So if it wasn’t really the writing and performances that explain 1980s Dylan’s outcast status, what was it? I think it was deep cultural structure, on two fronts.
Rock began as music rooted in an awkward time of life, pitched to move adolescents and often made by people barely out of their teens. What sustained it and made it dominant was that in addressing teen metamorphosis, that nervy, in-between energy turned out to speak by proxy to larger shifts, such as the post-war schism of tradition and consumerism; nuclear-age existential vertigo; tensions between the sexes or among black, white, and brown in America; and much more.
However, rock had trouble assimilating the next big transitional point in most people’s development—the different kind of awkwardness of middle age. As Mick Jagger guessed in 1966, “What a drag it is getting old.” At least for a while. As it’s turned out, rock-era figures are OK at becoming seniors—Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, David Bowie, and many other icons wear their silvering hair with élan. The painful part came earlier, in the 1980s, when those stars hit their 40s and began to resemble the parents they once seemed born to vex.
Young, Joni Mitchell, the Grateful Dead, Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, Van Morrison, of course Dylan, and even the Clash—almost no Boomer icons escaped being tarred as sellouts and has-beens in the 1980s, often by critics barely a few years younger who expected rock gods to be exempt from time’s scythe. Today, I think, we are beyond that fantasy and project less shame onto aging artists, which makes them less prone to wriggle into self-conscious updates as if they were unflatteringly tight shirts.
Beyond rock’s internal growing pains, though, the ’80s were a time of cultural counterrevolution, led by stock brokers, family-values preachers, and the Reagan White House, demanding the total liberation of the market and the re-regulation of private life. Liberal millionaire celebrities didn’t fit on any side: They weren’t down with the agenda, but they were fat cats still. A new globalized order was emerging—the one we’re still living with—and the utopian platitudes of their youth didn’t have much to say about it.
Yet 1980s critics still expected rock to be about resistance, and rock was letting them down, Dylan maybe most of all. Which is silly, ultimately, because aside from his brief bouts of true-believer fervor for civil rights or for Jesus (and often even then), Dylan always keeps on doing the only thing he’s built to do, which is to mulch all incoming data into symbol, rhetoric, jape, and patter. In the 21st century, he’s applauded for it again, but in the 1980s his audience wanted more, and Bob Dylan’s never really taken requests—ask him for a shovel and he’ll give you an armadillo, shrugging, “Look, man, they both dig.”
And this is where the Bob Dylan in the 80s project whiffs: Mostly it just hands us the shovel. To show that these are good rock songs, it presents them as good rock songs. Which is fine at first but adds little to the originals. Aside from Finn, slipping by on sheer charisma, the exception is musical clown Reggie Watts’ version of “Brownsville Girl,” Dylan’s 11-minute ramble co-written with Sam Shepard from 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded—Watts turns it into a four-minute chunk of lovers-rock reggae, mainly singing the chorus but also rolling random lyrics around his mouth with his supple lolling tongue.*
Since one thing Dylan’s never had the pipes to do is to sing very prettily, I’m also taken with a couple of the ballads—Dawn Landes and Bonnie Prince Billy’s duet on “Dark Eyes” and My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel’s rendition of “Death Is Not the End.” Otherwise most of these versions simply seem like rote payments of respect, with the singers sounding pseudo-Dylanish, the way other actors often seem like they’re doing Woody Allen imitations when they’re in his movies.
Once the point’s been made, why listen to a bunch of competent knockoffs when I can go back and hear Dylan himself delivering the songs with all his own messy, wrecked, cobwebbed, missing-person, bottomless-pit mystery? At least then they’re part of a suspense drama in progress, not a toast at a commemorative banquet.
If you are looking for a record that freshens up some of Dylan’s music from that era, seek out Gotta Serve Somebody from 2003, on which black gospel singers perform his born-again numbers. It hints that maybe proselytization wasn’t motivating him so much as the urge to leave his mark on yet another of America’s best musical traditions. (I’m also looking forward to Light in the Attic Records’ coming reissue of 1969’s Dylan’s Gospel, where his 1960s standards are given the salvation treatment by the California collective The Brothers & Sisters, including Merry Clayton, whom you may know from the Oscar-winning doc 20 Feet From Stardom.)
Bob Dylan in the 80s is tagged Vol. 1, but if there’s going to be a sequel, let it be a ménage of artists from varied genres, with a mandate to rip the tunes up and patch them into cockamamie alien designs. Dylan notoriously does that to his songs in concert, and he’s done it to his identity and role in the culture decade after decade, even when it’s garnered him only grief. As the old coot himself might drawl, “C’mon, honey, give a real tug on that skinny necktie.”
Correction, April 2, 2014: This article originally misspelled the last name of Sam Shepard. (Return.)