Voice of Bob Dylan has finally gone kaput. This is from no less an authority than Wall Street Journal. Well, maybe so. But part of the fun with stalwarts is there teasing promises of resurgence. This voice- “the voice of a rogue ageless in decrepitude” has for long been making insidious forays into the landscape of music and stomping various strands of art forms into its own image. Bob Dylan, who turned 70 on May 24 continues to tour for almost one third of the year to a rousing reception. The artist, as he enters eighth decade of life, has been described aptly as “the Methuselah of righteous cool” but he has been much more, a master of disdain now, a bard of decay only to surprise as a voice of longing for romance later. The elderly statesman of music has collided with forms ranging from folk to glam rock and many in between and has left them richer, altered forever. In every endeavour he opened new gates and redefined what can be treated as art. Dylan the unquestionable ‘poet laureate’ of the rock started with folk and transcended the form by owning it. He lent poetic nuances to the protest movement that was shrieking around him in early sixties. He was the reluctant hero who was seen as the voice of his times. Since then he has been conducting a ceaseless and successful campaign to break one rock archetype after another. From sincere country folk singer to protest singer to rock & roll star in its all shimmering razzmatazz to religious evangelist to witty old man to wistful singer of lost love, Dylan has been leaving his followers stranded in his astonishingly varied footprints during his half a century long career.
Only a pure artist will work with such a matter-of-fact fury to dismantle the image which may potentially throttle his growth as an artist. Bob Dylan tasted extreme fame at an early age and has been centre of adoration of millions since his 20s. He is supposed to have said “Just because you like my stuff doesn't mean I owe you anything.” He was the pioneer among the breed of real artists who refused to be defined by their audience. His disrespect for his followers’ expectation may look arrogant but he is about staying true to his creative urge and communicating it with relentless invention. In one of rare attempts to explain himself he said “I don’t want to get harsh and say I don’t care. You do care, you care in a big way, otherwise you wouldn’t be there. But it’s a different kind of connection. It’s not a light thing.” Critic Jonathan Letham wrote in 2006 “Puncturing myths, boycotting analysis and ignoring chronology are likely part of a long and lately quite successful campaign not to be incarcerated within his own legend. Dylan’s greatest accomplishment since his Sixties apotheosis may simply be that he has claimed his story as his own.”
Bob Dylan’s towering musical presence should not be allowed to obscure the fact that he is primarily a songwriter. He made his breakthrough as a singer-songwriter who expanded the limited confines of folk protest singing. His first album ‘Bob Dylan (1962)’ contained only two originals. With his exquisite sense of timing Dylan forged a career that was both timely and transcending. He saw the pointlessness of singing other people’s song and tapped his own poetic reservoir. Answer came “blowin’ in the wind”. His next album ‘The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)’ was torrent of poetry which was both accessible and elusive at the same time. "Blowin' in the Wind”, "Masters of War” soon acquired anthem like status. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" fell directly on collective psyche of a generation for which nuclear holocaust was a palpable possibility. Immediately he was lapped up as the official balladeer of the civil rights movement. ‘The Times They Are a-Changin (1964)' had plain but haunting protest songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and the title track. Young Dylan added poetry and panache to the folk idiom. He enriched the simpler form and made it appealing to those who had taste for a bit of complexity. His stinging nasal voice lent authenticity to his great songs. Heightened social consciousness of 60’s allowed him to retain the popular base despite an uppity taste in lyrics.
In ideologically charged atmosphere this popularity bred fanatic rigidity among some of Dylan fans, for whom his symbolism was bigger than his music. But the ‘Napoleon in Rags’ had just started to carve his musical identity. His craving-driven musical journey had no place for straitjackets of adoration or even the constraints a genre. In ‘The Times They Are a-Changin' itself, we find one of the better break-up songs ”Boots of Spanish Leather." He gave a teaser for moving towards sonic density by excellent sniggering ballads full of lilting sway of seducer like "Spanish Harlem Incident" then showing his lurid sensuality in “It Ain't Me Babe”. Followers of a clean-cut voice of zeitgeist were beginning to get confused but majority were rubbing their hands in glee.
Summer of 65 was nigh. It was the apogee of rock when in the course of one and half years Dylan came out with “Bringing It All Back Home” (March, 1965), “Highway 61 Revisited” (August), and the double album “Blonde on Blonde” (May, 1966). This was the time when Beatles were unleashing “Help” (August, 1965), “Rubber Soul” (December, 1965), and “Revolver” (August, 1966). Blessed were those who were young during this orgy of pure talent. With ‘Bringing It All Back Home (1965)’ Dylan stayed acoustics but the other side was electric. Howls and cheers rose in unison. However the musician was on a feverish roll to notice all that. He was busy creating magic. This is how ‘Rolling Stone’ Magazine describes the album “On the electric first side, Dylan sneered his absurdist, word-drunk rambles over lean, jittery garage rock, brimming over with wild humor, while side two had four brain-frazzling acoustic ballads that made The Times They Are a-Changin' sound like kid stuff.” ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ consolidated his reputation as poet of the rock with “all doomy menace and hallucinatory wit, packing a career's worth of rock & roll innovation into each of the nine songs. ” The album had "Like a Rolling Stone," a #2 hit in 1965. Later it was voted the most influential song ever. Poet was in full bloom in ”Tombstone Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the epic , complex "Desolation Row." The Juggernaut rolled on and came ‘a surreal fever dream of a record’, double-vinyl ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ The record concluded the coronation of the king of rock. 15 months preceding Blonde on Blonde, witnessed the most intense burst of creativity any rock & roller has ever had. Such good deeds don’t go unpunished.
