Life & Culture

Bob Dylan at 80: The shape shifter

Johnny Belknap plays tribute to the 'original punk' , the Jewish boy from Minnesota who 'covered his tracks with a scrim of tall tales.'


2C3Y28R Bob Dylan in concert at Earl's Court Exhibition Hall,London 26th June 1981

In a whirlwind of words and melody, songwriters can make your heart ache and your mind light up. Many do this. Some are good. Some are brilliant. Then there’s Bob Dylan.

Dylan, who turns 80 on 24 May, towers over all the rest. He has written nothing less than the most important songs of the 20th century, his acid-tongued rants challenging the status quo of politics, music and society. He confronted the devil behind the mask of complacent America, inflamed his generation and inspired every musician since. The original punk, he scorned and mocked the older generation and snarled contemptuously at hypocrisy, racism and war. He was funny, too, making absurdist rhymes, and was both cruel and whimsical towards former lovers.

He held nothing back, writing songs all night on a typewriter, making album after album. He could barely keep up with himself. It would not be an exaggeration to call him the 20th century Shakespeare: while others may have catchier tunes and more listenable voices, what sets him apart are his words, thousands of mysterious, powerful, clever words that pour out of him like a thundering waterfall.

In the 60s, American youth were just realising that the land of the free was free only if you were white. They were instructed to go to Vietnam to fight the Commies. Sex outside of marriage was a sin. Life was supposed to be shallow and predictable. Their parents, the Second World War generation, just wanted a quiet life now. And anyone who challenged them was a goddam traitor. The kids looked for an alternative source of guidance. Enter, Bob Dylan, who expressed their anguish so well. But who was he?

When he first arrived in New York City at 19, he claimed to be from New Mexico where he worked for carnivals, hopped freight trains, and learned songs from cowboys and an old blues man called Wigglefoot.

Peel away the fibs and you’ll find he was Bobby Zimmerman, son of Abe and Beatty, and grew up in a respectable Orthodox family. They lived in Hibbing, Minnesota, a Midwestern town criss-crossed by country roads including Highway 61, which tantalisingly headed off down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

His grandparents had escaped Russian pogroms and fled to America in 1907. His father sold furniture. “Zimmy” was bar mitzvahed and went to Jewish summer camps. As a teen he worshipped Elvis and Buddy Holly, but his life changed when he came across folk and blues man Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie, who wrote the iconic This Land Is Your Land. These men led tough and colourful lives. By contrast, his own Jewish suburban background was unbearably dull.

So he created a persona that flickered and shimmered, never to be pinned down. Shape-shifting became the habit of a lifetime, and he covered his tracks with a scrim of tall tales. Once he played Hava Nagila and introduced it as a “foreign song I learned in Utah”.

He never sat still, so if you fell in love with his songs at a certain stage, you couldn’t count on loving the following ones. Which Bob Dylan would come next? Protest singer, lover, trickster, cynic, joker, troubadour, Christian, Jew, iconoclast, innovator, icon, or even, in 2016, Nobel Prize for Literature winner?

His rise was fast. In 1961, he started playing in tiny Greenwich Village cafés. Two years later he was on stage next to Martin Luther King, singing Blowin’ in the Wind at the famous “I Have a Dream” rally in Washington DC.

By 1965 he’d recorded five albums and shocked folk purist fans by playing with a loud electric band at the Newport Jazz Festival. On tour afterwards, he endured months of abuse for that. In July 1966, he crashed his motorcycle, and spent over a year in seclusion in upstate New York. He holed up in Woodstock with The Band, away from an intrusive press, baying crowds and the pressure of being the Voice of His Generation.

He hated that. He made a point of always staying a jump ahead of popular expectations. When he was supposed to play gentle folk music, he played loud electric. When he was supposed to write protest songs, he wrote personal ones. If they grew their hair, he cut his. He mocked his supposed role with absurdist japes, singing “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters”.

While his generation became bitterly entrenched against the powers that be and called for revolution, Dylan and The Band wrote many songs that expressed exquisite affection for his country. The genre would be later named Americana. He was more of a patriot than the right-wingers who denounced him as subversive.

Dylan has always deeply understood and loved the restless spirit of America, even with all its contradictions and pain. His work picks up the wild souls of American poets, writers and singers like Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Carl Sandburg, Pete Seeger, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie. Dylan also owes a lot to the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Rimbaud and especially William Blake. And he’s excited the imagination of countless musicians like Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. Some of his songs were recorded in a rush and other musicians fleshed them out, like the Byrds did with Mr Tambourine Man and Jimi Hendrix did with his magnificent All Along the Watchtower.

Dylan’s work also springs from the Beat generation, rebellious and outrageous writers and poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who pushed hard against the repressive society around them.

Dylan made the first rock — and rap — video with his energetic diatribe Subterranean Homesick Blues, named after a book by Kerouac, with Ginsberg laughing in the background.

In it is one of his many catchphrases: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”

Dylan, busy as ever breaking rules, made pop songs longer, more raw and emotional, with more words cascading out at a blinding pace.

Other times he would strip down stories and leave it up to you to fill in the blanks. In All Along the Watchtower, he sings “Outside in the cold distance/A wildcat did growl/Two riders were approaching/And the wind began to howl.” That’s all you get. But in four short lines, he’s painted a big picture.

And famously, he wrote this condensed version of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in Highway 61 Revisited:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on!”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but: The next time you see me comin’ you better run!”

Abe says, “Where you want this killin’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

An ordinary man sassing off to a menacing God is very Jewish.

After his initial huge burst of success, his creative flow came and went. Sometimes all those lyrics would just dry up. Then inspiration would return and more masterpieces burst forth, like the wonderful mid-70s Blood on the Tracks, where he turned his skill with the language to personal stories, full of heartache, regret and fury.

He toured with countless famous musicians for years and roared through many phases, including born-again Christianity, and then returned to Judaism. In 1983 he went to the Western Wall, dressed in tallit and tefillin for his son Jesse’s barmitzvah and wrote a song supporting Israel called Neighbourhood Bully.

After touring with both Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, in 1988 he started his Never Ending Tour. Punctuated by recording two albums with the Traveling Wilburys, films, books and more of his own albums, the tour was still going all the way up until last year, averaging 100 dates a year.

His songs overflow with jokers, thieves, vagabonds, tramps, troubadours, prophets, gamblers and one-eyed undertakers. They all keep dancing down the mystical Highway 61.

It could be unwise to predict, but most likely he’ll be back out there too once the pandemic is over. He’ll be singing a rich collection of songs about bitter love and a shining country.

You couldn’t put a price to it. But the latest news from Dylan is that in December 2020 he sold his 600-odd song catalogue to Universal Music for $300 million.

They got it cheap.


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