In recent photos I've seen of Bob Dylan, he's wearing a lopsided, bemused grin, the smile of someone who can't quite believe what's happening to him. If you were Dylan, you'd be puzzled, too. In December, President Clinton and Washington's elite paid homage to the singer at the Kennedy Center Honors--an event that usually celebrates old respectables such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Dylan shaved and even wore a tuxedo. Last week, it was the recording industry's turn to suck up to Dylan. Having all but shut Dylan out of the Grammies for the last 35 years, it lavished three awards on his new record, Time Out of Mind, including Album of the Year.
There is general agreement that the Dylan honors signify Something Very Important about the '60s. The most popular explanation is a political one: Dylan in a tux is the final, ironic nail in the counterculture coffin. The establishment has finally co-opted the ultimate anti-establishment figure. Dylan, the story goes, was the icon for the lefty politics of the '60s: He sang "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Masters of War" and was the role model for a generation of protestors. Once he sang, "Don't follow leaders." Now--sniff--he's hanging out with Clinton.
But this is a misapprehension of Dylan. He was never as much of a counterculturist as his fans believed, and he was certainly never much of a politico. Except for a brief, awkward foray into the civil-rights movement, Dylan essentially ignored political activism during the '60s. At a time when every musician spoke out against the Vietnam War, Dylan did not. He ignored presidential campaigns and lefty crusades. He never preached, or much sympathized with, hippie rhetoric. He denied, and still denies, that his songs had a political significance: He licensed "The Times They Are A-Changin' " for a bank advertisement.
If there is a decade of which Dylan is a symbol, it's the '70s. He has always pursued self-actualization rather than protest, artistic fulfillment rather than politics. Pause for requisite Dylan mantra: "He not busy being born is busy dying." (For a personal-growth slogan, this is pretty gloomy. But it is a pretty grim song.) Neocons have always claimed that narcissism, not ideology, inspired the rebelliousness of Dylan's generation. Dylan, the most inward looking of musicians, a selfish genius, gives that claim credence.
Other musicians pander to their public. Dylan has built a career designed to satisfy no one but himself. In 1965, for example, Dylan went electric, abandoning folk's soft sound, earnest politics, and rabidly loyal fans. When some pop musicians turned to psychedelia in the late '60s, this one stripped his songs down and played basic American country. A decade later, at a time of high hedonism, he found Jesus and composed gospel music. Dylan, who modeled himself on James Dean, spent a vast amount of time away from music trying to build a movie career--despite a total absence of acting charisma.
Throughout his career, Dylan has frustrated fans by deconstructing his golden oldies. When he plays his hits in concerts, Dylan often twists them, garbling their lyrics and sandblasting their melodies into strange new creations. (Anyone who has attended a Dylan show in the past 20 years knows the feeling: He plays a song you've always loved, and you can't even recognize it. "That was 'Tangled Up in Blue'?")
Dylan got bad, but he never got stale. His constant reinvention and his constant touring saved him from rock geezerhood. If you go to a Rolling Stones or Eagles concert--and I strongly advise against it--three-quarters of the crowd will be paunchy baby boomers reliving their glory days. They'll sing along to 30-year-old songs performed exactly as they were 30 years ago. Were there any more embarrassing five minutes during the Grammies than Fleetwood Mac's performance? Bloated, sloppy, and greedy, the band regurgitated a medley of '70s hits to vast applause. But Dylan has been touring nonstop since 1988, winning over an entire generation of fans to his music (both new and old). America may be waxing nostalgic over Dylan, but there has never been a musician less concerned with nostalgia.
In an age when celebrities expose themselves promiscuously, Dylan rejects public self-revelation. Is there any star about whom we know less? It's not that Dylan's invisible: He plays 150 concerts a year, and he does occasional interviews. But he says little about his music and nothing about his life. His marriage, his divorce, his personal life: All are ciphers in the public consciousness.
(He has mellowed slightly since his younger days, when he took pleasure in torturing the press.
Reporter: What do you do with your money?
Dylan: I wear it.
Another reporter: What are your songs about?
Dylan: Some of my songs are about four minutes, some are about five minutes and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.)
And Dylan never schmoozed much within the music business. His failure to win Grammies during the '60s was hardly a surprise. The Grammies have always trailed hipness by a decade or more. In the mid-'60s, when Dylan was at his peak, Herb Alpert was winning Album of the Year awards. Recently, the Grammies have become more current by adding categories, and they have begun to repay artists for years of neglect. Besides honoring Dylan, the academy also gave John Fogerty his first Grammy this year. (Fogerty never won an award for the brilliant records he made with Credence Clearwater Revival three decades ago.)
Dylan probably won't reinvent himself again. He said recently that songs don't come to him easily anymore: Time Out of Mind is his first album of new material in eight years. It's a wonderful record: Its blues/folk songs are bleak, beautiful, hypnotic. But it sounds like a return to something old and comfortable rather than progress to something new and strange.
And even if Dylan does have another transformation within him, his voice may not. Opera singers who take care of their voices can perform only into their sixties. Dylan is 56, and his voice--ripped by drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes and never that good to begin with--is much older. Writing in Slate last year, Alex Ross called Time Out of Mind"the first great rock album of old age" in part because Dylan manages to sing around his weak voice. As you can hear on this clip from Time Out of Mind's "Not Dark Yet," Dylan's voice doesn't have much left. His range, already narrow, will soon be just a bleat. But better to go out bleating "Not Dark Yet" than croaking through "Blowin' in the Wind" for the 10,000th time.