Bob Dylan’s long reign

By Warwick McFadyen

Imagine a mountain no one can climb. Imagine a river no one can cross. Imagine a road that goes on forever. Imagine mountain, river and road are the one thing. This is not an impossibility. The proof is in a body of work that stretches back 60 years. It is a legacy beyond eclipse.

One artist carries these multitudes. Bob Dylan. It’s his birthday today. Light 80 candles.

Some artists shoot across the sky like comets, then fade out; some are one-hit wonders, some are one-album wonders, some belong to their time. A very few belong to all time; they encapsulate time out of mind, that is, they transcend.

Dylan transcends. He wrought a revolution in songwriting. He took in the air Woody Guthrie breathed, he reached down into the classics of literature, he brushed the shoulders of bluesmen and rock and rollers, he absorbed the colours of the times, and then he got to work. He set up his own canvass and started painting. Not all were masterpieces, of course, but enough were. He put literature into the lyric. He wrote songs on a typewriter. There’s too many to mention here, but one will do: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, written when he was 21. It’s a tour-de-force of imagery and poetic tension, which works purely as words on a page, but he sings it, too. As songwriter Shane Howard has said, “He gave jobs to us all.”

From this distance it is easy to mark the revolution. There had been no one like him before, when from the early sixties he smashed down the walls of what was expected in a song and instead showed what was possible. As in the manner of a messiah, he was asked, even demanded of, to wear the garb of others’ expectations. This was an impossibility. The core driver, of course, was this, he was an artist, he didn’t look back. “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself, and creating things,” he has said. Or as he sang, He not busy being born is busy dying.

And from those iconoclastic days, he has continued down through the decades to this point in time, winning and losing fans as he went.  A songwriter who is also a Nobel Laureate of Literature.

His contemporaries have all fallen by the side of the road. Taken over more than half a century, the well within just doesn’t run dry: from the protest songs, including the great anti-war song ever Masters of War to Like a Rolling Stone to All Along the Watchtower, to Tangled Up in Blue, to Hurricane to Gotta Serve Somebody to Ring Them Bells to, well through to Rough and Rowdy Ways his 39th studio album. It was released last June and went to No. 1 in many countries, No. 2 in Australia. The panoramic Murder Most Foul from it comes in at a tic under 17 minutes, just like the old days.

What are your songs about Mr Dylan? To ask the question is to miss the point. They speak for themselves. The magic is that they can speak to you, as well. They resonant, like a chime struck within the soul. What are you about Mr Dylan? To ask the question is understandable. People want to know the person, and there’s enough words written about Dylan to build a bridge to the moon. But in the end it is secondary to the art.

The arc of Dylan’s work can be seen to be built on this quote: “If you try to be anyone but yourself, you will fail; if you are not true to your own heart, you will fail.”

This is also the creed of an artist. This is Bob Dylan. Happy birthday Bob.

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