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Bob Dylan is just a mortal after all

Music icon proves to be just as susceptible to nostalgia as lesser pop stars. By James Sullivan
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Does Bob Dylan still matter? For unrepentant rock ‘n’ roll fans of a certain age — say, old enough to remember when upper-crusty John Kerry was a dashing, bushy-haired young protester in fatigues — that’s a downright despicable question. For Baby Boomers, Dylan was the guy, the one who single-handedly gave rock music, an “art” form once as disposable as yesterday’s donuts, all the heavy solemnity of the topical folk scene that birthed him.

On the publication of “Chronicles, Volume One,” the first installment of Dylan’s proposed multi-part autobiography, it’s worth asking anyway. One of the biggest surprises in a career founded on petulance and flights of fancy, the fact that the long-rumored book has actually become reality is yet another surreal moment in a lifetime full of them for this most guarded of public personages. A poet, yes, but also a rogue, a vanishing act, an iconoclast, a Jewish-born born-again Christian, a troubadour, a dissolute rocker and a Grand Ole Opry-style barnstormer, among many other things, Dylan always has been first and foremost a puzzle.

This holds true for fans as much as non-fans. For fans, half the fun is sorting out the pieces. Was it really a backroad motorcycle accident that led to Dylan’s strange disappearance in 1968? Don’t follow leaders, OK, but why watch the parking meters? And what in God’s name was “Masked and Anonymous” all about?

For non-fans the riddle is that mighty reputation itself. Can one mortal soul deserve such a monstrous thing? For many the voice — an affected, increasingly self-referential idiosyncrasy, like a talking bee with a chronic case of sinusitis — is an acquired taste that they’ve never been able to acquire. And the endless critical parsing of the Dylan oeuvre can seem befuddling to non-partisans. Why, they wonder, do so many otherwise not-especially-rock ‘n’ roll-y people — many of them Aquarius coming-of-agers who have long since traded in the crash pad and the VW Bus for the Mercedes and the ski chalet in Sun Valley — still hang on this man’s every inscrutable word?

Is he a genius, or just supremely crafty? Which was Salvador Dali? James Cagney? Sinatra?

Under the microscopeDylan has always maintained an aversion to the celebrity churn. Yet it is precisely this well-tended inscrutability of his (as he explains in the “Chronicles” excerpt reprinted in last week’s Newsweek) that has kept him under a career-fulfilling microscope all these years.

Pop stars: If you can figure them out, they’re done. Though he’d rather not let on that he’s paying attention, Dylan is well aware of this. There’s no longer much mystery to an Eric Clapton, to name one of Dylan’s contemporaries, or a John Mellencamp, or for that matter a Ricky Martin. From Dylan’s reluctance to talk to the press to his spiritual about-faces and his recent reemergence as the Methuselah of rock, harking back to the time of Stephen Foster, not Little Stevie Wonder, Dylan has mastered the art of beguilement, a skill that can make an effective talent an immortal one.

At 63, Dylan is enjoying a renaissance. Despite what many critics say, it’s not that his recent music has been so thrilling. Both 1997’s Grammy-winning “Time Out of Mind” and its followup, “Love and Theft” (released on Sept. 11, 2001), have been overly glorified. Widely credited as one of Dylan’s all-time albums and his best in decades, “Time Out of Mind” featured the moving death dirge “Not Dark Yet,” but it was also nearly swallowed whole by the aimless, interminable (16 minute) space-filler “Highlands.” At the time of release, heart troubles had recently hospitalized the singer, forcing many admirers to contemplate the prospect of life post-Bob. Those circumstances undoubtedly gave the record some of its bounce.

The critical establishment loves a comeback. Loves a comeback so much, in fact, that the actual content often takes a backseat to the buzz, the perceived significance of the thing. Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when people were craving commiseration, was one such album. How many copies are collecting dust today? Dylan’s recent releases, it might be argued, have enjoyed similarly inflated assessments.

The young Springsteen, of course, became the most famous of the never-ending procession of “New Dylans” anointed by the writers who love the old one unequivocally. From Donovan, John Prine and Steve Forbert to Beck, Dan Bern and Bright Eyes, all it takes, apparently, is some spunk, an acoustic guitar and an aversion to self-editing, and voila!

A true trailblazerWithout question, the real Dylan has stirred some of the first ripples on several stylistic sea changes in rock. He helped usher protest music off-campus and out of the coffeehouse underground. Then he plugged in at Newport, turning his back on the self-righteous folk community. He bridged the gap between country and rock (“John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline”).

Lately, however, he’s gone backward, becoming a kind of 21st century minstrel act, as he tours every dusty fairground in the country, exhuming antique standards such as “Dixie” and “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.”

Yes, he still matters, but not as much as the lifers want to believe. Clearly, he was incandescent for a time, and his youthful inspiration ran much deeper and lasted much longer than most. But as he admitted to Newsweek’s David Gates in an interview for last week’s cover story, that could never last.

“I can get there, by following certain forms and structures,” Dylan said. “In the early years, I was trying to write and perform the sun and the moon. At a certain point, you just realize that nobody can do that.”

He never wanted to be called a prophet. Who would? For all his refusals, though, he has remained steadfastly open to possibility. That’s why it was so disappointing to hear him succumb to the same nostalgic, self-important impulse of so many of his contemporaries.

“I don’t think music is ever going to be the same as what it meant to us,” he remarked to Newsweek. “You hear it, but you don’t hear it.” Tell that to the Bright Eyes obsessives, or the devotees of Nas or Jay-Z, or even Avril Lavigne. Pop music matters to all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways. The mistake is insisting on too big a gulf between its supposed titans and its also-rans.

James Sullivan is a freelance writer and regular contributor to MSNBC.com.