Yesterday was Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday! Maureen Dowd can now write stuff like, “the septuagenarian Dylan sold out by not performing “Blowing in the Wind” in the 2014 Super Bowl Halftime Show, which was sponsored by the Chinese Government.”
Apparently your 70th birthday is the day when everyone appraises your career, so a lot of ink was spilled about Dylan’s body of work yesterday. Here’s a brief rundown of what I read, with videos of some of my favorite Dylan songs.
Rolling Stone has taken a break from publishing stuff Matt Taibbi wrote while having an aneurism and giving all the Foo Fighters albums 5 star reviews to post a whole bunch of stuff about Dylan, all of which is worth taking a look at (especially the old RS interviews, which are amazing). Rolling Stone‘s love of lists is pretty tiresome, but the attention they play to “Dylan’s Greatest Songs” is nice, Bono aside. And Rob Sheffield’s “20 Overlooked Classics” is worth a read and a listen.
The Millions has a good article by Buzz Poole, “Dylan at 70.” “But lurking in everything Dylan has ever done, for better or worse, is the myth of America, its chameleon-like quality to be everything to everybody its greatest asset, permitting openness, not for the sake of change but because of its necessity. This is the history Dylan, who turns 70 years old today, has drawn from to create his own history.” Poole hones in on the importance of Dylan’s music, while questioning if it ever incited social change (though this is a point that’s made a lot — Greil Marcus was making it back in the 70s). While Poole’s prose can be a little purple for my tastes, and the article strikes me as a little unfocused, this a quick, interesting read and his judgments are spot on. Also, does any site have as good a name for their music section as The Millions? “Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music” is a really good name! I tip my hat.
The Wall Street Journal has “Poet, Prophet, and Puzzle: He inspires idolatry among his fans, but the intellectuals miss Bob Dylan’s true significance.” Oh, man. The intellectuals! What a bunch of jerks who are wrong. David Yezzi was probably outside chopping wood and blasting “Ballad of a Thin Man” when the Wall Street Journal called him to do this article. He turns “the intellectuals” into straw men (often somewhat unfairly), but his take on two recent books of Dylan biography is excellently written, and his analysis of “the intellectuals” (again, ugh) who insist on Dylan’s literary status as a “poet” particularly sharp: “Whatever his verbal brilliance, Mr. Dylan is ultimately a songwriter—and one of the most influential and memorable of our age. Touting him as a poet overplays the hand and distracts from his unique power. His guitar may be a crutch but is an awfully artful one, akin to a medieval minstrel’s cittern accompanying a sung ballad.” I know I was a bit flippant about the title, but this is probably the most interesting article I read about Dylan yesterday, and the most original. Still, “true significance?” C’mon!
The Guardian goes with an assessment of the significance of Bob Dylan’s Crossroads, “How Bob Dylan Reinvented the Rock Memoir.” The main thrust of this article seems to be Dylan’s memoir = good Mark E. Smith’s memoir = bad. There’s nothing here to back up the bold claim that Crossroads “revolutionised” the pop memoir.
The Financial Times has “Planet Dylan,” a long essay by Peter Aspden in which a number of biographies and Scorcese’s superb No Direction Home are discussed. As a summation of a number of critical works, this is an interesting article, but the wide variety of source material makes it a pretty bumpy ride And man, this dude really does not like Bob Dylan’s recent output! The easiest way to gain points with this guy is to shit on Dylan’s voice and last several albums. Aspden agrees with Clinton Heylin’s (an intellectual!!!!) claim that Dylan’s recent albums are “just another stroll through the backwoods of Americana picking up stray twigs and binding them into a serviceable crib.” To which I say: “Highlands,” “Summer Days,” “Cold Irons Bound,” “High Water (For Charley Patton),” “Po’ Boy,” “Sugar Baby,” “Mississippi” (esp. unreleased versions), “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Honest With Me,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” “When the Deal Goes Down,” “Nettie Moore.” None of the songs feel like a pile of sticks, and there’s nothing, even in the old-timey music that Dylan’s “cribbing,” that’s quite like them. His voice is croaky on all of those songs, but man, can he phrase. And trust me, I’m only naming a few of Dylan’s recent “serviceable crib” songs.
AARP Magazine has an article about Bob Dylan, because obviously. This one is for all you people who demanded to hear what Paul Shaffer thinks about Bob Dylan. And Richard Belzer! And Mayor Bloomberg and Steve Forbes! And Bruce Dern, who I had to google.
TruTV has the “10 Biggest Bob Dylan Conspiracies,” which is a quick, silly read. Here’s TruTv’s hard-hitting team of investigative journalists on Dylan’s claim that he made a pact with the devil: “As with anything Dylan does, one has to wonder if it was all a put-on.” Pulitzers for everyone! This is fun, though.
Radio Free Europe, has an interesting piece remembering Dylan’s visit to Soviet Georgia in 1985. Some say he was grumpy; others say he was nice. There are a lot of great images in this article (mostly the image is Bob Dylan wearing dirty clothes and looking grumpy while other people either celebrate or are grumpy around him). Radio Free Europe also has a great, moving piece on covers of Dylan songs in foreign languages and, more importantly, Dylan’s influence behind the Iron Curtain.
Okay, so that was a lot longer and grumpier than I thought it was going to be! So I’ll go out on a nice note. 4 Books that are must reads for any Dylan fan: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz, which was one of my favorite books from last year, and Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan, and The Old, Weird America (my personal favorite, which just got the reissue treatment) by Greil Marcus, who is not just a Bob Dylan institution, but one of the greatest critics of the past half-century.
Happy belated birthday Bob! You’re my favorite.
(H/T to Daniel Radosh for the last video)