Pop music has given us talented stylists and praiseworthy songwriters -- but only one artist. No one matters but Bob Dylan. He emerged in the early 1960s with a voice as authentic as the genres he seemed to have created. He did nothing less than upend the cultural landscape. He redefined the method and meaning of music itself.
According to his high school annual, Robert Zimmerman aspired "to join Little Richard," yet he began his career singing -- under the assumed name "Bob Dylan" -- old folk and blues standards. In 1960, nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan arrived in New York from Hibbing, Minnesota, with the singular goal of comforting Woody Guthrie, who was dying in Brooklyn State Hospital.
A lot of New York folkies were showing up there, too -- it was a kind act from members of a small and tight-knit community, if not also a way to enjoy a little personal contact with their unofficial leader. Dylan, described as being a veritable "Woody Guthrie jukebox" at the time, had no following, no record deal, and no articulated artistic vision. But that changed fast. Dylan joined the city's folk music scene, picking up standards from other performers around Greenwich Village and from recordings (most often those of folk icon Ramblin' Jack Elliott). He quickly became a leading light.
The key to Dylan's fast success was his voice. Comic parodies of his voice have become standard over the last twenty years, but Bob Dylan was initially recognized for his singing talent. Live recordings of the early days document just what he could do: His heart-bruising rendition of the slave lament "No More Auction Block" -- available only as a bootleg recording until its official release, thirty years later -- reveals a young man with the world-weary delivery of someone three times his years. Dylan's aching, soaring vocal conveys real pain over the "many thousands gone," a profound and mortal injury that prohibits the narrator, a just-emancipated slave, from fully accepting his freedom. Dylan's raw interpretations make the cardigan harmonies of Peter, Paul, and Mary sound like dorm-room anthems for the privileged.
Within two years of his arrival, he had a record deal. His first album was recorded in 1962 by Columbia Records' John Hammond, who was led to Dylan by the New York Times folk-music critic Bob Shelton. Recorded in a single afternoon on a $ 400 budget, Bob Dylan was a collection of folk and blues standards supplemented by two original compositions.
The recording did little for either Columbia or Dylan. While folk music had its fans, it had yet to achieve a significant segment of the market for recorded music. The record initially sold a disappointing five thousand copies.
But Dylan's talent was clear. He had, in his growling interpretations, a voice beyond his years and, in the new compositions, a hint of humor. In 1963 came Dylan's second chance, the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and a mature artist sprang forth fully formed. Now Dylan's antique voice was applied to his own words and music, and the combination was breathtaking. The very first song, "Blowin' in the Wind," borrows the melodic essence of "Auction Block" and transforms it from field blues into an acoustic anthem.
Two cuts later comes "Masters of War," perhaps the most powerful antiwar song ever set down. Over nothing but a pair of minor chords relentlessly repeated, Dylan uses simple couplets to curse the masters of war, far from the frontlines, who build the "big bombs" and the "death planes," who treat the men of his generation like cannon fodder. This amazing album also includes Dylan's prescient "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," while still making room for a few non-political things -- especially the sad, playful "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right":
It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe,
if you don't know by now.
An' it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe.
It don't matter, anyhow.
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn,
look out your window and I'll be gone.
You're the reason I'm travelin' on.
But don't think twice, it's all right.
By 1965, Bob Dylan was a household name and the poet laureate of the youth movement. He was also a twenty-four-year-old, bridling under a mammoth reputation and restless for change. After four acoustic albums, Dylan was officially an Icon, and his lyrics served as elegant shorthand among the counterculture.
But Dylan never seemed as uncomfortable as when he was held up as a leader -- it was a characteristic that would present itself throughout his career (don't follow leaders, he would pen that same year in "Subterranean Homesick Blues"). His discomfort with authority -- his own as well as that of others -- was expressed early and often, notably in "Restless Farewell" (from his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin'), when he dismissed interest in being the leader of anybody's revolution: It's for myself and my friends my stories are sung.
He issued another dismissal at the close of his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, in a now-famous love song, heavy with double meanings:
You say you're lookin' for someone
never weak, but always strong,
to protect you an' defend you
whether you are right or wrong.
Someone to open each and every door.
But it ain't me, babe.
With that, Dylan turned his back on folk and, significantly, on the folk movement. In the most fundamental shift of his career, he simultaneously embraced electric rock 'n' roll and began experimenting with beat-style lyrics. The result was a whole new level of critical and popular acclaim -- and a new kind of American art. The influence of his first "electric" album, 1965's Bringing It All Back Home, can hardly be overstated: It gave birth to nothing less than the possibility of electric music as literature. Its first cut, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," is still a powerful jolt of rock 'n' roll, playful and angry and artful all at once. Dylan's run-on lyrics -- Maggie comes fleet foot, / face full of black soot, / talkin' that the heat put / plants in the bed but -- are less meaningful for what they are about than they are for the sheer musicality of their sound. They are a pleasure to hear, a pleasure to sing.
Dylan's grand experiment loosed something unpleasant, too: the possibility of legitimacy for every line of navel-gazing twaddle that would ever be set to music. Dylan's literary ambiguity combined with the political proclivities of his fans paved the way for decades of self-righteousness from such bands as the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, and Rage Against the Machine. But Dylan sought neither credit nor blame for any of that -- and still hasn't even today. He just kept making music.
No one mined the new possibilities of electric, intelligent music more artfully than Dylan himself -- and no one did it (for a while, at least) with more commercial success. Bringing It All Back Home was Bob Dylan's most successful album to date: It peaked at six on the U.S. charts, and remained in the Top 100 for nine months.
Dylan's abilities as a songwriter remained strong, though his beat-influenced experiments caused his work to suffer as often as it succeeded. Released only five months after Back Home, Dylan's next album, Highway 61 Revisited, further explored beat territory: The record is populated by biblical characters, circus performers, historical figures, and clueless moderns, and the imagery in the lyrics (of both records) is by turns nonsensical, bizarre, touching, and troubling -- though when it worked, it really worked: Well, you know I need a steam shovel, mama, to keep away the dead. / I need a dump truck, mama, to unload my head.
Now forever established in the pop firmament -- the song "Like a Rolling Stone" is perennially listed as one of the finest rock songs ever recorded -- Bob Dylan entered a relatively fallow period that would last a decade. For any other artist, this time would have been praised as a creative renaissance. Dylan embraced country music, recorded with Johnny Cash, collaborated with Robbie Robertson and the Band, and wrote the classic "All Along the Watchtower." But given the impact of the first six years of his career, almost nothing that followed could have measured up.
In 1975, Dylan's best strokes emerged again with Blood on the Tracks, a song cycle apparently inspired by Dylan's breakup with his first wife, Sara Lowndes. The album remains among the singer's most popular recordings, though Dylan himself said in response, "A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It's hard for me to relate to that -- I mean, people enjoying that type of pain."
And there is plenty of pain. Blood on the Tracks is a collection of tales of lost love, missed opportunity, regret, and rage. Starting off with the classic "Tangled Up in Blue," a many-layered epic about a man and a woman who cannot connect for long, Dylan relates all the emotions that come at the bitter end of a relationship. And, echoing Macbeth's "Tomorrow" soliloquy in "Idiot Wind," his usual attacks on the hypocrisy of the world are traded in for soul-shredding examinations of self:
I can't feel you anymore.
I can't even touch the books you've read.
Every time I crawl past your door,
I been wishin' I was somebody else instead. . . .
Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves.
We're idiots, babe.
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.
Before the album's coda, the playful "Buckets of Rain," Dylan closes the record with "Shelter from the Storm," and somehow manages in a few short lines to simultaneously invoke hope and praise for -- and distrust of -- a lost lover:
I'm livin' in a foreign country,
but I'm bound to cross the line.
Beauty walks a razor's edge,
someday I'll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock
to when God and her were born.
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you
shelter from the storm."
Dylan's creative revival was short-lived. By 1979, he had receded to become more of a totem than an active force in popular music. Follow-ups to Blood on the Tracks were disappointing, and the wholesale shift of the record business to dance music left no room on the radio for the difficult voice (in every sense) of Bob Dylan. And then, already notorious for going his own way, Dylan committed what to many seemed to be professional -- and creative -- suicide: He became a born-again Christian, had the nerve to actually tell people about it, and began to write music about Jesus.
Predictably, the so-called "serious" rock press was livid and sneering, with Rolling Stone (the journal that took its very name from his words) dismissing his new music as "Jesus-gonna-getcha" tunes. For a time, Dylan even renounced his catalog and began playing concerts in which he performed only religious songs. He also added an ordained minister to his road crew and began preaching sermons -- interesting, Dylanesque sermons, but sermons nonetheless -- at his shows.
Fans abandoned him in droves. Dylan, however, plowed on, ultimately recording four Christ-themed albums. Yet in this period of depressed record sales and critical spitballs, Dylan produced some of the greatest songwriting and recording of his career. The first Christian album, Slow Train Coming, was co-produced by soul-music giant Jerry Wexler. In the title track, Dylan warns the smiling corrupters of mankind that they will someday answer to a higher power whose arrival is inexorable.
Dylan, no stranger to fire and brimstone as an anti-war folkie, had plenty to say too about the power of the righteous and angry God he now followed: Do you ever wonder just what God requires? / You think He's just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires? And of course Dylan remained the artist who speaks in riddles. In "Jokerman," he seems to recognize mankind as at once flawed and gifted, and he contrasts man's great abilities with his moral ambivalence: You're a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds. . . . / You're going to Sodom and Gomorrah. But what do you care? But he could also match his indignation with gentleness: In the fury of the moment, I can see the Master's hand, / in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.
Dylan's final "Christian" album, Infidels, was a high-water mark for his creativity in those years. Yet it is widely believed that the record could have been even better, and it serves as an excellent demonstration of why Dylan's fans are so often frustrated by his output. Infidels is less a whole album than part of one; it is the apparently capricious remainder of numerous, rich sessions produced by guitar master Mark Knopfler. Bootlegs abound of recordings cut from the album; so great are these missing songs that Columbia eventually released many of them as part of an "official bootleg" boxed set in 1991. Among the songs that Dylan passed on was "Foot of Pride," a raging, stream-of-consciousness ramble that switches among times, perspectives, and even narrators. The song does not easily lend itself to any particular interpretation. It is a kaleidoscope of images and emotions on anti-spiritualism, vanity, and immorality: They kill babies in the crib and say only the good die young. . . . / In these times of compassion when conformity's in fashion / Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in. Also left behind was "Blind Willie McTell," one of Dylan's greatest long-unreleased compositions, in which the singer laments the lack of one who can adequately express sorrow over the torpor of the age. The song is one of the best examples of the integration of music and lyrics in Dylan's songs to create a mood. The song also demonstrates the intellectual short-sightedness of considering Dylan's lyrics -- considering any songwriter's lyrics -- as pure poetry.
The critic Morris Dickstein once noted that Dylan has "produced nothing which could be anthologized in any first-class collection of verse." That's true enough (though the well-known literary critic Christopher Ricks has recently launched a defense of Dylan as a poet). But, as Martha Bayles observes in her 1994 book Hole in our Soul, lyrics are not generally created to be examined apart from the music. It is their combination with melody that brings them to life.
After the disappointing sales of the stellar Infidels, Dylan slid into yet another creative trough. For the balance of the 1980s, Dylan released five albums and a compilation boxed set, and was once again largely ignored by the public, just as he had been in the late 1970s. His records grew progressively weaker, his performances were more often incoherent, and he scraped bottom with 1988's shambles of a live record, Dylan & the Dead. He continued his so-called "Never-Ending Tour" around the world, and the crowds dwindled.
But as the decade closed and Bob Dylan approached the age of fifty, he found yet another second wind. The 1989 album Oh Mercy wiped out the memory of Dylan's weak 1980s output. Producer Daniel Lanois introduced an aurally dense sound that directly contrasted with the melody- and riff-oriented production of Knopfler and Wexler, and the straightforward styles of his first producers, Bob Johnston and Tom Wilson.
These arrangements with their thick, electronic sound were as integral to meaning and mood as Dylan's lyrics and melodies had once been. Instead of the bright guitar strums of "Mr. Tambourine Man," Lanois produced Dylan in a mysterious fog of riffs, sound effects, and rhythm.
Oh Mercy also marked another shift: If Dylan's outlook on the future had been dark before, it now seemed positively black. Yet Oh Mercy is so well executed and so listenable that it is easy to miss the simple point of the album: The world is falling apart. The message is there for the hearing, the words rising out of Lanois's sonic jungle in song after song. Yet unlike the posturing punk rockers of the early 1980s -- whose "message" was mere adolescent attitude -- Dylan does not revel in destruction and loss, but mourns it:
Ring them bells Sweet Martha,
For the poor man's son,
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep.
The embrace of Oh Mercy by both critics and the public sparked a modest Dylan renaissance that continues today. Young people once again came to his concerts, his deep and remarkable catalog was rediscovered by radio and a new generation of music consumers, and he established a fresh reservoir of goodwill that would carry him through his more forgettable releases (such as 1990's Under the Red Sky, featuring the ridiculous "Wiggle Wiggle") and difficult, dull collections of Smithsonian-housed folk standards (World Gone Wrong and Good as I Been To You).
His most recent recording of original material, Time Out of Mind in 1997, met with a critical reception that lapsed into sycophancy, so fashionable is it now among critics to admire Bob Dylan. But the record is quite good, a mix of broken-heart songs and meditations at the end of life, all of it capped by only the second long-form Dylan song since the 1960s (the first being "Brownsville Girl" written with Sam Shepard for the 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded). That song, "Highlands," seems a monologue about weariness at the end of life, about longing for heaven, being misunderstood, missing one's youth, and perhaps even running out of songs: The party's over, and there's less and less to say / I got new eyes / Everything looks far away.
Bob Dylan's work is art because it does what art should do: edify and entertain, provoke thought, promote truth, extol beauty. Moreover, what we know of Dylan comes almost exclusively from his art. He allowed his public personality to be drawn only on the basis of his creative output. If we believe character cannot be divorced from the nature of what is produced -- that the heart of a man appears in his creations -- then the music of Bob Dylan tells us that he is a man of integrity and character, a worker for beauty and truth and good.
Michael Long is a director of the White House Writers Group, a strategy and public relations firm in Washington, D.C.