “Do you know who I am?” And the girl at the door just shook her head. So Bob said, “Do you know who he is? Do you know who either one of us is?” Then he just shrugged his shoulders, and we walked away laughing. Happy birthday, definitely. I’m glad he’s healthy, and I hope he’s happy.
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
The thing that Dylan gave rock & roll was a voice and an opinion that really wasn’t there before. He was the first truly angry young man – he was angry before I was angry, before Johnny Rotten was angry, before Pete Townshend was angry. He really was the guy. There are a lot of people who would like to be Bob Dylan, but of course they can’t be – the job’s taken. Sixty years old? Jesus Christ. Happy birthday, Bob Dylan.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 film Masculin-Fèminin, the young protagonist played by Jean-Pierre Lèaud picks up a French newspaper and reads a headline out loud: Qui Ãštes-Vous Bob Dylan? It was, and is, a good question. As the folk singer Eric von Schmidt commented in 1961, “At this time Bob had the most incredible way of changing shape, changing size, changing looks. The whole time he was [in London] he wore the same thing, his blue jeans and cap. And sometimes he would look big and muscular, and the next day he’d look like a little gnome, and one day he’d be kind of handsome and virile, and the following day he’d look like a thirteen-year-old child. It was really strange. . . . You’d never know what he was going to look like.”
You’d also never know what his voice was going to sound like. One of the other fascinating, if obvious, things about Bob Dylan’s mercurial personality was the way the timbre of his voice would change from one record or period of his life to another – as if his voice, too, couldn’t stand having just one, unvarying sound. When he first arrived in New York City, he was singing like a hillbilly, sounding “like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire,” as someone remarked at the time. And as years went by, Dylan’s voice would veer from, in his words, “that thin . . . wild mercury sound . . . metallic and bright gold” of Blonde on Blonde (1966) to the relaxed country sound, which some attributed to his having stopped smoking cigarettes, of Nashville Skyline (1969) to the openheartedness, gentleness and anger of Blood on the Tracks (1975).
Like the Greek sea deity Proteus, who in order to elude his pursuers continually changed shape, from dragon to lion to fire to flood – uttering prophecies along the way – Dylan has unequivocally remained true to his vision of an unlimiting, unpossessive love that, whatever its form, comes straight from the heart, from which springs a wisdom worthy of the greatest poets and teachers.
As always, Dylan has kept on keepin’ on – like his hero Hank Williams‘ alter ego, Luke the Drifter, traveling and performing in one “joint” after another, night after night, literally around the world. And on his journey he never wavers from revealing and confronting the masks that all of us are wearing and that distract us from our path.
Without even the “murmur of a prayer,” as he sings on “Not Dark Yet,” the soul turns “into steel” and the inner light is extinguished. On his sixtieth turn around the sun – still keeping the lights burning and reminding us to be a light unto ourselves (“Everythin’ I’m sayin’/You can say it just as good” – “One Too Many Mornings”) – Bob Dylan has remained true to the words of Emily Dickinson’s little prayer: “Lad of Athens faithful be/To Thyself/And Mystery/All the rest is Perjury.”
Jonathan Cott, a contributing editor, first interviewed Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone in 1975.
Dylan’s like the Beatles or the Eiffel Tower – he’s just there, his presence is so strong that you don’t really see him anymore. To do what he did in a short burst in the early Sixties would have been one thing, but he’s kept coming back. It doesn’t feel like Dylan ever takes his eye off the ball. Success sharpened him.
Bob Dylan’s been such an inspiration to me for so long that I love him. I don’t even really know him, but I feel a certain connection with him and always have, since I first heard him in 1965. He’s always been such a great example in terms of sticking to his guns artistically and still going out there and rocking. So I’d just like to say happy birthday and thank you for all the years of music that you’ve given me, and for setting such a great example. Everyone needs a mentor.
This story is from the June 7, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.