On the song “Early Roman Kings” from Bob Dylan’s 2012 album “Tempest,” he sings, “If you see me coming and you’re standing there, wave your handkerchief in the air. I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings."
It’s never a good idea to take a Dylan lyric literally. His songs are usually shrouded in so many layers of metaphor, it all blends together like individual ice cubes melting into a pool of water. This song’s no different: On its surface, it’s about the infamous Gangs of New York. On a deeper level, it is (potentially) about any number of things from Wall Street to Dylan’s advanced age.
The musician turned 77 this year, a similar age to many of the artists who recently have announced retirement such as Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Paul Simon. Even though Dylan hasn’t so much as hinted at ending his career, it’s difficult not to take his line as some sort of protest when he sings‚ “I ain’t dead yet.”
And he isn’t; he played Atlantic City this month. It would be easy but wrongheaded to think the town mirrored the man: The city is a shell of what it once was, and a stroll along the boardwalk brings you to Boardwalk Hall, the home of Miss America, an American institution far past its prime. But Dylan, for all his years, still commands a special place in the musical landscape.
In an audience filled with older fans, the young people attending the iconic singer’s concert at the Hard Rock Casino stood out like a sore thumb. But is he still the icon he once was? Has culture moved on from Dylan? Has he moved on from culture?
The singer has spent decades constantly reinventing himself, starting in March 1965 when he released his first songs featuring an electric guitar. Since he was a leader in the American folk music revival, audiences turned on him for the choice — leading to the infamous moment in 1966 when an audience member at a Manchester show shouted that he was “Judas.” Then, there was his gospel period in the late 1970s when he released songs with overtly Christian lyrics — again causing a segment of his fans to turn against him.
These are two examples in a sea of many, which have been documented in countless books. The man has embodied so many different personas that Todd Haynes made a film in 2007 titled “I’m Not There,” in which six different actors and actresses play the musician at different periods of his life.
So who is he now? Dylan began what critics refer to as the “Never Ending Tour” 30 years ago. That’s more than 3,000 shows, a living testament to his storied career, though he bristles at the term. As he told Rolling Stone in 2009:
Does anybody ever call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? Is Rupert Murdoch a Never Ending Media Tycoon? What about Donald Trump? Does anybody say he has a Never Ending Quest to build buildings? . . . But we’re living in an age of breaking everything down into simplistic terms, aren’t we? These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job.
The takeaway from this latest leg? Dylan remains as much an enigma in 2018 as he’s always been. And his fans still seem to revile and adore him (for this very reason) in equal measure.
After the New Jersey show, for example, various fans claimed it was either the worst or the best performance they’d ever seen. Some were angry that the artist didn’t address the audience once. Others didn’t like the music. As is his wont, Dylan had rearranged old classics such as “Blowin' in the Wind,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Like a Rolling Stone” until they were nearly unrecognizable. The latter, once an angry scourge, now sounded like a sorrowful lament.
With his voice now diminished into an almost-constant rasp or a sneering snarl, Dylan could easily sound like a caricature of himself. Instead, he’s turned it into an expressive tool. That became clear when he focused on newer material, from the eerily cruel “Scarlet Town” to the sad foreshadowing of “Tryin' to Get to Heaven.”
In those songs, it seems as if he’s thinking of the End. That’s not surprising if you’ve followed his recent output. Last year, he used that voice, the one that almost sounds broken from time and overuse, to sing a 3-disc megarecord of classics such as “As Time Goes By.”
“These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better,” he said in a shockingly candid interview in which he discussed his age and his career.
“From 1970 till now there’s been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones . . . Musical influences too — they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside,” he then said, perhaps shedding light on his constantly changing style.
Arguably the most significant thing to happen to Dylan in the past decade was winning the Nobel Prize for literature, though judging from his reaction, you’d think his new line of Heaven’s Door American whiskies were of greater interest to the musician. After winning the award, Dylan . . . said nothing. It took him two weeks to even accept a phone call from the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius.
Then he refused to show up to accept the award. Instead of delivering the lecture required of winners in person, Dylan wrote and later recorded his speech in Los Angeles, turning it in to the academy many months later. In it he discussed Buddy Holly (who “seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction”), the themes of “Moby Dick” (which “would work its way into more than a few of my songs”) and the purpose of music (“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it — what it all means”).
Dylan could arguably do anything, but he skips a Nobel Prize lecture and shows up to play a casino in Atlantic City. It’s emblematic of the man who remains as mysterious as ever. To borrow a quote from the man himself,” I’m not going to worry about it — what it all means.” And that’s always been part of his never-ending genius.