It's a Bob and Paul bonanza

By David Robson, July 4, 2011

Well, it's been like Christmas, or call it Chanucah if you prefer. Bob Dylan and Paul Simon playing in Britain in the same fortnight! Old Jews, both with their 70th birthday this year, the two greatest songwriters of the second half of the 20th century. About that there is no debate. Feel the quality, feel the width. In nearly five decades, nobody else has come close.

They are in a class of two, but how different from one another. Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman from a small Jewish community in Minnesota, took the world by storm in the 1960s. Since then, he has become a cult. For the past 23 years, he has been on a never-ending world tour. Why does he do it? He doesn't explain. He does it because that is what he does.

He's a minstrel, a wandering Jew. He says he's a song-and-dance man but his followers see him as a visionary, a mystic; people used to call him "the voice of a generation". He always rejected that sort of stuff, but he was. In 1979, he became a born-again Christian (for a time). "We've always gone where Bob led us," said my friend, "what do we do now?" His lyrics are pored over, analysed and interpreted by people ranging from drug-addled hippies to distinguished professors of poetry, treated almost as if they were lines from the Talmud or the Zohar.

When the late Jerry Wexler produced one of his albums; he said "I'm the producer of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles but producing Dylan is a real feather in my cap." Dylan isn't in a class of two. He's in a class of one. And so is Paul Simon.

With Simon there is no obscurity. There is crystalline clarity and often breathtaking beauty, the songs cut and polished like diamonds, since the first Simon and Garfunkel single The Sound of Silence 45 years ago to the songs on his new albumĀ  So Beautiful Or So What. He is brilliant, he is witty, he is touching,

Dylan isn't in a class of two. He's in a class of one. So is Paul Simon

He is a genius at his art, a master chef taking music from all over the world - South African, Peruvian - and making it his. Nobody has ever thought he was a prophet or a leader. They love his work, he is just the creator. He is a New Yorker, a tin-pan-alley boy. His office now is in the Brill Building, where young Jewish songwriters such as Neil Diamond and Carole King wrote hit after hit in the 1960s.

People love his work and so they should. Bridge Over Troubled Water has been played on the radio seven million times; altogether Simon songs have been played a hundred million times.

Bob Dylan is rock's wild Chasid, Paul Simon its Mitnaged - rock music's Baal Shem Tov and Vilna Gaon (if you'll excuse the expression). Bob Dylan once asked Leonard Cohen how long it took him to write Hallelujah. "Oh, the best part of two years," Cohen replied and asked Dylan how long it took him to write one of his songs. "Oh, 15 minutes," Dylan replied.

Paul Simon will spend a year on a song if necessary. You go to a Paul Simon concert absolute certain it will be wonderful. Fans go to a Dylan concert not knowing whether it will be terrific or terrible. But still they go. Why? Because he is the Bobster Rebbe.

Last updated: 2:46pm, July 4 2011