As he has aged and changed, so have his songs, but the essentials remain: honesty, wisdom and hope in the face of despair
Illustration: R Fresson/The Guardian
When I first properly listened to Bob Dylan, I was 10 years old. Each Saturday, Radio 1 aired a series titled 25 Years of Rock, based on news and music spanning the years 1955 to 1979. And that week, in among archive clips of Lyndon Johnson, Harold Wilson, the Vietnam war and whatever else had happened in 1965, there was the sudden whip-crack of a snare drum followed by six minutes of music unlike anything I had ever heard: a great cascading noise, led by a voice that, as the US composer Michael Pisaro later wrote, somehow managed to be simultaneously “compassionate, tragic … vengeful, gleeful, ironic, weary, spectral, [and] haranguing”.
I soon found out that what I had experienced was Dylan’s watershed single Like a Rolling Stone, whose lyric is ostensibly addressed to some unnamed wealthy socialite as she is suddenly cut off from money and privilege. But as a matter of instinct, what I still hear in that song is a message from someone in the midst of early adulthood about how to live at that time of life. The best way to be when young, Dylan seems to insist, is restless, light on baggage, and scornful of any conventions or rules – reconciled, as Like a Rolling Stone famously puts it, to having no direction home.
On Monday, Dylan turns 80. The music he now makes – most recently heard on last year’s very good album, Rough and Rowdy Ways – has a rather different relationship to home, history and the load we amass as we live. Unlike so many musicians, he has not tried to deny his advancing years, but fully embraced them – something clear in both his words, and the growly, lived-in voice in which he sings them. Dylan’s songs now remind us that the past is inescapable, and age and experience ought to be treated with the utmost respect. And in doing so, they capture an understanding that surely settles on us as we get older: that few things are in any way new, and if we want to even begin to understand what’s going on, we should start by looking back.
This is what it’s like growing up with a songwriter – even if, as in my case, you are 30 years behind them. To take a few other examples, on the album New Morning, released in 1970, you hear the sound of what followed his years of iconoclasm and defiance: domestic contentment, and the joy of settling down. By contrast, 1975’s Blood on the Tracks is a raw picture of separation and upheaval. The apparently brief period Dylan then spent as an evangelical Christian saw someone hitting their 40s trying to connect with a cast-iron set of certainties that seemed to quickly prove untenable; a decade or so later, on 1989’s Oh Mercy, early middle age was portrayed as a time of regret, exasperation, and resignation to the fact that, as one song put it, “everything is broken”.
Listen to a recent song somewhat mischievously called False Prophet, and what ties everything together is clear: “I’m the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life,” Dylan sings, which takes you to the core of what he does, and the sense of insights passed on from each stage of his existence.
Among the many things that have always set him apart from most other songwriters, moreover, is his awareness of death, that great pop-cultural unmentionable, and something he clearly feels has to be not just accepted, but explored. The many Dylan songs that deal with mortality evoke life’s constant proximity to it, something obvious in the titles alone: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Not Dark Yet, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven. Within their lyrics lurk truths so plain that they sometimes take your breath away: “The emptiness is endless, cold as the clay”; “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it”. The words might seem bleak, but they offer solace, of sorts: life’s most basic limitation, after all, applies to everybody.
Dylan’s innate awareness of everything being fragile and contingent has also extended beyond the self, into the world at large. At only 21, he wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, which was long understood as an evocation of nuclear war, but now sounds like a portent of a world being transformed by a changing climate: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/ I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/ I’ve been 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard”. These are not the only words from that song with modern resonances: “10,000 talkers whose tongues were all broken” elegantly captures the cacophony of social media, and in his vision of “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”, there is a glimpse of horrors that have reared up in this century just as much as they did in the one before. Some of this stuff is a reflection of Dylan’s Jewish roots, and an apocalyptic sensibility at least partly taken from both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. But it also speaks a direct, everyday truth: like death, chaos and senselessness are a lot nearer to us than a lot of people assume.
In wishing him many happy returns, what are we really saluting? The list is as multifaceted as the man himself: talent, charisma, prescience, the simple fact that he is still here. But having listened to his music for 40 years and tried to soak up what it says, I think a lot of the answer boils down to two things: an unflinching existential honesty, and the humility that comes from it.
The key can be found in another song released in 1965, and sung in ironic, weary, spectral tones – It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), whose closing line offers priceless advice to anyone either getting carried away with themselves, or in danger of facing the world’s terrors and excesses and succumbing to despair: “It’s life, and life only”.
- John Harris is a Guardian columnist