In a very real sense, that statement has been true from the moment, nearly a half-century ago, when a chubby-faced, clean-cut kid from a small town on the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota materialized in New York City with a guitar, a gift for self-invention and a preternatural grasp of the American songbook.
The erstwhile Robert Allen Zimmerman quickly carved a niche in the thriving New York folk music scene, singing the songs of seminal bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Booker White, of Appalachian icons like the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family, and of his idol, the Okie troubadour Woody Guthrie — all in a voice uniquely his own, and with an authenticity that belied everything about his 21-year-old, middle-class existence to that point. In short order, the young Dylan was writing his own songs, landing a recording contract and being hailed as the spokesman of his generation. He has been busy being born ever since.
Surely no popular artist has been harder to draw a bead on. Over the course of his career, Dylan has stepped in and out of various musical styles and personal guises, serving his muse utterly without regard for the trends of the moment or the reactions of fans and critics. It is not quite correct to say that he has been a step ahead of everyone else along the way; indeed, he has made some missteps, and there have been times when he has been lost even to himself — most notably the mid-to-late 1980s, when, as he put it in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, “I realized that my playing days might well have faded out… [f]or my listeners, it must have been like going through deserted orchards and dead grass... [I was] a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows… in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.”
Even in the hard times, however, Dylan’s bedrock iconoclasm, his refusal to be pinned down by any label or burdened by any expectation, and his fearless willingness to explore new territory have kept him set apart. He has remained relevant by operating in a sphere that only he inhabits, remarkably free from distraction and yet mystically tuned to the ever-changing rhythms of the universe.
If that seems hyperbolic, then take a moment to consider a sampling of the evidence. Most famous is Dylan’s early rejection of the restrictive mantles of folk darling and “protest” singer. For him, the thought of “going electric” was much more than trading in his Gibson acoustic guitar for a Fender Telecaster; it was more like “getting electrified,” marrying the blues and folk song forms on which he cut his teeth to music that was more sophisticated structurally and featured lyrics and imagery that charted new waters in pop music.
In the space of little more than a year in 1965-66, he released a trio of albums — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde — on which he expanded both his own consciousness and that of his audience. Among his most discerning listeners were the two undisputed supergroups of the day, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who accordingly followed Dylan’s lead by releasing, respectively, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967.
By that time, of course, Dylan had moved on again. With the whole musical world going psychedelic — reflecting on that time in Chronicles, he wrote that, “Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it” — he came out of a self-imposed exile in the woods of upstate New York, stole off to Nashville and recorded John Wesley Harding, a stark and moody suite of ballads shot through with country-western and backwoods blues shadings. To these ears, it is the most quintessentially, organically American album ever recorded, musically timeless, with lyrics that read like apocalyptic parables. Populated with fair damsels and lonesome hobos, struggling immigrants and populist outlaws, wicked messengers and martyred saints, the songs ponder the nature of good and evil in a way that is simultaneously urgent and detached — a single-handed redefinition of the term “hip.”
With the possible exception of his perceived abandonment of the folk movement in the mid-1960s, Dylan’s most controversial and misunderstood transformation came in 1979, when he made it known that he had become a born-again Christian. Though none of the three “Christian” albums he produced between 1979 and 1981 can be called masterpieces, they did contain numerous songs— “Slow Train,” “When He Returns,” “What Can I Do for You?” and “Every Grain of Sand” come to mind — that stand as both great music and compelling expressions of personal spiritual faith.
As noted, Dylan spent a good part of the 1980s trying to regain his personal and artistic bearings — a struggle that didn’t keep him from releasing three strong, if underappreciated, records, 1983’s Infidels, 1985’s Empire Burlesque and 1989’s Oh Mercy. Even after getting his confidence back as a live performer, however, it ironically took recording two albums worth of songs he didn’t write — Good as I Been to You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong the following year — to start him back on track as a composer and lyricist.
Those rejuvenated powers were on full display on the successive masterworks Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006). Though distinct in style and approach, these recordings are unified by their lyrical preoccupations: A wary, brooding view of millennial life, an inescapable sense of creeping mortality (both Dylan’s and the world’s) and a sneaky razor wit — sometimes all in the same song. It might be tempting to interpret the lapse of time between releases as a sign that Dylan was slowing down in his advancing age, if not for the fact that he has been on the road almost constantly for the past two decades, reinterpreting songs old and new on a near-nightly basis, continuing to reinvent himself and his music for anyone who ventures out to listen.
All of which brings us to Dylan’s newest, Together Through Life, released earlier this month. A gumbo of styles — border-inflected boogie, roadhouse blues, sentimental ballads, casual rockers. The record is a catalogue of desire and heartbreak, hope and resignation, implicitly — and, in songs like the wickedly ironic “It’s All Good,” explicitly — relating individual dreams and fears to the opposing senses of optimism and crisis currently afoot in the country. It’s all tied together by the guitar work of Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), the accordion of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and, above all, Dylan’s beautifully ravaged vocals. The net effect is a collection of songs that, like the artist himself, is both timely and timeless.
So where does Dylan go from here? He turns 68 on May 24, and he’s not going to be with us forever — at least not as a physical presence. Yet he remains, both on record and in person, a dynamic and vital performer; unlike, say, the Stones, the experience of seeing him live does not have the aspect of standing at Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial. As the new record shows, Bob Dylan still has plenty to say and play. Like Bob, I don’t pretend to speak for anyone other than myself, but as long as he’s putting it out, I’m listening.
Mark Kelly is contributing editor for Birmingham Weekly and a member of the band Menewa. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org