When rock and roll seized the pop charts five decades ago, exiling the bow-tied crooners to the Las Vegas lounges, it was the music of teenage rebellion. It was unthinkable then that a rock singer could still be relevant once he reached 30, and ludicrous to imagine him (or her) at 50 with gray hair and grandchildren. But in May 2001, Bob Dylan turns 60. In 1963, he was the baby-faced balladeer who warned previous generations that their "old road is rapidly aging." Now he is old himself. While his fans celebrate this milestone, Dylan will likely ignore it. "I don't pay any attention to it," he once said of fame. "Life is too short and what do people want? They want your autograph."
One reason for Dylan's longevity has to be his voice. It sounds no older now than it did in 1962, the year he released his first album. But it never sounded young. It was rough and creaky then. It is rough and creaky now. It took getting used to, but it was the perfect vehicle for a bitter anthem like "Positively 4th Street." Even his love songs, including the defiant "It Ain't Me, Babe" benefited from sandpaper vocals that seemed to have traveled long and hard on the rough road of romance.
The songs themselves are timeless. When writing "Forever Young" in 1973, Dylan may have been thinking of his children, but the title describes his work. His early songs spoke to the disillusioned young people of the Vietnam era, but they transcend time and still speak to people today. This marks Dylan as a true artist, as does his refusal to follow the pack. In 1969, when "flower power" was all the rage, Dylan went country with Nashville Skyline. In the late 1970s, when the Rolling Stones and Elton John jumped on the disco bandwagon, Dylan turned to gospel. "The glory of God knocked me down and picked me up," he said.
The controversial "born-again" period alienated many of his fans. It also seemed to inhibit his creativity. After all, one of the jobs of an artist is to question. When an artist believes he has found the truth, what's left for him to ask?
The next two decades saw Dylan return to live performing with a vengeance, performing so many old songs that he became a nostalgic figure, as much a relic of the 60s as peace signs and hippie beads. But in 1997, he bounced back, not only from a near fatal heart ailment, but also from a creative and commercial drought. Time Out of Mind put him back on top. Now, with a Kennedy Center honor, several Grammys, and even an Oscar in the bag, he seems likely to stay there.
Having been so identified with the decade known as "The Sixties," it's appropriate that he should live and prosper throughout his own sixties. Happy birthday, Bob.
Dylan ink drawing (top right) by the author © 1990 Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Paris Woman Journal
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