Bob Dylan at 65

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Bob Dylan performs at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Bob Dylan is 65 today. How would you commemorate the Social Security eligibility of America's icon-busting singer-songwriter?

"Celebrate the Tambourine Man's birthday on May 24th with some down-home revelry of your own," advises the website "Bust out your dusty tambourine and make some noise in celebration of one of Mr. Dylan's most famous ditties, 'Mr. Tambourine Man.'" (Hey, Tambourine Man, we used to say to Dylan, play a ditty for me.)

Go to San Francisco's Hotel Utah, where, says one musician's website, "me and my band Crooked Roads hosts a night of Dylan songs and trivia with prizes."

In Toronto, stop by the folk club Hugh's Room for "a special musical tribute ... 'The Dylan Tree,' a night of songs, astute observations, crazy musical portraits, common sense preaching and beautiful melodies from the 20th century man of the mountain."

Join the tribute band Dylanesque for a birthday concert at the Springhead Pub in Hull, U.K.

Take part in Hibbing, Minnesota's Dylan Days (today through Saturday), when the meistersinger's home town reunites the band that backed Dylan on his Blood on the Tracks album. While there, take the annual "Bobby Zimmerman bus tour of Hibbing."

Seriously now, do get two new books on the artist: Bob Dylan : The Essential Interviews, a collection of 40 edge conversations edited by Jonathan Cott, and Michael Gray's The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, which has all you need to know, and more, about the little big man.

Or read this article. We all honor / exploit Dylan in our own ways.


"The first time I heard Bob Dylan," Bruce Springsteen said at the Dylan induction ceremony at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, "I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind."

That would have been the summer of 1965; the song, the rock ballad "Like a Rolling Stone." But Springsteen came late to Dylan, as did Martin Scorsese, director of last year's Dylan documentary No Direction Home, who acknowledged that he was ignorant of the singer's folk period and only caught on when Bobby D. went electric. By then, Dylan was already nearing the end of his artistic prime — a five-year stretch from 1961 to '66, when he revolutionized first folk, then rock, infusing his music with astringent, haunting imagery that fully justified critic Richard Goldstein's 1969 designation of Dylan as "the major poet of his generation."

Even Dylan is astonished by his once-upon-a-time virtuosity. "I don't know how I got to write those songs," he told Ed Bradley in a Dec. 2004 60 Minutes interview. "Those early songs were almost magically written." Quoting a few lines from "It's Alright, Ma" ("He not busy being born is busy dying"), Dylan says, "Try to sit down and write something like that. There's a magic to that, and it's not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It's a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time."

We knew it was magic, those of us who thumbed a ride on the Dylan astro-rocket as it blasted out of Greenwich Village in 1961-62. Even then we knew that he was changing everything. First he updated Woody Guthrie's notion of the topical folk song and made it his own, creating anthems that were the sound track to the early-'60s Civil Rights movement. Then he smartly ransacked the tropes of every hip lyricist from Bertolt Brecht to the Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Then adapted his righteous belligerence to the standard love song, upending it into airs of bitter, knowing rejection. When he tired of being the preeminent folkie, and the poster boy for political causes, he plugged himself in, merging the Beats with the beat, and immediately forced a rethinking of nearly every aspect of pop music.

What a popular song could express. It could address any subject, and be written with a poetic density that needed multiple listenings to be understood, or to convince listeners that they understood them. Suddenly, nothing was forbidden.

How pop might be sung. He began by aping Guthrie's tinny tenor, but pushing it farther, into a siren wail, into banshee territory. Mitch Jayne of the Dillards famously compared the early Dylan sound to "a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire." It certainly was a prickly handful to kids raised on either the smooth Sinatra sound or the orgasmic church screaming of Little Richard. But to Dylan, barbed-wire vocals were an aesthetic and, as the French would say, a politique. Mellow was a lie; raspy was authentic. As he wrote in an early poem: "The only beauty's ugly, man / The cracklin', breakin', shakin' sounds're / The only beauty I understand." With extended exposure, his ugly became beauty. Intimate and accusatory, the voice twisted and tortured each word in a lyric, weirdly drawing out the silent half of a vowel sound — not "rain" but "raiiiiin", not "deal" but "deaaaaal."

What a pop song could be called... Dylan pioneered the eccentric fashion of hit singles whose title words don't appear in the song: "Subterranean Homesick Blues" ("Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did./ God knows when, but you're doin' it again"), "Positively Fourth Street" ("You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend"), "Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35" ("Everybody must get stoned").

...and how long it should last. There had been other songs broken up into two sides of a single: Cozy Cole's"Topsy," Ray Charles'"What'd I Say," the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" and, in the early 50s, Johnny Standley's comedy homily "It's in the Book." But the 1965 "Like a Rolling Stone" was, I believe, the first epic rock ballad issued as a one-side, 6min. single. (Within two years, Richard Harris' "MacArthur Park and the Beatles' "Hey, Jude" went Dylan one minute longer, though not better.)

What a pop singer could look like. Physically not a heroic figure (his song-publishing company was called Dwarf Music), Dylan nonetheless had a compelling presence: the voluptuous lips nearly hidden by his harmonica holder, the untelling eyes under a brakeman's cap. He didn't have as much influence on performing styles as Mick Jagger — he was a static figure, while Jagger's stage-sprawling struts set the fashion for rock-band lead singers — but he notarized the dress-down look for pop performers.

Who could write the songs. Before Dylan, the decades-long Tin Pan Alley division of labor between singer and songwriter held sway. Dylan's success (and the Beatles') convinced every vocalist he was a poet, and every tunesmith an Elvis. Except in Nashville, the profession of songwriter disappeared. Whatever the lasting results — a lot of ragged vocals, I'd say, and tons of bad songs by singers who should never have picked up a pencil — but the singer-songwriter has been the m.o. ever since.

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