Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bob Dylan's 70th Birthday

As incredible as it is to believe, today is Bob Dylan's 70th birthday.

Radio Free Europe says the occasion is being marked in many languages around the globe — which is appropriate. Dylan's influence has been felt the world over.

Dylan has been on the scene for nearly half a century. Probably, he is most often linked in the public mind with the 1960s. He was, after all, the unofficial troubadour of folk protest music in an era that is practically defined by folk protest music, but he has remained relevant through a myriad of changes in the music industry.

"There is a lesson here for educators and for students," writes English professor Jim Salvucci in the Baltimore Sun. "We need to be — as Mr. Dylan suggests — 'Admitting life is hard.' Not just hard to do, but hard to grasp. And so is learning."

It's really hard to know what to say — in any language — about Dylan at this stage of his life. In so many ways, it seems it has all been said before.

Actually, it has all been said before, I guess. There have been countless books, newspaper and magazine articles, television profiles, radio interviews, but the man is still something of an enigma.

Long ago, Dylan became an icon, a symbol. He continued to write and record music but, for many people, he became a living myth, a legend — were it not for his tours, I suppose, he would have morphed into this generation's Howard Hughes.

But he has been more visible than that — and, because his early music became so strongly identified with social movements in America in the 1960s, he is now seen as a survivor of a time that so many did not survive — whether they died in the jungles of Vietnam or the city streets of America.

That has given him a special kind of status.

Dylan's influence is not limited to music. He remains an influence on the culture. In 1999, TIME magazine named Dylan one of the Top 100 people of the 20th century — a list that included prominent folks from all walks of life.

TIME's list was a tribute to all the people who made the 20th century what it was — and there can be no denying that Dylan played a role in making the second half of the 20th century what it was.

He had help, of course, but it really is almost impossible to think of the 1960s and not think of Dylan's musical contribution.

Even at the time, it was something of a cliche for people to regard the 1960s as an era of folk music. But, as Paul Simon suggested in an interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan re–defined the genre.

I was only a child in the 1960s, but my memory is that it was often a time of contradictions. There were a lot of serious things happening — wars, protests, riots, assassinations, deaths of all kinds (some might even be considered the outcomes of terrorism, by modern standards) — but there were genuinely light–hearted, playful, even silly moments, too.

Dylan's music was often like that, I thought — a struggle between the serious and the silly. It didn't interfere with the message. It enhanced it.

But he was so much older then. He's younger than that now.

Well, many of his fans are, anyway.

Dylan at 70 remains as relevant as Dylan was at 20 because the subjects of his songs are still relevant to the human experience in America. Lyrics like "Senators, congressmen, please heed the call, Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall" resonate because politicians of all stripes continue to be more about obstruction than anything else.

Everyone can relate to that. It's like the reaction most people have to George Harrison's "Taxman." I mean, everybody hates paying taxes, right?

Dylan's recordings from those early years still inspire new generations of listeners — and the nice thing about someone who has been around as long as Dylan is the fact that there are often little nuggets of gold waiting to be found in some forgotten archive.

Just last month, for example, a long–lost recording of a 1963 concert at Brandeis University was released. It has been called "the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he becomes a star," and, thus, it is like a time capsule.

Only dedicated Dylan fans, not casual listeners, will recognize any of the tracks on the album, but for the youngest (and newest) of his fans, those songs may well be what they remember most about him after they get older and discover the music the rest of us have known for years.

Ah, yes, the music. Many of my friends have learned to play the guitar over the years. Some became more proficient than others. But I heard them all play at least one Dylan song at some point. I couldn't tell you which song has been covered most — "Blowin' in the Wind," maybe?

All popular singers/songwriters have their work covered by others. The more popular they are, I guess, the more often they are covered.

I have heard many cover versions of songs from the 1960s, but I've probably heard more cover versions of Dylan's songs than songs by anyone else.

The famous and the near–famous have paid homage to Dylan in this way — and so have the unknowns.

My father was a college professor when I was growing up, and he often had to attend campus functions. Whenever it was appropriate to do so, he brought his family with him.

On one such occasion, I remember the son of one of Dad's colleagues — who was about a year or two older than I was — provided the musical entertainment between courses.

While the servers were distributing the entree or the dessert or whatever it was, this young man (who must have been about 12 or 13 at the time) got up in front of an audience that was mostly made up of people who had to be 30 or 40 years older than we were — and they sat in rapt silence as he sang "The Times They Are A–Changin'," accompanied only by his guitar.

When he finished, the banquet room erupted into a standing ovation.

There was no generation gap in that room that night.

Dylan never has been about creating gaps. He's been about bridging them.

That's hard work, as I am sure Salvucci would agree.

His "music endures," says the deck headline on Salvucci's piece, "not because he gives us easy answers but because he raises so many questions."

Having said all that, there really is only one thing left to say.

Happy birthday, Bob.