Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road | New music reviews, news & interviews
Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road
Half a century after the release of his debut album, are we any closer to fathoming Mr Zimmerman?
Fifty years ago today Bob Dylan released his first album, Bob Dylan, on Columbia. Within 12 months he was a rising star; 12 months more and he was the voice of the times; a little over a year later he had gone from saviour to Judas. And on it went. For half a century now successive generations have wrestled with Dylan's mutations; mostly we pick and choose and settle for – at best – a partial understanding. At the age of 70, Dylan's appeal is still wrapped up in mystery, mischief and contradiction. He could even yet, you feel, turn out to be considerably less or more than he appears.
What he clearly isn't, of course, is a protest singer. In 2000 Dylan released an Academy Award-winning single called “Things Have Changed”. Its sense of weary cynicism – “I used to care, but things have changed” – seems especially apt in light of a recent controversy surrounding his first ever concerts in China. Yet the really intriguing aspect of the entire affair wasn’t that Dylan was prepared to perform in a country ruled by a repressive and censorious regime, but rather that so many people – fans, critics, barely interested observers – regarded his doing so as some hypocritical betrayal of his core ideals.
Those who objected overlooked the fact that Dylan’s last album of what could loosely be termed protest songs was The Times They Are a-Changin’, released in January 1964. Since then he has made a further 31 studio albums which have cast him as electric poet-prophet, country crooner, conventional rock star, deeply conservative born-again Christian, Eighties embarrassment and, latterly, an inscrutable elder statesman (pictured right), happy to jump from apocalyptic blues to gentle river boat croon. His last release was an album of Christmas songs. Anyone expecting this man to dutifully take a vocal stand against a dodgy foreign government really hasn’t been paying attention.
If there’s one thing we can say in 2012 with any certainty about Dylan it's that he has remained a mercurial presence. His artistic vitality (even when it has been channeled into dross) is directly linked to his refusal to be shackled to anything other than his own creative whims. He would, you suspect, rather suck than conform to preconceptions. Which may explain a whole lot.
Hailed initially as the king of folk-protest thanks to anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the enduring image of Dylan as the great liberal voice of the Sixties is a clear anomaly within the context of his 50-year career. His social conscience was largely a creative convenience (like most young men he wrote primarily to impress girls, in his case his politically engaged girlfriend Suze Rotolo) which swiftly turned into a millstone. He realised early on that deification by the liberal literati was a short road to fossilisation and swiftly resigned his post; the coruscating “Positively Fourth Street”, released in 1965, still stands as the greatest ever abdication note set to music.
Listen to “Positively Fourth Street”
Instead, Dylan has preferred to stir the mind, heart and senses with opaque poetry rather than ideology. He still, I think, craves magic and mischief above all else, which is why the mysterious, timeless, morally ambiguous shadowlands of pre-war American roots music has proved his most consistent source. Part of the reason Dylan confounds convenient categorisation is that he has generally aligned himself with blues and folk artists, which gives him an open-ended remit that is essentially ageless. “I’m a huge fan of Dylan, but he has always been a very dark writer, fixated with mortality,” Mick Jagger told me a couple of years ago. “We could talk about this for quite a long time. Stuff like John Wesley Harding sounds like the work of a much older man.”
Indeed, since his critical and creative regeneration in the early Nineties – which began with two wonderful acoustic folk albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and was sealed by the superb Time Out of Mind – Dylan has removed all traces of modernity from his work. His last four records have been composed entirely from the music of the earlier parts of the last century, touching on jazz, swing, country, Fifties rock’n’roll, folk and most often blues. His lyrics nowadays are an incongruous mix of sulphurous End Times impressionism, sly romance and sexual humour, all of which suggests that Dylan is having plenty of fun while simultaneously believing that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.
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