Bob Dylan in 1990. (AP Photo/ Lionel Cirroneau)

At 50, Bob Dylan Gathers No Moss

Still a Legend, Still a Complete Unknown

By Richard Harrington

May 24, 1991

Do not create anything, it will be

misinterpreted. It will not change

it will follow you the

rest of your life ...

— from "Advice to Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday," by Bob Dylan, 1964

Dylan was in his twenties when he wrote this poem. Ah, but he was so much younger then. He's older than that now. He's 50 today.

It's a milestone -- perhaps a millstone, as well -- that Dylan's chosen to acknowledge this day the way he does most things, and that is not at all. He's not even in the country, conveniently having scheduled a tour in South America. Not that this will stop the appreciations, the appraisals and the inevitable post-mortems from critics who tend to write about Dylan in the past tense -- not as though he is dead, but as though he is no longer ... relevant. While Dylan's songs have always resisted conclusive analysis, he himself has never had the same kind of luck with concluding analysts.

Ironically, one of the most astute appraisals of Dylan's career came not from a critic but from actor Jack Nicholson, presenting him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in February. Casting Dylan's life as one long creative adventure, and his character as one of unregenerate individualism, Nicholson called him "a paradox, the fairest word for him, I think. It means a statement seemingly self-contradictory but in reality possibly expressing the truth.

"He's been called everything from the voice of his generation to the conscience of the world. He rejects both titles and any others that try to categorize him or analyze him. He opened the doors of pop music wider than anybody else, yet returned time and again to the simplicity of basic chords and emotions to express himself. He's been and still is a disturber of the peace, his as well as ours... ."

Along the way, Dylan's been hailed, imitated and mythologized, as well as ridiculed and ignored, but there's no denying that during his '60s bloom Dylan was a wordscaper with the instincts of a populist musician and the skills of a poet, and that his performed literature dramatically changed popular music. Touring now more than ever, Dylan attracts both loyalists and neophytes, a two-tiered audience that responds to him -- much to his chagrin -- as though he were a potent symbol, not only of a particular time and generation, but of an enduring state of mind.

Dylan brought it on himself simply by being himself, invented and otherwise. He had many antecedents and has had just as many progeny, but with his folk-rooted albums in the early '60s and the astounding trio of "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" released over a 14-month period in the mid-'60s, Dylan validated rock as an art form to be taken seriously. As critic Ellen Willis noted, Dylan imposed literacy on illiterate music, showed that the form could reflect adult concerns and address complex social issues and personal concerns with the same power and immediacy as novels, plays and films.

Dylan changed the rules. Dylan changed our expectations. Among individual artists, only Elvis Presley managed to stir up public emotions and redefine pop music at same time; Dylan took it a step further, proving that it was possible to be both popular and serious. When Bruce Springsteen inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years back, he called him "revolutionary."

"The way Elvis freed your body," he said, "Bob freed your mind and showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual. He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve and changed the face of rock-and-roll forever."

Needless to say, Dylan squirmed in his seat during this speech, as uncomfortable as he was during Nicholson's Grammy encomiums. In any case these were short versions of the billions of words expended on his work over the past 30 years. Of course millions of words have also been expended on Dylan's life, and all too much of his career has been a battle to keep separate his self and the art that springs from it.

Somehow Dylan has managed to keep his personal life well hidden -- his friends are very protective and the media are usually reduced to sightings. This is a rare achievement for an innately private person in what is an intensely public medium. Again, from "Advice to Geraldine":

"When told t'look at yourself ... never look. When asked t'give your real name ... never give it."

Dylan's relationship with the public is clearly through his songs, and there one finds the mother lode. His inner life (and ours to a great extent) is reflected in his lyrics; because, consciously or unconsciously, Dylan shares everything that happens to him and within him. His contempt for a critic became "Ballad of a Thin Man." His divorce became "Blood on the Tracks"; his religious conversion became "Slow Train Coming." Dylan's a shamus of the soul, always investigating and laying bare his personal struggles, which may explain why he's never been inclined to play the "meaning" game. Asked by Playboy what his songs were about, Dylan was brutally dismissive: "some of my songs are about four minutes, some are about five minutes and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12."

Dylan has never been able to explain his work in words that come anywhere close to the precision of the songs — neither have his critics, of course, no matter how long-winded — but the fact that so many have tried, and so passionately, suggests just how remarkable Dylan's work has been. He's always used the personal to say something universal — private obsessions publicly autopsied. Apart from the songs that sparked the ongoing social consciousness wing of rock-and-roll, no one has better or more honestly explored the ever-changing landscape of the mind or the minefields of the heart. Because Dylan's best songs work on so many levels — elasticity of meaning abounds — people can usually take as much or as little as they need from them.

"The point is not understanding what I write but feeling it," Dylan said in 1965. After all, the key line in "Like a Rolling Stone," perhaps his best-known song, is sung with a passion unusual even for Dylan: "How does it feel?”

