Happy Birthday, Mister Zimmerman

by Steve

Bob Dylan and Betsy Siggins, having a chat, I guessBob Dylan is 70 today. That seems a pretty weird statement. 70. Phew. In the lead-up to this momentous occasion, I’ve been dabbling in some low-level Dylanology, watching No Direction Home for the umpteenth time and listening to the Sound Opinions Dylan specials. I thought I’d share the following thoughts/opinions/theories in no particular order or with no real organised thread…

The whole Dylan Goes Electric story has to be one of the all-time great rock tales. Even today we worry about artists ‘selling out’, and whenever an artist changes direction or sound it kind of makes sense to view it within the context of Dylan plugging in. It’s funny that, with the benefit of hindsight, his early crowd-pleasing protest songs sound far more calculated than the electric stuff that followed.

Saying that – as much as I haven’t got a whole lot of time for Blowin’ In The Wind or The Times They Are A-Changin’, even now most of his acoustic stuff sounds incredibly fresh and powerful. It’s also easy to forget just how young he was when he broke through. By all accounts, he got real good, real quick. I think we’d still be listening to his songs now even if he’d retired in 1963.

But thank goodness he didn’t. I think Dylan ‘going electric’ shows what a risk-taker he was willing to be – he could have easily just muddled along, writing the same old safe songs, to the same old audience. Yet, he went on to produce far deeper, more complex and more satisfying work, despite knowing he’d lose some of his audience along the way. Of course, that risk-taking side to him has led to some dodgy musical and career decisions. But I think the best artists are the ones willing to make monumental mistakes.

In one of those Sound Opinions specials, they point out that in 15 months Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Has any artist had such a run of quality material in such a short period? Considering the economic models of the music business, will an artist ever again be able to release so much good music in such a brief space of time?

I think one thing that made Dylan stand out from his contemporaries was his sense of mischief. Particularly early on his career, he seemed to have a glint in his eye and a grin on his lips. From changing his name, to inventing a backstory, to his countless misleading interviews, he has never played it straight and has been far more interesting for it. He seems to have always appreciated the value of myth-making in modern music. That made him far more compelling than most of the over-earnest folk crowd. The Life Of Bob Dylan is as fascinating and perplexing as his music. I think it also helped him be a pretty mesmerising performer too.

It’s funny how the young Dylan idolised all those old folk and bluesmen, and how he seems to resemble one himself. Fifty years of music-making is no mean feat. He started off trying to sound as old as the hills – now he genuinely does.

I think many people overlook just how ambitious Dylan was. He wasn’t afraid to steal songs or arrangements. He appeared to be incredibly focused and single-minded. I’m not sure how idealistic he ever was.

To finish off, I wanted to post some of that cool mid-sixties footage, but it appears that YouTube have purged 99 per cent of the decent Dylan film out there, which is a shame. Oh well. What are your thoughts/opinions/theories on Dylan?

Image from WBUR, via Flickr