Monday, June 6, 2011

Dylan at 70

A piece for the Johannesburg Sunday Times on June 5. -- AD

ON August 9 2002, a newspaper published in Buffalo in New York ran an enthusiastic piece on Bob Dylan. The following week, the singer, amused by its contents, had a member of his stage crew read an adapted version to his audience to start a show. Since then, that running joke has opened most Dylan concerts. To wit: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned make-up in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen - Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!"

Well, the poet laureate came in for some stick in April, criticised on tour in China for failing to condemn the detention of artist Ai Weiwei and accused of allowing himself to be censored by Beijing. How the times they have a-changed, went the headlines.

Those that leapt to his defence pointed out the criticism was misinformed: Dylan was never a "protest singer" or "political" and had, in fact, turned his back on "topical songs" in 1965. Besides, his supporters argued, Dylan never did the expected thing, and banged nobody's drum but his own.

Recently he did the unexpected, and posted his response on his website, rebutting reports that he had been previously barred from performing in China, that his shows had been poorly attended and those that did turn up were mainly expat Westerners.

"As far as censorship goes," he wrote, "the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous three months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me and we played all the songs that we intended to play."

Then came the interesting bit: "Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them."

Snarky tone aside, there are indeed many Dylan books about to hit our shelves, mainly as 70th birthday tie-ins. Some of the better ones are the updated Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, by Howard Sounes, the revised No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, by Robert Shelton and the expanded Behind The Shades: The 20th Anniversary Edition, by Clinton Heylin.

Shelton's book, first published in 1986, is considered by many to be the best, if only because it is the only biography written with Dylan's active co-operation. Shelton, a critic whose New York Times review of a folk club performance in September 1961 helped launch the singer's career, passed away in 1995 and his book has been overhauled by editors armed with his original manuscript.

Heylin's book, meanwhile, has grown like a tumour. It ran to some 550 pages upon publication; the second edition, published in 2000, some 780 pages; and the new one 928 pages. Heylin's two-volume treatise of the entire Dylan canon, Revolution In The Air and Still On the Road, was published last year.

At the other end of the spectrum is When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan, by Gary Golio and Marc Burckhardt. A children's book, it tells the story of the young Dylan's quest to find his hero, the folk singer Woody Guthrie, and their meeting in a New Jersey asylum, where Guthrie was stricken with Huntington's Disease.

Writing in The New York Times, historian Sean Wilentz -- author of last year's acclaimed Dylan in America -- noted that although the story of Guthrie and Dylan's meeting was "familiar to baby-boomers", it would come as "news to their grandchildren".

Moreover, When Bob Met Woody was the story of "the folk process" itself, in which songs were handed anonymously from one generation to the next.

What was happening here was that the voice of the promise of the counterculture was about to pass, like Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill and other historical figures, into the mainstream of a fabled and idealised American mythology, and this may well explain Dylan's testiness over these and other books.

An intensely private person, it could be that, at 70, he feels control of his legacy slipping from his grasp. Perhaps it's more simple; the books have become a burdensome embarrassment. At any rate, in his own memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, he has bluntly distanced himself from the "spokesman of his generation" hoopla: "What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing."

For many, Dylan's best albums were Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, all released in a blaze of creative fury from May 1965 to August 1966. It was a time when "the singer stood at a world crossroads", as the critic Greil Marcus noted in his extraordinary The Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes.

"For a moment," Marcus wrote, "he held a stage no one has more than mounted since - a stage that may no longer exist. More than 30 years ago, when a world now most often spoken of as an error of history was taking shape and form - and when far older worlds were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant - Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes or even his whim; the fact was, for a long moment, it did."

There have been other great albums -- neophytes may consider John Wesley Harding, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, The Basement Tapes, Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft" and Modern Times -- but Marcus was right about that long moment. It was gone, all right, but its presence lingers faintly, like a dying echo, in the performances that Dylan is now giving, 46 years later.

In June 1988, he began what is now known as the Never-Ending Tour, a ceaseless performing schedule that averages about 100 dates a year around the world.

Dylan didn't think much of the title, and in 2009 told Rolling Stone magazine: "Critics should know there is no such thing as forever. Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never-Ending Car-Builder? Anybody ever say that Duke Ellington was on a Never-Ending Bandstand Tour? These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don't necessarily need to retire."

Nevertheless, the grind is gruelling, and his touring schedule would floor artists half his age. In April it was China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. This month it's Europe, and in July, the US.

And so it goes. His voice now ranges in tone from a grinding rasp to a reedy honk. His detractors have noticed, and they've charged that the iconoclasm is now directed at himself; that he seems hell bent on exploding his own myth through poor performances. "Not as good as he used to be," is the general complaint. "He can't even sing any more."

It's true the live songs barely resemble the recorded versions. This is perhaps a desire to rework his songs to make up for his battered vocals. But that doesn't mean the concerts are bad. I saw him at a festival in London in 2004 and it was a tired mixed bag of songs. But the following year, at the Brixton Academy, he was astounding. You pays yer money, as they say, and you takes yer chances.

And our fascination continues. These days it's not the new music we look forward to, but the latest volume in the Bootleg Series, the release programme for the rare and unreleased material from all corners of Dylan's 50-year career.

We know the best is yet to come -- the 128 or so songs recorded in a basement in a Woodstock, New York, house in the summer of 1967 with musicians that would later be known as The Band. But that is another story.

So, Dylan is 70. What does it mean? Way back in 1965, he told a press conference: "I'm just a song-and-dance man."

He's now older and still the song-and-dance man, but unlike any other song-and-dance man we know.

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