Ultimately, all the attention, and its attendant expectation, must not have felt good because it didn't take long for Dylan to actively discourage his starry-eyed admirers, particularly those who depended on him for moral leadership. "It Ain't Me Babe" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" were both written in 1964, protest songs of another ilk and declarations of independence not only from relationships but responsibilities. A decade later, on the "Planet Waves" album's "Wedding Song," he echoed himself: "It's never been my duty to remake the world at large/nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge."

Nor was it his intention to be a battlefield, but that was the consequence of Dylan's fusing folk music with the rock-and-roll attitude he cherished in his youth. He'd always loved the power but lamented rock's lack of lyrical depth and literacy. Then he found a way to bring them together: "that's what made me different," he once said, "allowed me to cut through all the mess and be heard."

What was heard? Once his own songs came tumbling, it was what one writer called "performed literature." Dylan's "Lyrics: 1962-1985" yields great rewards, but it's almost impossible to read Dylan in cold type without hearing his voice, the emotional subtlety and the tension between words, the sui generis phrasing, the capacity for drawing out his lines like a saxophonist spinning out gossamer lines.

By his early twenties, Dylan had already honed his writing skills, learning from Woody Guthrie and Big Joe Williams, who showed a song could be a poem, and such French symbolists as Rimbaud and Baudelaire. In 1965, critic John Clellon Holmes called Dylan "an American Brecht, whose poems are meant to be sung. ... There is the same cold humor, the same ironic warmth, the same violent and splintered imagery, the same urgent, idiomatic involvement in the way things actually are."

Dylan also picked up on these writers' images — the hobo, the renegade poet, the radical intellectual — and their intellectual itineraries: None was tied down to any one place or set of circumstances, and neither would Dylan be. After the folk redemption came the rock revolution and a succession of styles and images.

At first fans were fascinated by the risks Dylan took, but they would only go so far with him. After he'd reflected and then inspired the anger and frustration of his generation with "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," "The Times They Are a Changin' " and "Another Side of Bob Dylan," Dylan went electric at Newport and, abandoning the explicit political commentary that had endeared him to folk purists, was castigated by former fans who suddenly decided he was modern enough in substance, and refused him the corollary in style. Then, after Dylan's motorcycle accident in 1966, his new-found rock constituency felt abandoned when he unveiled the spare and understated "John Wesley Harding" and the country-ish "Nashville Skyline" at the time "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" heralded the age of rock psychedelia.

The post-'60s albums have been wildly uneven — from 1975's brilliant, visceral "Blood on the Tracks" and 1989's return to form, "Oh Mercy," to others that seemed to lack direction, passion or purpose (though occasionally containing songs that ranked with Dylan's finest). In 1979, Dylan entered another controversial period as a born-again Christian, for a while refusing to perform his old classics in concert, another arena where he was sometimes brilliant, sometimes uncaring and unconvincing. It was as if testing loyalists was a crusade, not just a game. The fans usually took it personally, feeling betrayed, or disappointed, as if it wasn't kosher for Dylan to change.

Having inspired a parade of reluctant New Dylans, the prototype has continued to serve himself up occasionally as a new Dylan (though his fans probably hope that the New Dylan turns out to be the Old Dylan), reflecting what John Landau called "an unrelenting capacity to grow." Dylan was no more fixed than the meaning of any of his songs.

Concertgoers can attest to Dylan's penchant for rewriting (what he's called "creative renovations"), recomposition and redelivery, enabling him to find new meaning in old songs and thus reflect new moods, times, preoccupations. He's learned to live with the legacy that everything else will always be compared to. Even Springsteen noted the burden at the Hall of Fame dinner: "To this day where great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan over and over and over and Bob's own modern work has gone unjustly underappreciated for having to stand in that shadow."

Early on, Dylan chose to shift his attention from saving the world — by changing it — to saving himself — by changing himself. Which may explain why change has been the constant in his life, and investigation of truth his mission.

"I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it/and reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it," Dylan sang in "A Hard Rain A-Gonna Fall" and that's never changed.

Asked about what drove him and Dylan, Eric Clapton confessed a few years ago that "I just apply myself to what I know is commercial and I think Bob just sticks to what he knows is true. ... I try to bend with the wind, whereas he will always try to stay straight. ... {His songs reflect} the spirit of the universal, of private pain, of the self, personal recognition — a private awakening."

Being true to himself has cost Dylan — fans and understanding alike. That may have been on his mind at the Grammys when he made what seemed at the time a brief, enigmatic acceptance speech. "It's possible to be so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you," Dylan said. "And if this happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways."

In 1971's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," Dylan sang about running on a hilltop, "following a pack of wild geese/someday everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody." That will be the day that he paints himself at peace.

Meanwhile, happy birthday.