Bob Dylan turns 80 today. A few random notes about arguably the single most influential musician in American history:
(1) I was fifteen when Blood on the Tracks was released. I have no recollection of why I bought it — at that point in my life Bob Dylan was just some old guy from a long time ago (the Sixties, which might as well have been the 1860s if you were 15 in 1975) — but I must have listened to that thing 2000 times that year. Obviously I’m biased by this autobiographical detail but I still think it may be his best record. It’s also an album that even today reminds me of this quote from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity:
What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
(2) Until the pandemic hit Dylan had spent the previous 32 years touring constantly. He performed a mind-boggling 3000 shows between 1988 and 2019, constantly reworking versions of songs he had played literally thousands of times before. I saw him in a 3,900 seat place in Denver in 1999 for $20. Paul Simon came out and played a couple of songs with him at the end. Here’s a song from that performance:
(3) Somebody asked me not too long ago if I liked Bob Dylan. When I think about it that seems to me like a strange question — it’s like asking me if I like the Rocky Mountains or something. I mean they’re just There, and whether I personally happen to “like” them or not is not really the point.
(4) Three Dylan covers:
(5) Speaking of the Sixties, it’s amazing the extent to which pretty much all the culture wars of today in America are just an ongoing argument about everything that happened between November 22 1963 and April 10 1970. (For example the Tom Cotton op-ed that got James Bennet fired could have been written then almost without changing a single word). Somehow Bob Dylan was and remains the single most symbolically resonant figure from that time. It’s nice that he’s still with us. May his hands always be busy.