What does it mean, if anything, that at age 65 Bob Dylan can thrill audiences made up of all types and all ages by singing the words “The times they are a-changin’ ”…when for him they so obviously are not?
It seems powerful in ways we might not even understand that this guy crushes almost everything else in American popular music that either started out in Dylan’s time or has come and gone since. Statistically, artistically, word count, sheer output-wise, Bob Dylan wins. Put anybody you want up against him. Do it alphabetically, using groups that hit their stride in Dylan’s time. (A time that right this minute finds Dylan still at full throttle.) Okay, here we go: America, Boston, Country Joe, Dixie Chicks, Electric Light Orchestra, Foghat, Gregg Allman, Heat (the Canned variety), Indigo Girls, Judas Priest, Kansas, Lou Reed, Mountain, Nirvana, Oingo-Boingo, Pearl Jam, Queen, Ratt, Slayer, Tonto’s Expanding Headband, Urge Overkill, Vertical Horizon, War, Xenon, Youth (the Sonic variety) and Zappa.
That list, for demonstration purposes, was arbitrary and made in a hurry. Also, Xenon is from India and I needed Vertical Horizon for the letter V. But due to death or having run out of material, the majority of artists on that list are past it. Yet there’s every indication that Bob Dylan is making music right now that is at least as vital as any other material he’s generated at any other time.
True, you have to be into Dylan to even care about that argument. And it’s highly unlikely that your average 14-year-old would have a response to Dylan, although part of what I’m going on about here is that there are, in fact, 14-year-olds that do. But what I find impressive is not that Bob seems to be beating time, but rather that he appears completely unconcerned about it. He’s said as much in interviews, and a lot of his recent work has been about bending time rather than moping about the passing of it. He readily concedes his age in a lot of his new music, but he’s so good at making a Mobius strip of the past and the present inside of a song (consider “Tangled Up in Blue” from back when, or “Mississippi” from Love and Theft) that it’s impossible to feel sorry for him for running out of youth.
A big part of the triumph in all this comes from Dylan’s having never worried about fashion or trend, much like the Rolling Stones. Both of them took a shot at disco dance rhythms (Dylan’s “Serve Somebody,” although it’s very subtle, the Stones’ “Miss You”) back when it felt like every pop song had to be danceable. But for the most part, both kept putting out what they themselves felt like producing.
And a lot of that output came and went…quickly. Except that it didn’t. Fans of either the Stones or Dylan will happily talk at length about albums that faded fast, because all of it is viewed as chapters rather than bad episodes.
Dylan is releasing a new CD right now (his 31st studio album) that will be critically heralded and widely purchased and much mulled over in print pieces such as the one you’re reading now. I haven’t heard it yet, but it’s getting great reviews. Some of those reviews may be suspect because they will be written by critics who are too much of Dylan’s generation.
But consider this: Last weekend I attended a well-regarded arts and crafts festival in a beautiful location. Events of this sort are the work product of Dylan’s demographic generation. The drug of choice was wine. The art was pretty, shiny, colorful, and almost none of it was challenging. Many of the artists would be the first to tell you that they’ve been repeating themselves for at least the last 20 years, because the stuff is selling. Could any of them hold up a work and say, “This is my Blonde on Blonde. This is my Blood on the Tracks.” Maybe. But none of it was anywhere near as interesting to me as a new Bob Dylan album from old Bob Dylan.