Bob Dylan turned 80 this week, and I lost count of the number of breathless birthday tributes appearing across the media spectrum. Ironically, the pop-messiah stature that Dylan tried for so long to debunk enshrouds him more than ever.
During Dylan’s 60-year career, hero worship of him has taken three distinct forms. The first version cast him as a folk-singing politico, what we today would call a social-justice warrior. That image came crashing down first in 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan abruptly turned electric rock star; and most famously at a concert in Manchester, England in 1966, when he and his band were booed and likened to “Judas.” Dylan himself always took a cat-like delight in playing contemptuously with his protest singer image—as in an interview where, when pressed to state how many protest singers there were, he says: “I think it’s about 136.” When the interviewer persists with this witless question, asking whether it was exactly 136 or about 136, Dylan answers, “It’s 136 or 142.”
No one could have been more disdainful of the public image foisted on him in the late 1960s. Dylan’s 1966 Playboy interview (with Nat Hentoff) offers various other detours: “I mean it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever slept in the back seat of a car that I’m just not a schoolteacher,” he tells Hentoff at one point, and at another, when asked what he would do if he were president, he answers, “I would immediately call for a showdown with Mao Tse-tung; I would fight him personally—and I’d get somebody to film it.”
Hero worship notwithstanding, Dylan was always skeptical about the human condition. With the arrogance of hindsight, it seems hard to understand how so many people could have missed, from Dylan’s own lyrics, that he would never allow himself to be signed up for any cause: “Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, ‘rip down all hate,’ I screamed / Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed / Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow / Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
The second hero-worship stage involved the analysis of the pseudo-academic (and eventually outright academic) “Dylanologists.” Their emphasis was usually on some perceived agenda and what this or that song meant, furthering the mismatch between myth and reality. A certain degree of mischievous satire is present in the youthful Dylan’s lyrics, and it gave my teenaged self a laugh: “God said to Abraham, Kill me a son / Abe said, Man, you must be puttin’ me on / God said, No, Abe say, What? / God say, You can do what you want, Abe, but / The next time you see me comin’, you better run.” From the 1970s on, however—and in common with songs down the ages—Dylan’s key works are nearly always love songs, whether directly or obliquely about the women in his life. Almost all his finest ones from this period onward can be classified, one way or another, into this category.
The most recent hero worship—though it got started about 40 years ago—can be characterized by a sentiment, best expressed as: “He’s finally back on form with this new album.” This hope persisted through many creatively lean years, then bore fruit in some fine late-period music; it went mainstream in June 2020, with the release of his Rough and Rowdy Ways album, hyped at the time as a kind of spiritual therapy for a world in Covid shock.
“Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute final track, is a rambling reflection on the 1963 Kennedy assassination. The first half considers the American soul, or, by implication, its atrophy since that day in Dealey Plaza. The second half seems to suggest what musical therapy Americans might dip into, in their Covid-19 isolation, from the vast back catalogue of Anglo/American song. The song certainly offers some quintessentially Dylanesque lines: “I’m going to Woodstock/ It’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go to Altamont / And sit near the stage,” and “his soul’s not there where it was supposed to be at / For the last 50 years, they’ve been searchin’ for that.” But the enthusiasm with which “Murder Most Foul,” and the album it was part of, was greeted in the mainstream press was out of proportion to its quality.
Some reviews in the more esoteric music press featured analyses of the lyrics so reverent and long-winded that they would take more than 17 minutes to read. Rare were the more sober assessments conceding that, while “Murder Most Foul” may be Dylan’s longest-ever musical poem, “Desolation Row” it is not; “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” it is not, either. Those older works truly were songs, whereas the new ones seem more akin to lyrical dirges set to a gentle musical accompaniment.
It pains me a little to say it, given my own past devotion, but some cold perspective is needed here. Bob Dylan was—from 1962 to the early 1980s—an extraordinary singer-songwriter and, in terms of quantity of great material, simply without equal. For the last 40 years, though, he has mostly been trading on the reputation he built in those years. There are exceptions to this judgment, yes, but not many: the 1983 Infidels album, a few tracks on the 1997 Time Out of Mind, and “Things Have Changed” from the soundtrack of the 2000 film Wonder Boys, for example.
Did Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature that he won in 2016? I’m not sure; he’s probably not sure, either. He was consistently good for about 20 years, an amazingly long time for a rock star. And he can take credit for spawning a whole musical genre. Many other songwriters in the same musical territory, such as Paul Simon or Bruce Springsteen, have, at their best, been as good or almost as good—but not nearly so often, or for so long.
The truth is, Bob Dylan, now 80, will never get “back on form.” Aging rock stars don’t do that; no one does. One of the most quoted lyrics of “Murder Most Foul” informs us that “It’s 36 hours past Judgment Day.” Dylan has been unquestionably the most influential songwriter of his era; no one can take that away from him. But as a long-time fan, I can’t help but wish that he had hung up his songwriting boots decades ago. His musical stature could then have remained closer to that of artists who die young, unsullied by the inevitable failures that must come to all careers—even one as extraordinary as his.
Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA