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Things have changed, but Bob Dylan still vital at 70

Bob Dylan can agitate people — much like the way he used to when he was in his 20s and being branded as “Judas” for daring to play loud rock music to folk-loving audiences.Back in April, the rock legend attracted the ire of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd after he performed in China and allegedly let the Chinese government “pre-approve” his set list. A day later, Sean Wilentz lit i
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Bob Dylan can agitate people — much like the way he used to when he was in his 20s and being branded as “Judas” for daring to play loud rock music to folk-loving audiences.

Back in April, the rock legend attracted the ire of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd after he performed in China and allegedly let the Chinese government “pre-approve” his set list. A day later, Sean Wilentz lit into Dowd in a blog on the New Yorker’s website, claiming Dylan’s music was “uncensorable” and that he actually pulled off a subversive act singing the songs he did perform, such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” (Dylan himself later denied censorship charges in a humorous, sarcastic post on his website.)

All of which brings up a larger point: As he turns 70 on May 24, why does Dylan still strike such an emotional chord in so many people? The answer, my friend, seems to be that of all the 1960s icons left standing, Dylan is the only who, it could be argued, is still a vital element of the current music scene, not a nostalgia act in one form or another.

That’s because during the 1960s, Dylan wasn’t seen only as a musician but “taken to be the evocation of political expression and political righteousness” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism and sociology professor who has written about Dylan’s impact in his book “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.”

“Dylan represents the possibility that our generation, in all of its informality and casualness, somehow was also capable of producing a voice that acquired some sort of transcendent power,” said Gitlin. “I don’t mean by that the doings of his vocal cords, but sort of an austere and earnest language that begins to approximate religious sentiment, religious expression.”

Yet Dylan’s effect on his audience went beyond what he sang and often encompassed the way he created a new kind of anti-pop star image — one that would presage the punk-rock movement. Dylan, after all, was an unlikely candidate for stardom. He wasn’t pretty in the pop star mold of the 1960s, the language that he used in his songs was unconventional and critics felt his voice was some kind of joke.

Yet instead of allowing himself to be groomed into some predetermined idea of what a pop star should be like, Dylan eschewed showbiz artifice and created an image uniquely his own. A large part of that image came through his music itself and in that way he brought a new intellectualism and emotional directness to popular music.

“I think what’s made Dylan powerful for a long time and made him in a way trans-generational is that he set out to use his music as a quest; as a set of probes into what it’s like to live a self-created life — what it means to be an author of yourself,” Gitlin said. “So he was true to that. When he was booed (for playing loud rock music at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965), it was by people who didn’t understand that that was his prime commitment — it wasn’t to folk music or to acoustic guitars.”

“There is a definite mystique about him from the early days and to the present,” said June Skinner Sawyers, whose new book, “Bob Dylan: New York,” revisits sites in the city from which he launched his career. “He’s an enigma. We know him, yet we really don’t know him. I think that’s where the true mystery and mystique of the Dylan aura comes into play.”

His back pages

Yet whatever image Dylan fashioned for himself wouldn’t have mattered much had his songs not set new standards for pop compositions. Dylan’s lyrics were more literate than anything that had come before, often containing catchphrases that became part of the lexicon. For example, a recent American Bar Association Journal article cited him as the most quoted recording artist in court opinions.

Few writers know of Dylan’s powerful way with words better than Clinton Heylin, the British scribe who has written five books about Dylan, two of which are in-depth looks at the songs themselves.

“His music communicates,” Heylin said. “There isn’t any great secret in that sense. The media latching onto him as signifying whatever they seek to peddle that particular day is not the same thing as why he continues to speak to millions of people around the world with his music. Those are two completely separate things.”

Heylin said that considering the manner in which Dylan has woven traditional American music into his own songs, “it was inevitable he would become the grand old man of rock."

“In a sense, he’s not the beginning, he’s coming at the end of something,” Heylin said. “He himself has talked about coming at the end of tradition. There is definitely a sense that he’s tapping into something old and powerful in a way that today’s mass-media world can’t necessarily replicate.”

Columbia Records has also kept Dylan in the spotlight with its multidisc “Bootleg Series” releases, which feature older, unreleased live and studio recordings. The most recent edition, “The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964,” nearly made the Billboard top 10 — an impressive feat for music nearly half a century old that was never meant for public consumption.

On April 12, Columbia released a CD of a Dylan concert from 1963 at Brandeis University (which had previously been available as a limited edition bonus with the last bootleg series release). Last year, Columbia released a box set of mono mixes of the first eight Dylan albums — the type of specialty box-set release perhaps only he and the Beatles could pull off.

“Part of the process of putting out all this archival material is to remind ourselves of the great periods of Dylan’s career that were kind of overlooked at the time,” Heylin said. “For example, the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour (documented on volume five of the “Bootleg Series”) was one of the great tours of rock music, but I don’t think people really realized how great it was because there was no official document.”

How Dylan got his muse back

Dylan’s legend wasn’t always as assured as it seems now, and a lot of that had to do with the way he refused to follow a traditional career path. He started as a traditional folk singer, morphed into a protest singer, then decided to pen pop-oriented personal songs, and then made a dramatic shift to rock before going country and eventually using his music to preach about born-again Christianity.

Along the way, he alienated many a follower, but all told, the catalog he’s created is filled with enough classic songs and albums to more than justify his stylistic about-faces. Beyond classic tracks such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Like a Rolling Stone” (which often tops “best single of all time” lists) Dylan has crafted nearly a dozen albums that are essential listening for any serious rock fan.

Sometime in the 1980s, Dylan's muse seemed to escape him, but by the mid-1990s, he turned to his original source of musical inspiration and began channeling traditional folk and blues sources into his music. He then surprised nearly everyone by making compelling (and big-selling) albums such as “Time Out of Mind” and “Modern Times.”

“When you get to 1997 you can see things changed,” said Greil Marcus, author of three Dylan tomes. “He had gone through a long period of making increasingly lifeless, pointless, contrived, phony-sounding albums. Clearly he came to a point in time where he said, ‘This is all bull----,’ and he must have said to himself, ‘I’m not writing songs that demand to be sung.’

“We’re all familiar with (F. Scott) Fitzgerald saying that there are no second acts in American lives and this clearly disproves that,” Marcus said.

As a performer, Dylan is unique because he doesn’t return to the pop scene every few years to unveil some high-wattage tour, but keeps plugging away on what’s become known as the “Never Ending Tour.” In that sense, he’s become like the old troubadours he admired.

“He’s kind of the last vestige of a way of writing about life and music that no longer exists in a sense,” Heylin said. “I think the last line of my essay in the biography ‘Behind the Shades’ is a quote where he says, ‘Nobody does it like I do and after I’m gone that will be that.’ ”