Today is supposedly Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. But who really knows with that identity bender. Until I see his long-form birth certificate, I’ll assume he’s a secular socialist or a militant Muslim.
I felt a serious sense of irony reading the list of Rolling Stone’s 70 greatest Dylan songs today. Well, what I really felt was guilt. And frustration. Frustration because the order is ridiculous at times (i.e. “Every Grain of Sand” over “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mississippi” over “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”). It’s also self-serving (with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby contributing, Byrds covers rank high and often.) And I felt guilt because I knew that I was buying into this whole horseshit notion that we’ve got something to celebrate.
It’s very obvious that the list is mostly populated by songs from the ’60s and ‘70s. The exceptions (8/70) feel forced (or are actually from those early days.) But honestly, that’s because most of his best stuff is from then. So I can’t really hold it against Rolling Stone (or someone like Maureen Dowd) that folks who lived through the folk-forged Dylan identity tend to cling to it as definitive. But I still feel uncomfortable when I realize that this whole shit is exploitative and ironic. The irony of selling magazines filled with ads for gum–which I’ve heard you should chew, if you don’t want to be a bum–drinks, shampoo, and cell phones by celebrating the aging of an icon who (in the awed eyes of the disciples) embodies the opposite should speak for itself.
But the most obvious issue here is that Dylan is totally absent. Is he even celebrating his 70th birthday? People like Dowd, claim to cling to that early pure Dylan because of what he stood for. Once he broke from himself, as they see it, he relinquished the legitimacy to speak for Bob Dylan. But really that ostensible nostalgia just enables them to claim him for themselves and do things like celebrate his 70th birthday without him or publish a list of his 70 greatest songs. Both are ultimately arbitrary numbers used as an excuse to get (an old picture of) him on the cover.
(I should also say that, while the premise irks me, overall it’s a pretty sweet little collection of thoughts. But the writing is erratic: a brilliant Introduction by Jon Pareles is followed by Bono’s low quality commentary on “Like a Rolling Stone.” But there are revelatory anecdotes and enlightening explications that make iTunes a helpful reading partner. Sean Wilentz’s insight shines through. And Keith Richards’s bit is impressive.) (There’s also an interesting piece in the times, by David Hajdu, that makes the otherwise arbitrary birthday milestone relevant.)
But I’m supposed to be talking about Bob Dylan and the end of time.
So why does Dylan avoid all this celebration and hype? My favorite artists of all time have all captured that magical mixture on the spectrum of confidence, insecurity, charisma, cockiness, and goofiness. In other words, the best artists emphatically don’t take themselves seriously. The Beastie Boys are an obvious example. The Beatles often pulled it off. (Barons would strive for this but we think that that might be a self-defeating strategy. Although there is a difference between apathy and humility.) Eminem was making good music until he quit drugs and started getting high on himself. But I’m obviously getting at Bob Dylan.
Really, he’s spent his whole life, since the ’60s trying not to be taken seriously. Trying to shed that infallible ‘voice of a generation’ thing. He doesn’t want us to figure him out. (He dodges questions about songs meanings. Or changes his answers.) Or maybe he does want us to get it but we’re too stubborn to believe that what he says is flatly honest. (He writes songs to mock our anal analyzation of his words.) His ‘80s lapse into the preachy stuff serves (somebody) as a great example of his worst work which happened exactly when his humility flew out window.
Maybe I’m like this because I came of age in the Bush years. Anyone that stubborn or self-righteous should not be trusted.
Bands like DMB (a.k.a. “Dave”) or Phish (a.k.a. “Trey Anastasio and the Trey Anastasio Band” – but no seriously that’s the name of his side project) can be disconcerting more because of their dogmatic disciples than their crunchy grooves (which I can dig.) In other words, the thing that Bob Dylan and biblical Armageddon have in common is that people take them too seriously. Including me, apparently.
P.S. Maybe the irony of this post is that I did exactly what I criticized RS of doing: using stuff I think ppl like to read about (Bob Dylan, the rapture) as an excuse for arrogant self-indulgent writing. (So maybe I admire Bob Dylan most for his hypocrisy.)
I also think it’s relevant to point out that, while I maybe took easy jabs at birthers and rapturers, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take religion or its temporal implications seriously. Apparently according to Pew, there’s a pretty huge contingent of Americans who are more or less killing time (and potentially the planet) ’till Jesus comes back around (http://www.good.is/post/more-than-40-percent-of-americans-believe-the-rapture-is-coming/).
So, no, I’m not saying we should take this lightly.
I’m just saying that people who put all their eggs in one basket (whether it’s an Easter-basket or a basket-case, as the case may be) are going to have to break a few to make an omelet.
Or, don’t count your chickens before the rapture.
P.P.S. Happy Birthday Bob. We’ll save a guest spot for you on our next album as your present.
For everyone else, check back here soon for updates on the record we’re currently writing and how YOU can get involved in the process. We’re also going to be playing shows again starting in June. Hope to see you there.