We step back from the disorders and idiocies of the moment to wish Bob Dylan a happy 80th birthday. He entered the scene in a previous moment of national disorder, the Sixties, as we call that wild era when we Boomers came of age and turned the world inside out for a while, flinging our ids into a raging zeitgeist. Bob was actually a little older, not quite a boomer, born seven months before the US entered World War Two.
This is important because he was poised perfectly on the front end of that breaking wave in a particular way that I will try to explain. When he stole into New York City from his Midwest Nowheresville in the winter of 1961, he was unformed, ambitious, intelligent, cunning, and not yet grown up. He did his growing up in public over the next decade. He acted it out in the songs he wrote. It was the essence of what he meant to those of us who trailed behind him. He instructed us in the mystery of what it means to come through adolescence into consciousness, and he did it with a matchless artistry that, once he got traction, made his competitors look barely adequate. It’s easy to understand how being cast in that role irked him, but that’s how it was.
It was Bob who turned the long-playing record album into the art-form of my generation. Before that, the pop music scene in America just amounted to different sorts of adolescent fluff, clichéd hormonal yearnings of boys and girls for each other. It was a long way from the Everlys’ “Wake Up Little Susie” to Bob’s “Visions of Johanna.” He was twenty-four when he wrote it in late 1965 (and then recorded it in February, 1966). Twenty-four is about the age when the judgment region of the human brain finally develops, and the song spells out vividly the jarring wonder of becoming a fully-equipped adult — and recognizing it! The subject of the song isn’t a girl anymore, she’s a woman, with such cosmic ramifications that “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”
Lyrics like that — and Bob generated them by the bale then — just made everybody else’s songs seem a little lightweight and silly. The Beatles came close around exactly the same time with their venture into songs of full-fledged adulthood in the album Rubber Soul, but they were not able to bring the focus of a single sensibility to it the way Bob did, and they knew it.
Anyway, Bob had been leading up to that for years lyrically. He had a comfortable childhood back in Minnesota, but it was a harsh place. He absorbed that and summed it up with dazzling concision and specificity in songs like “North Country Blues” about a failing family in a failing town where the iron ore mines are shutting down and there is no such thing anymore as the future. Similarly, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” which is the story of a despairing farmer who kills himself and his family of six out on the lonesome South Dakota prairie. These were stories about other people and other lives, reportage from the scene, with more resonance than Walter Cronkite could ever hope to bring to it.
When Bob wrote about himself and his own strange journey, more and more he populated that dreamscape with a hallucinatory cast of characters: dwarves, madonnas, hermit monks, cowboy angels, drunken politicians, Napoleon-in-Rags, the mystery tramp…. Imagine how weird it was to be Bob in those few years. He barely had to struggle to become famous, was rolling in dough before he was twenty-five, and had every jerk-off workaday Johnny journalist tugging at sleeve whenever he left the house begging him to explain how the world worked. No wonder he played cute with them, claimed he was “just a song-and-dance man,” when everybody knew better. And amazingly, he pulled it off.
Once he completed that transformation into adulthood, he had pretty much done his duty, and everything after that has been a long coda, with not a few flashes of the old brilliance like these stupendous lyrics from his 1985 song “Dark Eyes”:
A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer,
Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere.
But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise,
Whom nature’s beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes
Sounds like what’s going on ‘out there’ right now, don’t you think? He deserved that Nobel Prize. I’m glad he’s persevered through all these years and still goes on stage and keeps putting out tunes. I met him once back in 1975 when I worked for Rolling Stone Magazine. It was after a benefit concert in San Francisco in the Fairmont Hotel. I couldn’t help greeting him like an old friend, and was foolishly surprised to realize that he didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. Anyway, I’m glad we shared these decades together on this marvelous planet and I salute him on his birthday for what he gave that has lived inside me all these years.