Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday.
I’ve seen several articles lately trying to take stock of him; they’re almost all terrible. Some points that I believe are usually missed:
1. Bob Dylan is pathologically averse to being pinned down to an identity. This aversion is a blanket criticism of our culture, as if we don’t have any available identities that are worth being invested in. Though I find this quality of Dylan’s a little off-putting, a little too reactive, it’s also connected to what makes him fascinating to people. His public persona is sublime.
2. Dylan has some other very big weaknesses: verbal diarrhea, a simplistic sense of musical and lyrical form (verging often on formlessness, as when his songs go on and on, held together very loosely by a repeated line of chorus), and an often autistic style. However, like most big personalities, his big weaknesses are sometimes parlayed into strengths. His verbal diarrhea can sometimes be channeled into Skeltonic pyrotechnics (“Like a Rolling Stone” is the obvious example), his formlessness can sometimes fuel exciting storytelling (e.g., Blood on the Tracks), and even his autistic style can open up deep mysteries and allows him a kind of freedom that few contemporary performers have (his friend Van Morrison also has this kind of freedom and distance).
3. Dylan seems to understand – thank God! – what his critics and admirers don’t: that “folk” music is a sham form of pop music, that pop music in America is way more interesting than people think (and has a crazy, fascinating history), that “protest songs” are full of vanity and make nothing happen, and that nonetheless music is connected to politics in the ancient Greek sense of a people’s style of living.
4. Dylan has a superb sense of musical sound. While he’s weak on form, he has always been able to create distinctive, powerful, magical, deep sounds – a kind of raining, swirling noise.
5. Dylan has a great voice. Somehow people have formed this ridiculous aesthetic concept that a good voice requires great range and mellifluousness, which would rule out – reductio ad absurdum – Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnny Cash, et al.
6. Dylan is not “countercultural.” Pretty much everyone and everything labeled as countercultural is in fact very much a part of the mainstream of our culture.
7. Dylan’s great decades: 60s, 70s, 00s.