Thank you, Bob Dylan – 80 on May 24, 2021!
I grew up in a home where classical music was played, Mozart in particular. But there were other genres too – my father liked jazz and even thought that electronic music by Karlheinz Stockhausen was interesting – of which I didn’t understand a tone, of course. In 1961 or 1962 – at the age of 10-11 – I got interested in beat, rock, rhythm and blues while taking – anything but successful – classical piano lessons.
In my school, one was either a fan of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, rock and roll and American entertainment music or fans of the British beat and rock innovators such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Doors, etc. In the background of those two “camps” was the “folk music” tradition – artists like Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton and Peter Paul and Mary, – and before them all of course Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. I spend all my savings buying LPs, and when “We Shall Overcome” – a recording of Pete Seeger’s pathbreaking concert at Carnegie Hall on June 8, 1963, – was released, I knew this was more my thing than the two other options.
I don’t remember whether it was Pete Seeger or somebody else who lead me on to Bob Dylan. Perhaps it was Dylan himself? On “We Shall Overcome,” Seeger sang “It’s A Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan who incidentally just a few days before Seeger’s concert had released his second album, “The Freewheelin Bob Dylan” (May 27, 1963) at the age of only 22. It included classics such as “Blowin in the Wind,” “Talking World War III Blues,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Corinna, Corinna,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and also A Hard Rain.
Most of these “folk” singers were so strongly committed to a cause – not the least the civil rights movement and peace, change, justice – and many called them protest songs. They spoke to me at that time in a way, say, the Beatles did not.
Something was happening but I didn’t know what it was.
I had bought Bob Dylan’s two first albums – “Bob Dylan” from 1962 and “The Freewheeling”. There was something enigmatic, something that resonated with my young, quite searching 11-year old soul: Who could resist being taken in by the relatively banal lyrics of Blowin’ in the Wind and yet simultaneously not sense how incredibly powerful it was psychologically? It challenged one’s grappling with what was right and wrong in life. And in politics. These questions – how long will it take till we change? For how long can people turn their heads and pretend they just don’t see? – spot on today almost 60 years later.
Music was the main external influence on your soul or the main bridge to the larger reality you tried to get acquainted with and – unknowingly – developed your identity. I mean, it wasn’t books or paintings that did that, it was the music. One followed hit lists, read music magazines, collected posters of one’s favourite musicians, put them on the walls and dreamed about those artists coming to town and giving a concert. Remember, there was no YouTube or Vimeo!
Something else had happened and I knew what that was. One day, my always curious father came home with a small single record – one song on each side – and said, Hey, what about this, it sounds completely different?! He put it on the large Decca stereo equipment and set the volume high, my mother shaking her head like “oh, not that too”. It was The Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There” with “I Want To Hold Her Hand”, just released (March 22, 1963).
I had not even observed that it had been released. I listened to protest song, folk and Bob Dylan who my father didn’t fancy at all, probably because he had six years in school and did not understand English very well. But the happy, rocky Beatles music appealed to him – much more so than Dylan’s telling stories dressed in that rather special voice and guitar.
Time passed and I entered high school, Aarhus Cathedral School in Denmark, and a new world, also of politics, opened up. In a few years of incredible creativity, Dylan released “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Another Side of Bob Dylan” both in 1964 and “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” both in 1965.
Through listening a thousand+ times to these musical lyrics and lyrical music, I have preserved songs like The Times, With God On Our Side, All I Really Wanna Do, Chimes of Freedom, To Ramona, It Ain’t Me Babe, She Belongs To Me, Love Minus Zero, Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright Ma, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Like A Rolling Stone, It Takes a Lot To Laugh, Ballad of A Thin Man, Queen Jane Approximately, Desolation Row… they all became part of my life, music I have played all the time, again and again, albeit of course with intervals since there are other things I love to listen to too.
For Dylanologists as well as for Dylan’s fans, the great controversy of these days was Dylan’s move into electrified music, rock and more – moving out of what he had come to feel like a straitjacket: the folk music/protest song tradition and his role as a whole generation’s poet and “protest” singer. And most importantly, his liberation from the sad fate of being put into a box by the expectations of his fans. So, he turned up with a band of “electric” musicians at the Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island on July 25, 1965, Played “Like A Rolling Stone”, among others, and was booed and shouted at – even called Judas.
