The prophet in decline

He has been a critically important shaper of Western popular culture. But at 80 it is time for Bob Dylan to exit the stage, argues the writer.

“To us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives.”

On a lesser scale, the poet WH Auden’s words about Sigmund Freud could apply to Bob Dylan. On his 80th birthday, his influence on the popular music of the West is so pervasive that it runs unnoticed, like blood in the vein.

It was his monumental presence over more than 50 years that prompted the Nobel committee’s bold decision in 2016 to award him the literature prize. “Alfred Nobel wanted to reward those who have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” the committee explained.

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If one accepts that the annual Nobel jamboree essentially celebrates the cultural products of the United States, Europe and their offshoots, the size of his footprint is beyond question. Artists such as Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles owe him a vast debt. His songs have been covered by more than 2 700 musicians, from Queens of the Stone Age to the Soweto Gospel Choir. Blowin’ in the Wind has been recorded 375 times.

Are his songs literature? That’s a matter of definition. Some critics point out that the ancients sang their poems – hence the term “lyric”, from the stringed instrument that accompanied them, the lyre. But whatever quality is conveyed by the word “poetic” – and it seems related to a sense of the world’s impermanence – Dylan’s songs were charged with it in the 1960s and have had less and less of it over time.

The Dylan Hurricane

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who knew him personally, remarked that the Dylan of the early years radiated an almost shamanistic potency; for Joan Baez, everything he did was “touched by genius”.

On his debut album, Bob Dylan, all but two of the tracks were traditional – but it was immediately plain that something extraordinary had landed. Here was a 21-year-old who seemed to be haunted by death. Almost every track touched on the subject; the blues classics Fixin’ to Die and See that my Grave is Kept Clean were rendered in such an individual way, and with such intensity, that they carried more emotional clout than the originals.

And that voice! For folk fans attuned to Baez’s virginal sub-operatic soprano, and the “angel and two cellos” of Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan’s harsh nasal keening was a brutal assault. But it lent itself to the burning emotion of his songs, entrenching the principle that voices should be judged by their expressiveness, not beauty, and clearing the way for the gloom of Leonard Cohen and the gravel of Tom Waits.

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A good part of Dylan’s unique talent has been his ability to watch and assimilate, like a “sponge” as one observer put it, and then overtake his teachers. Those who saw his initial performances in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s thought him average. Within months he was singing like Woody Guthrie while playing “cross harp” – blues harmonica – and fluent clawhammer and other technically demanding guitar licks.

Between 1962 and 1966, Dylan released six albums – two of them (Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) and a double album (Blonde on Blonde) in 1965-66, his year of marvels and prodigies.

His imagination had been evolving and darkening throughout, and he soon abandoned the protest songs that had earned him the media tag – which he detested – of “the voice of a generation”. Intensely private and largely apolitical ­– he once claimed to favour the idea of a benevolent monarchy – Dylan had no interest in being an antiwar or civil rights crusader.

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Ginsberg commented that nothing like the three climactic albums of the mid-to-late 1960s had ever been heard before. There were shafts of gallows humour and weird off-centre ballads, toxic love songs and incantations of hate, riots of surrealist imagery inspired by his namesake Dylan Thomas and the French symbolists, Biblical and historical references jostling with the language of the streets – and brooding over it all a feeling of apocalyptic menace:

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows, even a silver spoon,
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.
(It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding)

It is no exaggeration to say that the early Dylan reimagined popular music, greatly expanding its lexicon by importing unheard-of themes and imagery.

Times they are a-changin’

But his voyages of discovery carried a cost. A month after the June 1966 release of Blonde on Blonde he seems to have suffered a breakdown, which he presented to the world as a motorbike accident, and withdrew into rural domesticity. Dylan would never again scale the lyrical heights of these three masterworks, with their numinous songs of towering solitude. 

But always hugely ambitious, with a talent for self-reinvention and the unpredictable, he would wrong-foot the doubters twice more with albums of a very different kind. Both were about love, which Dylan only seems to write about as disappointment and failure. And both followed years of creative sterility, when the critics had written him off as a spent icon of the roaring 1960s.

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Blood on the Tracks unexpectedly surfaced in 1975 after nearly a decade of sporadic output when he seemed to be groping for an artistic compass. Described by his son, Jakob, as “my parents talking”, it arose from the growing estrangement of Dylan and his first wife, Sara. The distinctive bittersweet tone that he strikes in his love songs, of resigned loss, of paths sadly fated to diverge, permeates the album:

I’ve been meek and hard like an oak
I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke,
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear
If you want me, honey baby I’ll be here.
(Buckets of Rain)

Twenty-two years later, after a seven-year drought when he recorded not one original track, came what some consider the start of a comeback ­­– but is better thought of as Dylan’s artistic adieu. Weighted down by the failure of his second marriage, the miscarriage of his musically disastrous flirtation with evangelical Christianity, and his advancing years, the triple Grammy-winning album Time Out of Mind (released in 1997) has been described as a “voice from beyond the grave”.

Its centrepiece is a tragic intimation of mortality, Not Dark Yet, in which all his middle-aged sorrows find expression:

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.

The paradox of this complex man is that he is driven both by the immigrant American’s hankering for fame and money – he recently sold his entire song catalogue for $300 million – and by a life-negating mysticism that tells him the world means nothing.

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Songs like Gates of Eden, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Tryin’ to Get to Heaven highlight his poignant awareness of death, apparent from his very first recording; his sense of the world’s emptiness and brokenness; and his longing for redemption. This bipolarity, between the lure of the material and void, may explain his long fallow periods and repeated returns to the limelight.

Dylan followed the triumph of Time Out of Mind with a string of indifferent albums and other releases – including Christmas songs and Frank Sinatra covers – that made him seem eccentric or even contemptuous of his audience. “Here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus lane.” Can the raspy imitator of singing cowboy Gene Autry really be the artist who once sang: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” (Visions of Johanna)? His shot voice, ranging from a croak to a hoarse monotone, is not the worst of it. The larger problem is that since Time Out of Mind he has had little new to say and shrinking resources with which to say it.

Love and Theft (2001), considered the signal achievement of his late years, is crowded with banal and unfocused lyrics:

You got something to say, speak or hold your peace
If it’s information you want you can go get it from the police. (Summer Days)

Dylan’s tendency to slap whatever comes to mind onto the page, often governed by the rhyme, has become steadily more pronounced. When his youthful imagination was sparking, he could get away with it. But in the late 1990s he conceded that the days when three or four songs would come to him at the same time were long past.

All powers decline with age; the issue is his arrogant and entitled belief that, by virtue of being Bob Dylan, he has the right to dish up the whims and sweepings of his dotage to the listening public. Most American critics seem to take the view that as a sort of monstre sacré, Dylan should be indulged. Music writer Corbin Reiff has reacted more honestly, saying the Sinatra covers were “another instance of one of the most capricious artists in pop music history doing what he feels like. Take it or leave it.”

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It was an outlook in evidence during the Nobel imbroglio, when he delayed for weeks before accepting the prize, ducked the ceremony, and finally dropped by to collect his medal during a concert tour four months later. Was he feeding the myth he has assiduously cultivated of himself as a fearless lone wolf (“I ain’t lookin’ for nothing in anyone’s eyes”), only to be won over by the lure of the prize money?

The sad truth is that for his own sake, Dylan should have vacated the stage years ago. The song Mississippi on Love and Theft, one of its rare highlights, captures it well:

You can always come back
But you can’t come back all the way.
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.

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