A ravaged, burnt out Dylan went and crashed his motorcycle and managed to get away to straighten himself up. Many were sceptical about the excuse. That was July 29, 1966. He came back to album making with ‘John Wesley Harding (1968)’ that had gems like "All Along the Watchtower" (more famous as cover by Jimi Hendrix). 1969 had ‘Nashville Skyline’ with his honey-dipped, smoking free voice. "Lay Lady Lay" was a pleasant reminder that the master was at helm. These were the precursor of his first stay in the “valley of suckdom”. Indifferent Albums and a collection of writing received lukewarm response. He was selling well, continuously giving good songs but they were sporadic and hidden deep in ordinary albums. His Pat Garrett soundtrack had the hit "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Than out of nothing came resounding affirmation of his genius in the form of a perfect album ‘Blood on the Tracks (1975)’. Starting with "Tangled Up in Blue," the album had iconic meditations on lost love ("Idiot Wind", "If You See Her, Say Hello"). It was great comeback but was followed by long average performances in late 70’s and 80’s a period that saw more downs than ups. He turned to occult and evangelism starting from Street legal (1978) to a brief return to form in 1983's Infidels. He was active, touring and recording but signs of decline were there as efforts were not comparable to anything Dylan. However there was third wind in store and came a proper masterpiece in ‘Time Out of Mind (1997). The Album” shocked the world because it didn't even echo past glories—it was a ghostly, beautiful new sound, yet another side of Bob Dylan.” Opening song ‘love sick’ informed the world that Dylan had a new trick up his sleeve for his battered voice. It was a new sound world weary, down with sceptic sneer but given the right treatment, capable of transmitting devastatingly condensed emotions. He completed the hat-trick of masterpieces with Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006). In 2001 he was honoured with Oscar for original song for Michel Douglas starrer ‘Wonder Boys’. The song ‘things have changed’ captures the craving aimlessness of mid-life crisis with uncanny accuracy and without sacrificing the seductive appeal of a loser. These late achievements are the testimony of his enduring genius, his self reinvention. He showed that he is a student in search and service of music and all his ordinary creations should not lull anyone as they may turn out to be stepping stone in the journey that is Dylan.
It is easy to say that his best work came before his motorcycle accident in 1966. It is said that he achieved more in five years between the age of 20 and 25 than in 45 years after that. It’s a tempting proposition as in those years; arguably, he mattered to more people in the deepest possible way than anyone else in the history of music. He reprogrammed the trajectory of popular music. Took people to folk and protest singing then transcended them by infusing the forms with new sensations. Lent intellectual credibility to rock& roll. He laid down new rules about what can be sung, written or played and how. He lifted the floodgates and showed the possibilities for artists to come. His ‘protest songs’ have been venerated as idioms of consciousness and slipped into language almost as clichés. While all this is true, Dylan is not Dylan just because of those five years. He is not just the ‘last moving target of the dream that was ‘60s rock’, he is the chronicle of musical sensitivities 60s onwards. Jimi Hendrix may have been a more pungent tornado of creativity or Jim Morrison was more seductive ‘Satan’s Seraph’ but they did not stay on the stage long enough. Saga of Dylan has been defining in its longevity and continued vitality. Cultural landscape needs patient carving and Dylan had the time. First five years may have been apocalyptic in proportion but real detailing have come in the years that followed. Blood on Tracks, Three Masterpieces of this millennium and an Oscar and all other not so triumphant albums are part of the journey that by proxy is the journey of popular music.
The poet explorer with his battered rasping voice has been diligently continuing on his path of finding and refining his voice. Even his defeats are uplifting as they were his brash confrontation with the impulse of resting on past laurels. Dylan has continued to surprise with varied hues of his rich musical persona. There is a monk like persistence in his search for the creative voice. This search has taken him to different musical turfs and has never lapsed into monotonous selling of nostalgia. Not for nothing he has been called ‘rock's longest-running font of vitality.’ We quiver in anticipation for one more summer in Neverland.
“Only a fool in here would think he's got anything to prove
Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too
Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through
People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range
I used to care, but things have changed”
-From Bob Dylan’s Oscar winning ‘Things have changed’