The wandering Bob, back on the road once more

At 80, the legendary singer-songwriter shows no sign of slowing down

November 25, 2021 11:22

For decades, it’s been dubbed his “Never-Ending Tour”. Bob Dylan hit the road on 7 June 1988 and since then hasn’t shown any sign of ever stopping. That is, until even he was forced off the bus by the Covid pandemic last year.

Now, at the age of 80, he’s back on the road once more. The “never-ending tour” is, I reckon, the most important work of art by any Jewish artist in the world today, and as they don’t give out a Nobel Prize for showbiz, and as Dylan wouldn’t win it if they gave out a Nobel Prize for harmonica, it’s fair enough that they gave him one for literature.

Dylan has played more than 3,000 shows around the globe over these past 33 years. He has slipped the shackles of the music industry, which wants the predictable commercial safety of album-tour-album-tour, and effectively seceded from society. Sensibly, he has chosen to live in music, and merged into the tradition of the old-time country singers he loves. Nothing could be more American; nothing could be less typical of the modern American music business.

As I write, Dylan is sleeping on his bus in the parking lot of the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. This evening, he’ll go to work, then drive on to Rhode Island where, after dispatching his Thanksgiving turkey, he’ll do it again. And again in Boston, Philly and Washington DC next week, and New York City on 8th December.

After the Big Apple, he’ll do what every travelling musician desires and dreads. He’ll stop moving, go home, and do his laundry. Dylan is an octogenarian. I don’t worry about his health when he’s living on a bus, but I do worry about what happens when he gets off.

The road goes on forever, the Allman Brothers said, shortly before it killed one of them. Having spent my twenties as a professional musician, I know that there is nothing more life-enhancing than touring; unfortunately, there is little more fatal for some souls. You are weightless, vibrating with the adrenalin of the shows and the thrum of the tyres on the blacktop. Free of the world.

There is no time other than showtime. You defeat space while you sleep; you get into your bunk somewhere outside one city, and you wake up in the same bed 500 miles away. You live in a submarine crewed by raving lunatics, and when you surface, you move in a parallel society of the perpetually mobile: truckers, seasonal workers, the lost and the insane. You are, as Elton John wrote, a rocket man. And you cannot cheat the gravity of the situation.

When you come back to earth, you crash. It was typical of Dylan that he realised the only way to keep working without losing his marbles was to stay on the road. “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” he wrote in 1966. The never-ending tour makes him one of the few honest men left in a dishonest business.

Singer Willie Nelson, who also lives on the road, is another. He and Dylan are the last of the roadrunners. There will be tours after the bus stops for these two for good, but they won’t be the same. Their kind of perpetual motion goes back to the origins of America, and further back.

You regress in many ways on the road, but one of the strangest is that you have more in common with the nomad than the farmer. You take a wrong turn on the road of human history, and take up a rolling residence in the Bronze Age. You do your business in the cities, but you live nowhere at all. You have more in common with Esau than Jacob.

In the static societies of Europe, the people are suspicious but they want you to entertain them. In America, they welcome you and sustain you. When you stagger off the bus and into the diner in the middle of the night, your arrival affirms that their mythology is as real as the bottomless cup of coffee on the counter.

The historians say that the American frontier closed in the 1890s, when the rush westwards met the Pacific. That may be true physically and politically, but it’s obvious nonsense imaginatively. If the road ended, there could be no America.

It’s a matter of national importance that Bob Dylan gets back out there. He’s like Spinoza’s God. So long as he’s out there in nowhere, we know he’s everywhere.


Dominic Green is the editor of The Spectator’s world edition

November 25, 2021 11:22

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