He did not meet everybody else’s expectation and categorization. And he did not want to.
He wanted to follow his own path – no matter what. Perhaps difficult to understand today – but it was no less than a fundamental turning point in the history of music, and the first manifestation of the artist as belonging to himself and nobody else. He is some of that history:
Positively, had he stuck to that narrowly confined “folk/protest singer” with an acoustic guitar ever since he would have been bored – and boring – to death. There is something extremely significant in that piece of music history: the greatest artists (and other professions) are characterised by a self-willed inner drive and talented creativity in getting it out. They can be neither bothered nor inspired by what sells, what’s hitting – or going viral – on the market today (with no thoughts of tomorrow), not to mention what some influencers, managers or marketers tell them to do.
Dylan – then only 24 years old but already famous – were willing to lose his fans and their hard expectations in order to keep truly freewheelin’ and practise what he preached – that the times they are a-changin’ and he with them.
The fact that he has continued for decades to play the old classics but always sung and played in new ways, may be interpreted as a way of compromising: Yeah, you can have the old Bob Dylan but only the version of him that interests me today?
I thought this huge provocation of his was both daring and sad. Remember, at the time the folk music I took such an interest in was, by definition and with no exception, acoustic. Pete Seeger was the leader of the pack, and allegedly he was deeply disappointed that the younger Dylan kind of betrayed the whole tradition. So I was twisted and torn – I loved his old songs and the whole tradition of which they were part – but I was also drawn to the rock, rhythms, electric bands, all these mentioned above and also others such as Eric Burdon and The Animals, Soft Machine, The Who… and let me mention The Stones again.
Perhaps all that was needed was a simple twist of faith? Because, one year later, in June 1966, I was in London with my parents. I had obtained their permission to venture out from our hotel and explore town on my own. I had a plan. I went straight to Keith Prowse which I believe at the time was at Charing Cross Road (it’s later been swallowed by EMI and it is still on # 127 there). It was a leading music store with an ocean of backwards-leaning records, instruments and posters on the walls. I knew that Dylan had just released the double-album, “Blonde on Blonde”, on June 20.
I wasn’t looking for anything else but went straight to the desk and said: Can I listen to Dylan’s new album? That was a time when they would then put it on a gramophone connected to a numbered booth in the basement; you would then go down there, find the number, open the wooden door and sit down in a dark, sound-protected little space, put on headphones and listen to your heart’s desire.
And it was indeed my heart’s desire. It was a revelation, like walking out of a cave, hear the waves of the oceans and see the horizon out there and the mountains to the side… Rainy Day Women # 12 and 35 – “Everybody must get stoned and they will stone you when… I Want You, One Of Us Must Know, Just Like A Woman, Visions of Johanna and the 11-min long Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – with the Arabian drums to perhaps be left at the gate.
It was mostly about love and its difficulties but so much more – it was Dylan at peace, no protest singer. It was Dylan documenting that not only had he gone “electric”, he had created an entirely new sound. And the lyrics!…
It was then I understood how the Newport “scandal” was an opening towards something entirely different with a huge potential. Such a strength, such a clarity, such a nerve and presence. I had a hard time leaving that dark room in the basement; I listened to it all and did not dare walk up and ask the people at the desk to play it again. I bought it there and then, no hesitation though a big expense for a 15-year old. Like all the other records, I still have that 1966 treasure from Keith Prowse in London… and the memory of what it felt like discovering it like stumbling upon gold in a deep mine.
That music was enigmatic, mercurial and mathematical – “though I cannot explain that in lines”. I felt it was a gift. Knew it would be a long-term, one-way friendship.
So I just feel it is right to say thank you to that genius for being so present over almost 60 years.
