Bob Dylan at 80: Monument Man

Bob Dylan turns 80 today.  I’ve somehow managed to write a couple of pieces about him here without talking much (not at all, really) about his records. One was about the Rolling Thunder Revue, one was about his image as a folk hero. It isn’t as though I haven’t engaged intensely with Dylan’s music over most of my life. It’s more like, why add to the smog-plume of hot air? It’s a good rule of thumb to try not to be Mr. Jones, as so many journalists and critics are: overly-literal, overly oracular, overly defining, but ultimately and patently clueless. On top of this, Dylan has never really been about albums as finished, self-contained statements. He is about SONGS. Coming out of the folk tradion, he records bundles of tunes and releases them, but as a flood of outtakes and bootlegs have come out over the decades, with as much or more magical material than had been on the original releases, even his most integrated statements like Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks seem to dissolve around the edges. There is only the massive body of work in its entirety, open-ended, elusive, always in motion. That can’t help but work to his benefit.

But there have been recent developments that inspire a stock-taking. Dylan won the Nobel Prize in 2016, and, to qualify for the cash award he issued an interesting public statement wherein he commented at length on Moby Dick, The Odyssey and All Quiet on the Western Front. There’s Scorsese’s brilliant 2019 Rolling Thunder Revue movie. And in 2020 Dylan released Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is not just his first new album of original material in eight years, but his best record in decades, one of those tent poles, to my mind his finest since Desire, 44 years previous. Added to which, all these enigmatic albums of covers in recent decades, which put his legacy in perspective. Dylan is only occasionally a poet; he is ALWAYS a folk singer and musician. The pressure to be a writer could be a millstone around his neck. If Dylan had left us, say, in the 1980s sometime prior to Oh Mercy (1989), the final verdict would have been that the “once great” Dylan had died, that his gifts had left him years ago. (Dylan was more out of step during the Reagan era than he had been at any point in his career, though he needn’t have been. It was a tremendous decade for blues — he could easily have put his own stamp on that trend, even if he’d stuck entirely to covers. Instead he chose to release a string of some of his his weakest records full of his weakest original songs). But what he has attained NOW. Dylan has achieved institution status. He has become the 21st century equivalent of all those guys who had inspired him in his own youth, from the great collector/producers like Alan Lomax and John Hammond, to the collector/artists like Carl Sandburg and Pete Seeger to simple beloved old timer American icons like Burl Ives and, yes, Woody Guthrie. His collections of Sinatra covers and Christmas songs remind me of Dylan’s fellow Columbia artist Mitch Miller. THAT is what he has stepped up to. And, believe me, those records made me scratch my head plenty. He’d performed FOLK covers all his life. And he is a songwriter of genius. But why would someone whose voice is his weakest muscle record COMMERCIAL songs, written by somebody else, and in such volume? Yet this is also the guy who made Self-Portrait. I think Dylan wants to say these songs mean something to him, and they bear some relation to his own songs that’s worth ruminating on. And if his voice is rough and unconventional it’s time to stop making facile one-liners about that and begin to think of him as a singer in the tradition of Howlin’ Wolf or Louis Armstrong. He is a figure so great that he has altered the definition of what a singer is; he sings like Van Gogh paints.

So longevity has served Bob Dylan very well. When you’re around long enough, your work assumes a cyclical shape. Dylan has had periods when the writing was dry, but that’s like the crops and the seasons. And like a farmer he just stays in the grind. Today, if anything, his footprint has ended up being far GREATER than the original “Poet of a Generation” image. Now we say the youthful Dylan is but a piece of the greater monument, one that has numerous other beautiful sections too numerous to name.