Bob Dylan's 70th birthday: What does, and doesn't, his music owe to his fans?

Reading between the lines.
May 23 2011 1:55 PM

Busy Being Born

What does Bob Dylan's music owe to his fans?

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Nothing, it seemed, could go more against the grain of his creative style, as an inside look at Dylan in the studio reveals. In a great chapter on the making of Blonde on Blonde,Wilentz captures the determined musician at work—abandoning recording in New York for a new venue in Nashville—and in Epstein's portrait of Dylan at work on Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft 40 years later, little has changed. The recording sessions are experimental and off-balance, yet Dylan runs them in a way that gives him maximum control. Sometimes he'll start a song in a new key. Musicians just have to catch up. He resents his producers who he says have watered down all of his albums. (He's produced his last three by himself.) If that's how he feels about professionals chiming in on his work, imagine the whole world telling him what his music was supposed to say and sound like.

How fast did Dylan start moving to elude entrapment? His third album, Times They Are A-Changing, filled with the protest songs that would help cement him as a protest singer, came out in the same year—1964—as Another Side of Bob Dylan,which marked his move entirely away from political protest songs. Of all the periods of change in Dylan's career, 1964 to 1966 is the most intense. His iconic decision in July of 1965 to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival and the negative reaction (Pete Seeger wanted to take an axe to the cables!) isn't the half of it. What followed was far more radical: a total commitment to creative risk in the face not just of uncertainty but hostility.

Dylan spent much of that year after Newport getting booed. It's one thing to try something out. It's another to live with that roll of the dice, following your idea for month after month. Dylan felt the new amplified sound matched his in-your-face attitude and his Kerouac and beat influenced lyrics. "I had to get where I was going all alone," he said at the time. "And I know it's real. … They can boo till the end of time. I know that the music is real, more real than the boos." His drummer Levon Helm was so undone by the audience abuse that he left the tour to join an oil rig. Dylan just kept following his way.

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And it nearly killed him. Shortly after this period Dylan had a collapse and didn't tour again for eight years. But he was musically still on the move. He retreated into seclusion to write some of his most beautiful songs of repair on John Wesley Harding (1967) while also finding joy in dickering around with his friends in The Band in their home recording studio. The Basement Tapes(1975) that emerged from those sessions are "less a style than a spirit," writes Marcus, "a spirit that had to do with delight in friendship and invention … a spirit that shoots a good smile straight across this album."

It was his fans, in no small part, who pushed Dylan into that fertile period, which lasted a decade and produced some of his best music. Even Dylan himself seemed to acknowledge his embattled reliance on his audience to propel him forward. He couldn't forge ahead alone. There was a reason everyone was talking nostalgically about Dylan's greatest years by the time I started listening to him in the mid-'80s, after his followers panned his Christian phase. Dylan himself felt adrift, "a missing person inside of myself," he said. He'd lost a connection outside of himself. I traveled to shows he played with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, where he looked out into the audience and told us we all looked like "cutouts from a shooting gallery."

If the audience he needed didn't exist, he would create it. In his autobiography Chronicles, Dylan writes that he was about to hang it up and stop the "marathon stunt ride"—until he had a revelation at a show in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1987. Instead of running from his fans, he would "put myself in the service of the public" He'd leave behind his old followers and find a completely new set. "The kind of crowd that would have to find me would have to be the kind of crowd who didn't know what yesterday was." Dylan seemed to be recognizing afresh something Marcus wrote in 1970 after the release of the lackluster album Self Portrait. * "If the music Dylan makes doesn't have the power to enter into the lives of his audience, his audience will take over his past."

Dylan has been working hard to hold off that takeover. He's put out enough good albums since the turnaround he writes about that Dylan fans have a new debate: Which is the better comeback album? He plays more than 100 shows a year, mixing old standards with new work. This year he made his first trip to China, prompting criticism from fans who thought the author of "The Times They Are A-Changin' " shouldn't play in an authoritarian country—since presumably he wouldn't be allowed to perform his signature protest songs.

Responding on his Web page, Dylan sounded like—what else—a musician who refused to be pinned down: He wasn't censored by anyone other than himself. He wanted to play new stuff. He bristled at being presented as a '60s icon. "They responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last four or five records," Dylan said of his audience. It wasn't a crowd of expats, either, he pointed out. Actual Chinese had flocked to hear him play. Fifty years after his career began, Dylan is still wrestling with his fans, leaving some behind and attracting new ones a long way from America. It's all part of trying to keep moving and find his way home.

Correction, May 24, 2011: This article originally stated that Self Portrait was released in 1960. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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