What Bob Dylan Has to Say to Us Now
With his 39th studio album, Dylan reveals the strength of acting your age
The wildly successful critical reception for Bob Dylan's just-released, 39th (!) studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways has made me reflect on the Bard of Minnesota's astonishing longevity.
I've given this a lot of thought. After all, don't we all wish for a durable career of our own, one which will withstand the many bumps in the road that we inevitably must navigate? (Or the smooth patches - in early December, it was announced that Dylan sold his entire songwriting catalog to the Universal Music Publishing Group for $300 million.)
In 2012, I wrote Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution. It contained 10 chapters — as an album might have that many songs on it. But to my chagrin, my editor deleted what might have been chapter 11, in which I had taken great pride. In it, I thought I well explained Dylan's penchant for reinvention since he arrived in Greenwich Village in January 1961. He was then a complete unknown, a Woody Guthrie knockoff who had just dropped out of the University of Minnesota midway through his sophomore year.
Act Your Age
The unpublished chapter was entitled "Act Your Age," a concept I felt we could all relate to. My point was that Dylan — born on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minn., and raised largely in Hibbing, Minn. — had proven to be most successful, both artistically and commercially, when he stayed true to himself over the years.
Remember, he introduced himself to us as the brilliant, impassioned writer of such remarkable protest songs as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Masters of War" in the early 1960s.
Dylan doggedly took stock of his career and proceeded to tour incessantly, to reach younger fans.
A decade later, in the mid-to-late 1970s, he emerged as a world-weary father of five who would go through a painful divorce and a heart-wrenching child custody battle. The marital strife helped inspire his great comeback album, Blood on the Tracks, released in January 1975.
Then, Dylan ran into problems in the 1980s. He looked out of place as he tried to keep up with the beautiful people on the new pop cultural sensation, MTV. His brand of protest and bitter-romantic songs were clearly not in vogue any more, and Dylan, who turned 40 in 1981, had a hard time adjusting. His straightforward, unadorned stylings were considered to be out of step in a time when flashy music producers, not the recording artists, seemed like the era's new stars. Dylan resembled an anachronistic vinyl icon lost in a sea of quadrophonic sounds.
The man who had sung "the times they are a-changin," ironically stood on the wrong side of the generation gap.
It may well have been Morning in America, in Ronald Reagan's time, but more like five minutes to midnight in Dylan's flagging career. As he might have said, it was not dark yet — but it was getting there. Or, perhaps, "he not busy being born (again) is busy dying."
Dylan doggedly took stock of his career and proceeded to tour incessantly, to reach younger fans. While their parents stayed home and watched TV, the kids were going to concerts and discovering Dylan's mastery. He even did an MTV Unplugged (later made into a winning live album). His well-reasoned strategy for reinvention during the 1990s paid off wonderfully.
Dylan roared back from the creative and health abyss in 1997 when he survived a mortality scare and released the much-lauded Time Out of Mind, which won the Grammy for Best Album.
A few years later, he won the Academy Award for Best Song for "Things Have Changed," from the film, Wonder Boys; the laconic chorus went: "I used to care/But things have changed."
Dylan received a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and a Nobel in 2016. He has aged and endured spectacularly.
Putting His Stamp on U.S. History
Now, with the 70-minute-long Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan's first album of new compositions since 2012's Tempest, he is putting his stamp on the retelling of American history.
"Murder Most Foul," the song that has garnered the most attention, discusses how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked and forever changed the nation. In it, Dylan reflects on America's loss of innocence and how the shocking murder forced Americans to grow up and shed their 1950s innocence. Ozzie and Harriet would soon be replaced by The Chicago Seven as cultural touchstones.
Why did Dylan decide to hone in on the tragedy of Nov. 22, 1963, all these years later? He moves in mysterious ways and loves to keep his fans guessing about where his head is at. Only Dylan knows why he feels this is the time to ruminate on JFK — and he, as he might say, "ain't talkin."
Dylan also released a moving song called "Lenny Bruce" on an album in 1981, and a tribute to John Lennon, 32 years after his passing, on the album Tempest.
On the new album, Dylan is acting his age. He's not trying to scream or shout any more.
On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan has certainly not lost his lifelong ability for crafting evocative images in his songs. He slyly and wryly name-checks everyone from Karl Marx and Leon Russell to Frederic Chopin and Indiana Jones.
"My Old Version of You" and "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You" reveal the maestro at his most convincing.
These are songs of wisdom, wit and tenderness. As he sings on "I Contain Multitudes:"
I'm just like Anne Frank
Like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones
I go right to the edge
I go right to the end
I go right where all things lost are made good again
A Voice with 'A Lot of Tread'
The biggest controversy of Dylan's long career is no longer that he "went electric" in 1965 and said farewell to folk music. Nor was it his religious conversion starting in 1979. It boils down to a blunt question: Is Dylan a good singer?
Yes, his singing voice was deliberately rough (and rowdy) when he broke out in the 1960s. Someone said it sounded like a dog with its hind leg caught in a wire fence.
Indeed, in a class I taught about Bob Dylan a few years ago, at Stony Brook University in New York, one student dismissed him by scoffing, He can't sing.
How novel, eh?!
Well, Dylan's voice today has a lot of tread on it. Thousands of concerts — he has been averaging many dozens a year since 1988 — have taken a toll. So has age. And, probably, countless cigarettes.
Dylan is acting his age. He's not trying to scream and shout any more. He has settled into a whispery, half-singing-half-declaring style. It works because it sounds authentic.
On the new album, Dylan is passing along some messages, but, of course, these are cloaked in in his trademark sly way, with fresh wit and hard-earned wisdom.
At 79 years old, Dylan — who once sang "love is all there is/It makes the world go 'round" — unabashedly wants to fall in love, be in love, and stay committed to someone special.
He is also reminding us that life is fluid — there are always going to be ups and downs, and things change over the years. We should hang on to our memories, but not get crushed by the past. Remember, in 1991, Dylan told the Los Angeles Times: "Nostalgia is death."
What is Dylan's greatest victory and most meaningful message? Be true to yourself. Act your age.