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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Bob Dylan. Click image to expand.
Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is turning 70, and here we all come: the writers, the critics, the biographers, the song-quoters—and not one of us with a cake or a candle. Each of us thinks we know how best to celebrate the changeling who has changed our lives. Dylan has been called the voice of a generation. It's true. He's given voice to generations of writers who say he inspired them. If every person has a book in them, it seems every writer has a Dylan book—or at least an essay—in them.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Dylan isn't thrilled with the birthday presents. He's always taken a dim view of critics, even adulatory ones: "40-year-olds trying to explain my music to 10-year-olds," he once called them. In a recent letter to fans he rolled his eyes at the "gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future," dubious about the prospects of a great one. He has made a professional sport of embarrassing interviewers he thinks are trying to put him in a box, most famously Time's Horace Freeland Judson in the documentary Don't Look Back.A key theme of Dylan's music is: You're missing the point. "Ballad of a Thin Man" from 1965 says it most famously and explicitly: "Something is happening here but you don't know what it is." You can even find the message in "Boots of Spanish Leather."

It's your own fault, Bob. If you made everything so simple and so plain, you wouldn't have so many followers plumbing your lyrics, tweezing your life, and succumbing in the process to the many sins Dylan somehow makes it very hard for writers to resist. I committed one of them at the end of the last paragraph. Call it song dropping. I've tossed off a song title and moved on to the next paragraph. Unless you're a fan, you probably aren't familiar with the song. Even if you are, my point may not be as self-evident as I think. (For the record, my point was that the song "Boots of Spanish Leather" is a conversation between two lovers, each missing the point—maybe on purpose—the other is making.)

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Other sins include endless citations of obscure blues and folk musicians and rhapsodic descriptions of Dylan concerts you've seen—merely to establish that I'm very well read, it's well known. This is another sin, gratuitous quotation of Dylan lyrics. Done sparingly it's part of the clubhouse conversation of Dylan fans—a breadcrumb sin—but it gets tedious fast (almost there) if the writer quotes a lyric with no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means. (See what I'm saying?)

When I started listening rapturously to Dylan as a teenager, in the mid-1980s, I wanted to know what his every word meant, including a, and the, and um. It's the least you can do when you're writing lyrics on your jeans. Emotionally, I was in his thrall, but I also wanted some glimpse of how those words might all add up. He's asking questions that call for answers or at least conversation: Who are you? What's it going to take? What's true? If you had to get out fast, would you use the window?

And as my bookshelves filled up with biographies and cultural histories, I had a recurring question about a lot of the answers I found in those books: Why, in all the time that I've been listening to Dylan, has he so often been judged to be on a comeback from the period before I was born? Caught up in the world of Dylan's fans, which included most of the people who wrote about him, I couldn't help feeling out of step. They were either too hard to please—they said he was no good after he went electric or after the motorcycle mishap or after he became a Christian—or they were so pleased by everything he did, it suggested his genius might be a big hoax.

Though the great Dylan book may not be at hand, even he might approve of the mission that inspires the most recent crop of writing about him: to "celebrate the impossibility of pinning down Bob Dylan," as David Yaffe writes in his collection of four Dylan essays, Like a Complete Unknown. Above all, that means exploring the desire for change that drove Dylan from the start and still consumes him in his latest period, as Daniel Mark Epstein understands in his biography, The Ballad of Bob Dylan. In Bob Dylan in America,Sean Wilentz traces the cultural currents and cross-currents he's constantly navigating. It's the lived Dylan experience—messy, conversational, and expanding—that has engaged Greil Marcus all along, as his incisive Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010attests.

"For an artist who began his career protesting," Yaffe writes, "his most fervent protests have been against his earlier selves and the audience who wanted to embalm him in them." Yet Dylan's fans, these books suggest, may have served all along as a kind of brutal muse—fruitful and destructive, like the romances that have inspired so many Dylan songs. And as is his way with those relationships, Dylan spends a lot of time pretending not to care—or bridling with impatience—even as he privately obsesses. The tension throughout Dylan's career between his drive to keep moving and his fans' deep investment in his current incarnation, or some prior incarnation, turns out to be a crucial catalyst of his restless creative process.

Follow the bouncing Bob since he came to New York on Jan. 24, 1961: Guthrie emulator, protest singer, beat poet, hipster rocker, recluse, stadium-show band-leader, carnival musician, evangelical, gospel singer, faded rocker, American song curator, radio host, filmmaker, and painter. When Dylan is in a comfortable spot in his career, he kicks himself out of it, reaching for some new sound, trying for a new and precise way to capture an idea that's always elusive. He rolls the rock up and then he's the one who pushes it back down again. "This home that I'd left a while back and couldn't remember exactly where it was, but I was on my way there," was how Dylan put it in the aptly named documentary No Direction Home, summing up his career. "I was born very far from where I'm supposed to be, and so, I'm on my way home."

The constant recreations are what pull us in as fans. Dylan is discovering something new and we're going along with him. He's giving us a map to understand our own lives. It's not just the evolving music and words that draw us onward, but also the promise of a gateway into feeling like a member of a special new group, one that is always ahead of the curve. "We thought we were advanced and special," Wilentz writes of seeing Dylan in 1964 at the Philharmonic Hall in New York. "For us the concert was partly an act of collective self-ratification."

That is where the struggle started. A sense of identity rooted in Dylan-allegiance made for a very demanding audience, avid for precisely what its hero withheld: certainty, a promise either of more of the same or of absolutes. Now instead of just chasing after something, Dylan felt pursued.

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