Thoughts & Insights
He accompanies you throughout life
Long time ago, at twelve years old, I sat in front of our tube radio, my big brother's tape recorder on my lap, microphone in hand, ready to record a new song from the only station that broadcast pop music for an hour every day at 6 p.m. After each announcement, I pressed the record button. This was also the case when a voice unexpectedly reached me from the loudspeaker and electrified me. It was the voice of Bob Dylan.
I didn’t know at the time that it was Bob Dylan’s voice – I had never heard of him until then. I also didn’t know the title of the song. Today I know it was “Positively 4th Street“. Thus began a story that continues to this day. Bono wrote in his foreword to the collection of quotations “Bob Dylan – In His Own Words”, “He accompanies you throughout life”.1 I can confirm this.
Today Bob Dylan turns eighty years old. Just last year he added another great album to his repertoire called “Rough and Rowdy Ways”. In the first song on this album, he sings about himself. Not as a lyrical subject, but as Bob Dylan himself: “I contain multitudes.” He has proven time again in his now six decades of artistic work that this is true and he remained true to himself in his adaptability. As a result, the attempts of various critics to categorize him compulsively through their classification system have all failed. It is still a treat today to see how, even at a very young age, he didn’t dutifully answer the inane questions of journalists at a press conference in Los Angeles in 1965, but skillfully let them slip away with wit and intelligence. That alone would be reason enough to love him.
Like no other artist of his notoriety, he asserted his inner freedom against all the changing currents of the zeitgeist. Similarly, he stood up the expectations of an audience that preferred to hear the old familiar songs in an accustomed way and accused him of betrayal or predicted his imminent demise when he failed to meet said expectations for the first time. This is not arrogance; it is lived resilience, which in combination with an almost inexhaustible creativity and creative power is unparalleled. This combination makes Bob Dylan an exceptional figure in a world that is changing at breakneck speed and yet somehow seems to stand still at its core.
I remember how, at the beginning of his concert in Oberhausen in April 2002, I tried to recognize the song he was playing with his band at the time, which could only be recognized with difficulty, due to the fragmentation of lyrics. After three or four songs, I decided to stop this nonsense and instead just surrendered to the rhythms and melodies, the voice and the sound of his great band, transforming the concert hall with an energy I had never experienced before. Most concert attendees shared this phenomenal experience. The very subdued initial reaction gave way to a collective willingness to embrace and fully enjoy what he was offering us. He did not serve our expectations of him. On the contrary, he did what he wanted. He played “Blowing in the Wind” in waltz time and delivered one surprise after another – confidently, at the highest level and with impressive grandeur and elegance. By neglecting the expectations of his audience, performing his old songs in a completely new style, he ignited endless enthusiasm. His 45-minute encore showed that he seemed to have had his fun, too.
Bob Dylan is a musician, singer, composer and more than a songwriter. He is a great poet. However, his poems are only understandable as songs, he himself once said. That’s true. The fact that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago satisfied a few exegetes who had been trying for years to prove the high literary quality of his work in meticulous analysis and interpretation. Probably more so than Bob Dylan himself, who didn’t attend the award ceremony in Oslo. What had long been obvious would not have needed this proof, which of course does not diminish its justification. If you read the lyrics of his songs, you immediately have the sound of the song in your ears and the images of the stories he tells before your eyes. There, Desolation Row seems just as real as the true story of the wrongly convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter or the epically depicted scene of the sinking of the Titanic. His stories become our stories.
In a time obsessed with the future, he creates arcs that bring the past into the present. Bridges that lead from the personal to the general and back again. In his songs, Ovid, Dante and Baudelaire live as if they were our contemporaries. He does what good art always does: he brings us into an exchange with what was before us, but also with what will be after us. He disregards the zeitgeist, but he is not a defeatist. He simply expresses what is really vital and important in this life, time and time again. Bono called him a “caller from a timeless past”1. No wonder OUBEY was thrilled when he discovered Bob Dylan all over again in the early 2000s. While painting GENESIS and the StarPixels at night, the two samplers I had put together for him at his request played regularly.
More than anything else, however, Bob Dylan is a “performing artist. In his concerts, nothing is reproduced or even repeated. That’s what the more than 50 albums are for, on which his songs are available for all time in the familiar studio version. Those who want to witness his development, visit the concerts. These are also the people, to whom Edward Dcox´statement in his excellent tribute to Dylan’s 80th birthday in the Guardian applies: “A common experience when seeing him live is to discover that a song that you thought was about rage is suddenly transformed into something tender. Ten years on, at another concert, the same song you now think of as a tender turns out to be a wry throwaway burlesque. The burlesque later becomes an elegy. And on it goes”.
In his Nobel Prize lecture, Bob Dylan explicitly acknowledged the value of the uniqueness of each event on stage. Using Shakespeare, as well as the value of telling stories like those of Homer, inspired by the singing of the muses, as an example: “The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert, or on record, or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story’.”2
“If you ever want to look me up when I’m ninety, you’ll find me on a stage somewhere, “1 Bob Dylan said when he was just fifty in 1991. If it were not for a pandemic, he would probably be doing just that on his eightieth birthday today: standing on a stage.
1 From Bono´s prologue for “Bob Dylan – In his own words, London 1993
2 Bob Dylan – The Noble Lecture, New York 2017, Page 23
Highly Recommended: Bob Dylan – Chronicles Volume One, New York 2004