Bob Dylan arrives today, Monday, to his eightieth anniversary among universal adoration: books, record tributes, round tables, special programs, concerts in his honor, even a Nobel Prize in Literature. Something not necessarily predictable. You see: no one can deny that Dylan is responsible for taking pop lyrics to another level; His extensive work has a high percentage of hits; it dominates the tributaries that feed the river of its inspiration; few in the saints of contemporary culture have their resonance. But it was not always like this. Dylan has had a stormy relationship with his followers, an antagonism that manifests itself early. In 1963, when the Emergency Committee for Civil Liberties – the cream of New York liberals – presented him with its Tom Paine Award, he blamed them for his age and his insistence on differentiating between left and right: he even identified with Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy. In this way, he formalizes his abandonment of the powerful “songs that point with the finger”, to jump to a more personal expression: from “us” to “me”, in a torrential way.
A bumpy jump. In 1965, part of his audience booed him for performing with an electric group. Actually, these staff are unaware that Dylan comes from the rock & roll: he has hidden that detail in his biographical accounts. That reaction has the air of a university rampage, an opportunity to lower the smoke of the untouchable man. That in reality he is already seriously worrying about being enthroned as the head of the counterculture.
Take that chalice away from me, he must be thinking. During those years, the leaders of the rebellion are imprisoned and sometimes killed. It happens that Dylan’s letters look like orders and slogans: from them gets his name The Weathermen, the armed resistance group. Very cleverly, Dylan disappears from circulation, establishing his family in the mountains of New York. There are 100 kilometers of distance between Woodstock, the town where it resides, and Bethel, the place where the famous festival is celebrated in 1969; Dylan is conspicuous by his absence. These are productive years, although we would only understand their dimensions with the publication of The basement tapes. His last albums from the sixties are clear requests to unsubscribe from what was then called the Movement.
Faced with the reluctance of his followers, his anger grows: after the impact of the pirate Great White Wonder, releases an equally scrappy double album, Self PortraitLike “is this what you want?” Furthermore, concerned by a brief absence of new ideas, he decides to rejoin the music community of New York’s Greenwich Village. Thus, he puts himself within the reach of nuts like AJ Weberman, a fanatic who empties his garbage cans in search of incriminating evidence (“Dylan has sold himself and on top of that he consumes heroin”). The investigated loses his pose cool and gets to attack the intruder.
The seventies are going to be turbulent. A lurch redeemed by glorious songs (Forever Young, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door) and a sore LP stemming from her divorce, Blood on the Tracks. He embarks on the carnival adventure of the Rolling Thunder Revue, from which a pitiful movie comes out (Renaldo and Clara) and an unsuspected pitch, Hurricane, chronicle of the imprisonment of boxer Rubin Hurricane Sump. In 1977, Dylan is planning to record an album in Castilian when religion is crossed. Reducing it to someone raised in Judaism becoming a Christian does not fully reflect the enormity of the turn: it points to a fundamentalism that deplores a supposed spread of homosexuality and that is politically allied with the more bellicose Zionism, awaiting a battle ( real, not metaphorical) with communism. There is a little book, published by the Neapolitan artist Francesco Clemente, that transcribes dozens of the terrifying philippics that Dylan inserts between song and song. One is amazed both at the stubbornness of the artist and the devotion of those onlookers who come knowing that Dylan will threaten them with oceans of fire and brimstone; those parliaments are absent in Trouble No More, the monumental anthology of his gospel time.
Dylan’s misanthropy is reaffirmed, but in the end he recognizes himself defeated: he distances himself from the apocalyptic songbook, recovers his golden repertoire. In the remainder of the eighties and during the nineties, he tries to reconnect with the lost public and, perhaps, win new followers. That explains why I work with respectful producers – Mark Knopfler, the David couple and Don Was – and put up with such imperious beings as Arthur Baker or Daniel Lanois. It goes through stages of drought, disguised with a trilogy of records containing old material. To go on tour, he hangs out with friends and fans, like The Grateful Dead, improvisation fans who are going to suffer here: “On stage, he would order us to play a song that we hadn’t rehearsed, and he didn’t know the song either! ”. We can suspect that during those years, in general, it is left to handle: the format unplugged seems designed to suit him, although his MTV Unplugged reveals a listless artist.
At the end of the 20th century, Dylan’s popularity rebounded. For emotional reasons – the pericarditis of 1997 recalls that it is not eternal – and even demographic: new waves of fans are incorporated who know nothing about the resignations of previous decades and who surely do not distinguish between what he takes from Willie Dixon and what he owes to. Hank Williams. Plus, you can see Bob live, even if you have to endure that passion to pound his greatest hits until they sound unrecognizable. The so-called Endless Tour abounds in mysteries. There are about a hundred concerts a year, which do not offer much glory in their American stages, where sometimes he must play at Indian reservation casinos, county fairs and university sports centers; Outside his country, it is true, he is celebrated with the honors he deserves.
One can imagine that it obeys a romantic concept: a singer lives to act, period. When he travels, he rarely visits museums or picturesque places: at the most, a boxing gym and – very intriguing – the childhood homes of Neil Young, Springsteen and other colleagues. He seems to have solved the odious task of recording: he produces his own records, under the pseudonym Jack Frost, generally in the key of blues-rock, with pessimistic texts and very free durations. He has not lost the taste for sabotaging himself, which would explain his Christmas collection, Chistmas in the Heart. Nor does he renounce the whim elevated to the category of exhibition of freedom: the man who, in the sixties, boasted of having finished with the sophisticated quarry of the standard, half a century later he is dedicated to recreating some fifty samples of the genre, with the excuse that they were sung by Sinatra. Surely, only Bob Dylan understands the joke.