“Hope I die before I get old”, sang The Who – and some of them did. The great fear back in the 1960s was of the loss of creativity that went with ageing. “Let me die in my footsteps,” sang the young Bob Dylan – but he hasn’t gone yet,
Instead, he has made it to 80; and, apart from one serious episode of pericarditis in 1997 (“I thought I was finally going to see Elvis”), he has stayed in good shape.
Old age is often experienced as a punishment for sins a person cannot remember committing; but the Dylan who in one song wished his friends to stay “forever young” has never pretended to be any younger than he is. When his finger-bones stiffened, he gave up playing guitar for most songs and stood instead at the keyboard, adopting the voice of a husky old lounge crooner. Dylan hears voices and is heard in many voices. He is a child of the radio days.
Dylan is one of those modernists who knew all along that he must struggle, and never triumph, and in the end struggle not to triumph
His visit to play for Pope John Paul II in 1997 (the year of the heart attack) baffled many: what was a Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota doing in the Vatican? But it made sense if you saw Dylan as paying homage to an ageing man who insisted on defiantly bearing the signs of his illness in public settings.
When he appeared jointly with Mick Jagger on a video, the oldest swinger in rock jumped, gyrated and swooped around Bob, who kept perfectly still. Jagger has always fancied himself a gymnast (after all his dad was a PE teacher), but the bemused Jokerman surely thought there were other better ways of staying forever young.
Even when first he emerged on LPs like Bob Dylan and Freewheelin’, he sounded old, croaky and cracked – a voice modelled on that of his folk hero Woody Guthrie. He travelled on pilgrimage to Woody’s deathbed, in time to sing for him and receive the apostolic blessing. A remarkable number of those early songs obsess about death, a common enough theme among poor-but-proud field hands (“see that my grave is kept clean”). But it was a theme made all the more urgent to a generation fearful it would perish in nuclear war.
The voices in Talkin’ World War 3 Blues are like the voices in Beckett’s Endgame, who fear they are among the few survivors of a nuclear blast. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall was a prophecy of a world gone wrong (and a reworking of the old ballad Lord Randal). Too shy to collect his Nobel Prize in person at the ceremony in 2016, Dylan asked Patti Smith to appear and sing Hard Rain on his behalf.
Most old rockers, haunted by thoughts of early or imminent death, identified with figures such as Buddy Holly and James Dean. They affected surprise at surviving another day, another year. “Great to be here,” Keith Richards would say at the start of a show: “Come to think of it, great to be anywhere.” (If you have fallen out of coconut trees or plunged off speeding motorbikes, you might see his point). But talking about death was a sure way of staving it off.
Dylan is one of those modernists who knew all along that he must struggle, and never triumph, and in the end struggle not to triumph. Hence the shape-changing, the aggression towards (mostly) adoring audiences, the nervousness about the Nobel.
The last time Dylan sang in Dublin, he was five lines into Like a Rolling Stone before most fans could recognise it. It was as if he had translated it into a strange new language, known only to a recently-uncovered self:
They do not know what is at stake;
It is myself that I remake.
That line of Yeats was his answer to followers annoyed by his tendency to revise even published versions of his poems. Yeats also constantly invented a new self, which led to the creation of new lyrics, in the light of which older, beloved ones had to be reformulated and defamiliarised.
When I was young, said Yeats, my muse was old; but when I turned old, my muse became young. So also for Dylan, who seemed to find a new self in every decade. He has always defied chronology and straight-line notions of artistic development. Most successful songsters achieve at age 30 a trademark sound which leaves them resistant to criticism – and incapable of change. Not Dylan. At the outset he wrote songs of indignation, but soon realised how ridiculous they would sound to a future self. Instead, he must question linear conventional ideas that youth precedes age; and so in My Back Pages he disowned his early preaching:
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow:
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.
His memoir, Chronicles, is anything but chronological. It sweeps past major life events such as marriage, birth of children or death of parents; and instead uses the technique of a spiralling autobiography, modelled on Stephen Spender’s World Within World. It spirals around those periods when inspiration unaccountably came and those other periods when it just as strangely went. Dylan is as baffled as anyone by those moments which leave him a medium for voices and forms that seem to come from a force beyond himself.
In recent years, by aligning himself with Sinatra and with Christmas songs of the 1950s – and also through the Theme Tune Radio Hour – he has shown himself as someone who allows the entire American song tradition speak through him. It was in fact ever thus, as far back as the cover versions of old songs on Self-Portrait (1970), which caused an irate Greil Marcus, who wanted more novelty, to write “what is this shit?” But there was always something humble about Dylan’s arrogance (he was learning from the greats), even as there was something arrogant about his humility (he was measuring himself against the very best).
And he has been caught in acts of strange humility – lurking like a stalking fan around Neil Young’s boyhood home in Winnipeg. (A durable legend claims he was arrested by a cop whose colleague said “I suppose you’re going to tell us you’re Bob Dylan” to which he replied “As a matter of fact I am”). Dylan is himself a superfan of other singers. During a trip to England, he took the open-top Beatles Bus tour while disguising himself with nothing more portentous than a hoodie.
