Bob Dylan, a Generation's Self-Help Guru
Author Jon Friedman on life lessons from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
(Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, so Next Avenue is republishing this 2012 tribute to him.)
Since Bob Dylan burst on the music scene in 1961, critics, pundits and fans alike have celebrated his remarkable skills as a songwriter, poet, vocalist and performer of folk music and rock 'n' roll. But to me he’s so much more than an entertainer.
I think Dylan, now 71 [Editors: he's 75 currently], can teach us life lessons based on his mysterious genius and longevity. Can you think of anybody in your field who has thrived for 50-plus years and is still going strong? Consider that Dylan is constantly on tour and on Sept. 11 will release Tempest, his 35th studio album.
What’s most impressive is that he has accomplished everything on his own terms. If anything, Dylan’s strict principles probably held him back at various times, such as when, at 21, he walked off The Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular television program of the day, because the producers wouldn’t let him sing the song he had chosen for his big night. Dylan could have benefited enormously from the supersonic push of that appearance. But he refused to betray his ideals — commercial incentives have never swayed him off course.
How many of us would turn down those potentially lucrative compromises?
Always Resilient and Relevant
Dylan has long demonstrated resilience. He has found the strength of purpose to mount comebacks and prove to skeptics that he can bend with the changing times. He proved his mettle after falling into a steep decline throughout the 1980s. By his own admission in Chronicles: Volume One, his engrossing 2004 memoir, Dylan had lost his muse. Further, he seemed to be out of step with the video-crazed music industry and the Morning in America–oriented United States.
But tellingly, he set out to show the public that he still belonged. For example, his strategy of nonstop touring around the world, beginning in 1988, worked brilliantly. His decision to launch what the media came to call the “Never Ending Tour” confirmed Dylan’s innate business acumen, as he methodically tapped a fresh and fertile market. New fans discovered him and reveled in the same qualities that a previous generation of followers has long appreciated.
In Chronicles, Dylan wrote extensively about what critics and fans have written off as his fallow period. He doesn’t shy away from the outside criticism and actually proves to be his own harshest critic in the book.
He explained in Chronicles that on the Never Ending Tour he set out on a deliberate and thoughtful course of action to regain his relevance in our lives. This idea intrigued me — that this brilliant musician had the wherewithal to craft such an ambitious and ultimately successful strategy for his comeback. It’s the kind of case study you might review at a graduate school of business: “Reviving a Damaged Brand and Making It Highly Relevant, Once Again.”
He has proven the value of forging ahead and not letting success or failure overwhelm him. He is riding high now. His albums sell well. Dylan has the clout, and the chops, to play about 100 shows a year worldwide. Sure, critics are bound to carp that his voice is too raspy and rough these days. Some even suggest that maybe, at his age, he should leave the road for good.
If Dylan took the time to read such stuff, he’d probably shake his head in bemusement. Maybe he’d laugh at the irony that today’s naysayers are repeating what short-sighted reviewers wrote and said 50 years ago: Bob Dylan can’t sing.
They didn’t get it then and they don’t get it now. Dylan lives his life as an artist, not a crowd pleaser. He continues to do whatever he wants.
That lesson in itself is a pretty powerful one.
Jon Friedman is the author of Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution.