The 1997 album that inaugurated the third phase (or eighth or ninth) of Bob Dylan’s career was called Time Out of Mind, evoking time older than can be remembered. More likely, though, Dylan meant that he was a man out of time. He was out of time not only in the sense of having been hospitalized with a near-fatal heart infection shortly after recording the album but in the sense of being outside the present moment. Dylan’s attempts at remaining “relevant” as a singer and songwriter in the late 1970s and the ’80s had been desperate, maybe pathetic—startling for someone who once was the very equator on the map of relevance. If you were a musical artist in the ’60s and the latitude of Dylan didn’t run through you, you might as well have gotten off the map altogether, as no less than the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones concluded; and in the ’60s Dylan was so much the man of the moment that he felt trapped by the same relevance he later craved. In the last 20 years he’s shed time like skin, until being an anachronism has become a modus operandi. American music’s Flying Dutchman, he rolls from town to town to town with his band on a tour that claims to have no end, making records defiant of the calendar. Past and future leak in and out of a songbook that’s been augmented by the remarkable likes of “Highlands,” “Cold Irons Bound,” “Sugar Baby,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Forgetful Heart,” and at least a couple of efforts, “Things Have Changed” and “Not Dark Yet,” that stand among the classics of yore.
Dylan turns 70 this month. This is 50 years after recording an unassuming debut comprising other people’s material. The first of his own songs that caught people’s attention was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a baldly paint-by-numbers attempt at a folk standard, far from the last instance that Dylan’s calculations would pay off spectacularly. Besides launching its author’s career, the song’s biggest contribution to music was inspiring Sam Cooke’s superior “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But if a lot of people could have written “Blowin’ in the Wind,” only Dylan could have written the follow-up, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” composed around the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and exposing within its topicality Dylan’s inner Baudelaire. In the amphetamine blur of the next few years came “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” culminating in the manifesto “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Fleurs du Mal of rock and roll, Blonde on Blonde. Then Dylan was either almost killed or just scraped up a bit—depending on what version of events you believe—in a motorcycle accident that sounds as suspiciously romantic as some of his other biographical embellishments, including his alleged abduction by the circus as a child, a supposed hobo existence, and his name itself.
Had Dylan perished in that accident, flaming out like James Dean, he would be a different sort of mythic character. He’d have more currency with trendsetters; instead he’s had to content himself with merely being America’s best songwriter ever, unless it’s Duke Ellington, who had help from Billy Strayhorn. The measure of Dylan’s accomplishment may be the work not of his ’60s peak but of his ’80s depths. When “Every Grain of Sand” and “Blind Willie McTell,” the latter as scary a vision of America as has been committed to melody, is what you’re coming up with at your worst, it ends the argument. Nonetheless there was a time when Dylan would have felt as embalmed by the “greatest songwriter” title as he did by the “voice of his generation” designation half a century ago, so it may be due to a new mellowing or maturity that finally he’s making his peace with it: All right, go ahead and lionize me, if you must; I can take it. The last decade has seen a social coming-out on Dylan’s part, like a debutante’s, something that would amuse the younger Dylan no end if it didn’t confound him; he wrote and published a book in 2004—a rather Dylanesque book, to be sure, in its eloquent and evasive way—called Chronicles: Volume One, which you have to assume he would have preferred to call Volume Two or Three just to mess with our linearity (unless, of course, linearity is his newest way of messing with us). He’s done a radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, and subjected himself to the interviews with documentarians who have figured out that, as Jonathan Lethem argued in a New York Times piece, living in Dylan’s time may be comparable to having lived in William Blake’s. They want to bear witness while they can.
Commemorating Dylan’s birthday, the last year or so leading up to now has seen volumes on Dylan by Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Clinton Heylin, and Daniel Mark Epstein, reissues of earlier biographies by Robert Shelton and Howard Sounes, tribute CDs and cover albums (though, typically, nothing from Dylan himself), a restored Blu-ray of the D.A. Pennebaker doc Don’t Look Back, and new DVDs called The Never Ending Narrative and Bob Dylan Revealed. The last is an earnest attempt to investigate Dylan, the filmmaker talking at length to some of the people around the songwriter (though, typically, not Dylan himself) and unearthing some unseen photographs; there are insightful segments about the Rolling Thunder Revue of the mid-’70s, the period of Dylan’s Christian conversion, and the famous “Royal Albert Hall” concert (that, typically, didn’t take place at the Royal Albert Hall). This was the notorious show in Manchester where Dylan was called a Judas by someone in the audience, and in response the singer hurled down the gauntlet in the form of a sonic boom. But in no way is Dylan “revealed” in Bob Dylan Revealed, because there’s not a Bob Dylan per se to reveal. By that I don’t mean there’s nothing there; I mean that his reputation as a man of many guises and incarnations, the man who had to be played by six different actors in Todd Haynes’s biopic I’m Not There, is a misleading cliché. It suggests that there’s another Dylan who takes off the mask when he goes home at night, even as any “true” Dylan gave way long ago to an artifice that says more about who Dylan is than whatever once might have been regarded as authentic. Dylan sleeps with the mask on and showers with it; the skull beneath, and the mind beneath that, have formed to fit it.
So the recent “candor,” as seen in the ’05 Martin Scorsese film No Direction Home, in which Dylan talks more openly than before, surely is as considered (and about as trustworthy) as the low profile that fascinated everyone more than any high profile could. Dylan always has fashioned himself a man “never known to make a foolish move,” as he once wrote in a song, and if you were to argue that Dylan’s foolish moves have abounded starting around 1970, he probably would have us believe that even his blunders are evidence of his genius: “Everyone hated that last album? Just the way I planned it.” The music, at least, seems spontaneous, but he’s factored “spontaneity” into the mystique, too. Don’t get me wrong—Dylan is a genius if we’ve ever seen one. But he’s also a supreme opportunist, cynical about a popularity that for much of the public feels slightly obligatory in a way that its adoration of the Beatles didn’t, ruthless in his occasional plagiarism as decried by similar megalomaniacs like Joni Mitchell, and devoted as much to the creation of Bob Dylan as to any of the ideals that his songs have expressed. He’s worked through the contradiction of finding his messianic appeal suspect and thinking he deserves it anyway; look back on his Christian years and it’s clear that he regarded Jesus not so much as a savior as a kindred spirit, the only one in human history, except maybe Elvis, who could relate to what it’s like being Bob Dylan.
Other than “blues,” “time” may be the most conspicuous word in the lexicon of Dylan’s titles, particularly over the last couple of decades. Some years after Time Out of Mind, he made an album called Modern Times; two of his finest latter-day songs are “Most of the Time” and “Born in Time” (at its loveliest as an acoustic outtake on Tell Tale Signs rather than the leaden official version on Under the Red Sky). With time’s passage, the notion of time has changed for Dylan; once the times that were famously changing belonged to the rest of us, with Dylan as time’s observer. Now time is personal, part lover and part stalker, cherished as memory and dreaded as anticipation. Being 70 will do that. “Who’s this guy you’ve spent my whole life searching for?” he seems to be asking lately. “I’m everywhere you look.” Notwithstanding his premeditations for posterity’s sake, and setting things straight while they still can be, Bob Dylan is ready to be found, or otherwise be lost for good, not only to us but himself.
Photograph courtesy bobdylan.com