Written for The Guardian:
Astonishingly, Bob Dylan turns 80 on Monday. For millions of people like me, this is a moment to celebrate. We’re insane, of course. We listen to him every day like other people pray. We’ve been to hundreds of the live shows – witnessed the transcendent moments and stood there loyally through entire set lists of dirge and backed-up drains. We know all 39 studio albums inside out; and the bootlegs; and the basement tapes; and the bootlegs of basements. We can tell you what year a recording was made simply by hearing which of Dylan’s dozen or so voices he is using. Bad Dylan for us is interesting Dylan. We were there for the desert wastelands of the mid-late 1980s, the soporific crooning-swamps of the middle 2010s; we even bought the 2009 Christmas album – a record so bad that an hour of pocket-dialled voicemail would make for less painful listening.
So what exactly are we celebrating? What have we been listening to all these years? And is there any way we can share the experience with the unconverted – or at least illuminate it a little?
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 Rowdy Ways (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.
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? Forget the artistic requirements, could you even face the travel? It takes most people a fortnight of sweat to psych themselves up for a wedding speech or an instantly forgotten work presentation in their home town. But consider what it’s like holding an audience of thousands for two hours with nothing but your voice, your songs, your words.
From first glance to dying breath, there’s no feeling of love that Dylan hasn’t rendered in song
And it’s in the live performances that we’re celebrating another thing about Dylan’s extraordinary creative dynamism. Because every night he plays his songs in a slightly different way. Works from decades ago will be reimagined and reshaped so as to acquire new resonances – not just for the audience, but also for Dylan himself. Unlike, say, Mick Jagger, whose work is some kind of frozen-in-time museum re-enactment, or Paul Simon, whose fastidiousness speaks somehow of anxiety and limitation, or Paul McCartney with his nursery rhymes, Dylan writes lyrics that are textured and capacious enough to withstand endless reinterpretation. A common experience when seeing him live is to discover that a song that you thought was about rage is suddenly transformed into something tender. Ten years on, at another concert, that same song you now think of as tender turns out to be a wry throwaway burlesque. The burlesque later becomes an elegy. And on it goes.
We’re also celebrating Dylan’s epic resilience. We live in times where everyone jostles for attention, for approval, for applause. Conversely, Dylan’s attitude of supreme indifference to the press, or to public opinion, or even towards the Nobel prize committee, seems somehow stirring, comforting almost. It’s not so much that he annoys his critics every few years, it’s more that he simply doesn’t think about them. He follows his muse. Down the decades he has been Little Richard electric, Woodie Guthrie folk, his own folk, his own electric, imperious, stoned, quasi-biblical, country, crooning, pastoral, comeback, Gypsy, despairing, Christian, biblical-biblical, Jewish, nowhere, drunk, back again, lost, finger-picking, back again, mighty and unbowed, Santa, Sinatra, and at the last … transcendent. And you feel when you listen to his work as though you are partaking in some part of his extraordinary endurance. Like he’s sharing some form of heroic tenacity or stoicism. Quite literally, you are given strength.
What are we listening to? And to put the question that all Dylan’s work asks at its heart, how does it feel? At its simplest: we’re listening to a highly intelligent artist with a rare sensibility address the subjects that most define and preoccupy human beings throughout this inexplicable celebration/catastrophe we call life. We’re also listening to one of the great poetical anatomists of love. Wherever you are on the relationship curve, from first glance to dying breath, there’s no feeling or mood of love that Dylan has not rendered in song. And – as with a handful of the very greatest poets – he pays equal attention to the intellectual, physical and spiritual aspects of love and can render all three with equal fidelity and felicity in a single work. Who else can make a single line point in four different emotional directions at the same time? “Don’t think twice, it’s all right” – meaning: don’t think twice, it’s all right; don’t think twice, it’s not all right; do think twice, it’s all right (so fuck you); and do think twice, because, Christ, it’s not all right at all and I miss you more than you will ever know.
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…