In London, hoping to recruit Dave Stewart to work with him on an album, he was brought by taxi to the wrong street. “Is Dave in?” he asked a bemused lady, who happened to be married to one of London’s many Daves: “Not now, but if you come in, he’ll be back soon”. The visitor was downing his third cup of tea in the kitchen when Dave (a plumber) got home and was asked by the wife “Did you forget that Bob Dylan wanted to see you?”
There is something very consistent in Dylan’s desire to disappear. Terrified of pursuit by fans in his earlier tours, he would jump into hotel cupboards. Craving silence, he wrote in order to hide and he hid in order to write. Then there was the unexplained motorcycle accident which enabled a more total retreat.
The plagiarism of which he is often accused could be seen by a psychoanalyst as a desire for death. But by resorting to “love and theft”, he may be seeking something more subtle; re-entry to folk tradition under “anon” – the heroic anonymity achieved by “Napoleon in rags” or Odysseus seeking home.
Yet he zealously defends his copyrights against digital predators, wanting to be “there” and “not there” at the same time. Paul Morley and John Bauldie capture his multiple masks. The very list of chapters in The Cambridge World of Bob Dylan shows how he opened forms of modern music through ever-changing phases: pop, folk, protest, electro-rock, country, Christian, lounge-bar croon. He invented video (the flash-cards on Subterranean Homesick Blues); and he anticipated punk with his critiques of his own audience (recognising that those who oppose the age penetrate to essence far more than those who merely reflect it).
Yet, for all these transformations, each of his songs, however anonymous, is also “Dylanesque”. His signature element is often a wild playful audacity with rhyme and meter:
It was raining from the first
And I was dying there of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what's worse
Is this pain in here.
I can't stay in here.
Ain't it clear….
The pile-up of rhyme and half-rhyme first\thirst\curse\hurts\worse uncoiling through a single sentence is astonishing, as is the triple use of “in here” – all conveying a terrifying claustrophobia. In many other songs he rhymes identical words – or dissonant words like “necklace” and “reckless”. And so on…
Robert Shelton was the journalist who first wrote a piece “discovering” Bob Dylan for a wider world. His path-breaking book No Direction Home is reissued in a shrewdly abbreviated text but enhanced by brilliant pictorials and pre- and post-lude from Elizabeth Thomson. Both Shelton and John Bauldie died back in the 1990s, a reminder that Dylan has outlived many interpreters. But the Dean of Dylanology, Clinton Heylin, presses on with a double biography, revising his Behind the Shades in the light of material placed in the archive at Tulsa in 2016. If Bob can rewrite songs, his critics can redo their books.
Dylan once accused universities of being like old folks' homes, but this has not deterred the professoriat
Dylan once accused universities of being like old folks’ homes, but this has not deterred the professoriat. Under the baton of Sean Latham, who has charge of the Tulsa archive, they have produced 27 wonderful essays on the singer’s contexts in The World of Bob Dylan, a book filled with scholarly scruple and imaginative audacity. A true Dylanfest.
By now the songs can sound like voices from a hidden people; and that is exactly how Irish playwright Conor McPherson presented them in his Girl From the North Country, a dramatised version of songs set seven years before Dylan’s birth on May 24th, 1941. Morley says “it is as though the Dylan songs existed before he did”. Which, in some ways, they had.
The most modest book saluting the birthday as it comes is also the most challenging: a pocket street-guide, Troubadour Tales: Bob Dylan in London, by Jackie Lees and KG Miles. After two decades of people insisting on the artist’s Americana, this opens a new front, bringing it all back to the old world.
It shows how Martin Carthy taught him Scarborough Fair, which morphed into Girl from the North Country; how jittery Dylan was with Dominic Behan , because The Patriot Game by a living Behan had been thieved and turned into With God on Our Side; and how the jester’s first London gig was in a club called King and Queen “in a coat he borrowed from James Dean”. Carthy says nobody has fully documented the debt to English and Irish art and folksong in Dylan’s work.
Every fan thinks that he (less often she) owns Bob Dylan. This has led to spats. Is Miss Lonely Edie Sedgwick, or Marianne Faithful, or all the women he knew? Is Murder Most Foul about the Kennedy assassination or something else? Dylan knows too much to argue or to judge. He knows literally Nothing. Once, on a house-viewing mission with Leonard Cohen, he said "Lennie, you'll always be number one". As Cohen thoughtfully smiled, Dylan simply added: "Yes, and I'm zero".
The World of Bob Dylan, edited by Sean Latham (Cambridge University Press, 351pp, £20)
Bob Dylan: No Direction Home by Robert Shelton (Palazzo London, 304pp, £30)
You Lose Yourself You Reappear by Paul Morley (Simon and Schuster, 379pp, £20)
The Chameleon Poet by John Bauldie (Route London, 288pp, £20)
Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, (McNidder and Grace, 129pp, £12)
The Double Life of Bob Dylan, Vol 1: A Restless Hungry Feeling by Clinton Heylin (Bodley Head, 520pp, £30)
Declan Kiberd was born on May 24th, 1951, and teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Dublin