I see Dylan as the Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) of music and poetry – restlessly creating, experimenting, using many media, mixing and re-trying, re-mixing – from the sublime to what should, perhaps after all, not have been released. I sense a fundamental similarity in the outcomes while assuming they are completely different personalities – I mean, not many seem so introverted and socially “impossible” as Dylan. His performance at The White House elicited a comment from Obama – see here below the video – and Dylan’s silence for very long at receiving the Nobel Prize for literature is, to say the least, indicative. In contrast, Robert Rauschenberg was obviously about as far to the extroverted side.
The similarity also comes through in working with more types of expressions – not only their main trade – Dylan experimenting also with paintings, movies, books, radio show hosting, and metal sculptures; Rauschenberg with combines, global travelling art co-production in his ROCI project, dance, performance, music and photography. And they kept on doing their thing way beyond anybody’s reasonable expectations – probably because they could simply not do otherwise.
They are both eclecticists with an ever-changing style that holds an enigmatic red thread through it – I mean, you know it’s a Rauschenberg over there and nobody else and there is only one Dylan with the way(s) he sings those songs. They are both recording their times – our times – albeit in a subtle, indirect manner that you will have to work quite a lot with to detect by re-seeing and re-listening, comparing back and forth. John F. Kennedy fascinated them both, it seems.
And amazingly, I get tired of neither, there is a newness over decades, even to the old stuff and to how that old stuff enters yet another collagist experiment.
I am not in doubt that there is hugely important music history in Dylan’s Newport turnabout I talked about above and art history in Rauschenberg’s erasing of a de Kooning drawing, explained also here – the similar type of protest against the older (although with respect for them), turnabout, fighting for artistic freedom rather than pleasing conventions and the accompanying slow artistic death.
They express the soul of America – of American-ness and at its best with New York as its creative centre, submitting art of ever-lasting value to the world. Both modern classical artists who nobody writing the history of the West could possibly leave out. The seem also both to be keenly aware of the decay of their own culture and society.
And – perhaps what fascinates me the most – an insistence on the freedom and the right to be no one else’s but one’s own.
Thanks for all you’ve given those who care to listen through these changing times, Mr Dylan. And thanks for being in my dreams although I’m sure I was never in yours.
There must be millions of links, reviews, books and articles about and with Dylan; I am no expert on Dylan whatsoever. Because of his upcoming 80th, I browsed a bit here and there and found these interesting – for one reason or the other. Explore much further yourself!
New York Times
Bob Dylan Still Bristles on ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’
The Irish Times
A man of contradictions – Bob Dylan turns 80
Francis J. Beckwith, The Catholic
Bob Dylan at 80. My top 80 greatest Bob Dylan songs. Today: 80 through 71
80 songs selected with text and videos – several parts from 80 to the best song.
Edward Docx, The Guardian
Beyond Mr Tambourine Man: 80 Bob Dylan songs everyone should know and Bob Dylan at 80: in praise of a mighty and unbowed singer-songwriter
Edward Docx hits it, I think: “In a straightforward way, we are celebrating the immensity of Bob Dylan’s 60-year artistic contribution to the human story. The man has written more than 500 immortal songs. But we’re also celebrating the way in which he has continued to make work that is still so alive and expressive, well into his eighth decade. His last album, Rough and RowdyWays (2020), will come to be considered one of his finest. Where once he was the most interesting Hamlet of his generation, he is now the most interesting Prospero. As with Goethe or Beethoven or Picasso, the late works stand as measured and resonant equal to the raw, intense virtuosity of his unsurpassable early output – those first eight albums, written and recorded between the ages of 21 and 26.”
And then he adds that “We are celebrating Dylan’s inspiring commitment in another way, too. From 1990 until 2019, he played an average of more than 100 shows a year – every year – all around the planet. Can you imagine that?”
“We’re listening to a very political artist. An artist who comes for power again and again – speaking truth. But an artist who fears that “power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is”. And thus an artist trying to fight his way through the disgust and the despair that this vision engenders. An artist who, in so doing, returns to us the slim hope provided by artistic communion; that by naming it, and seeing it, and singing it, we might yet overcome our own darker nature or at least keep it at bay.”
Edward Docx’ text says so much – so much better than I could ever hope to express – as the connoisseur he is, and I am not.