Bob Dylan may be one of the most divisive and polarizing of the modern American music titans. Even among fans, you will find dissent. Many of the diehard followers can point to at least one phase of his career that they view as not just a misstep, but a waste of his talent and time. He is an artist that seems to revel and welcome this discourse.
I can think of only three other American solo artists who approach his level of influence and importance to not only music, but popular culture: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong.
Sure, there are any number of names just outside my final four that make strong cases – Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Loretta Lynn, John Coltrane and Hank Williams to name a few – but Armstrong, Cash, Dylan and Elvis were wholly unique and transformative. They shaped the future of music and reflected the triumphs and tribulations of their time like no one else.
I’m not here to make the case that Dylan is MORE important or influential that the other three, but his willingness to constantly reinvent himself and chase the muse to strange places certainly sets him apart.
Here’s my take of all the different phases he has shifted through in the nearly 60 years since his debut album:
1. poet wunderkind of the Greenwich Village folk scene (“Bob Dylan” and “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”)
2. vanguard of the folk revival of the 1960s (“The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Another Side of Bob Dylan”)
3. the man who dragged rock and roll from its pre-pubescence (“Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”)
4. the reclusive architect of what would eventually become known as the Americana music scene (“John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline” and “The Basement Tapes”)
5. the early 1970s lost years (“Self Portrait,” “New Morning,” “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” “Dylan”)
6. the late 1970s reclamation of the most important songwriter in modern music (“Planet Waves,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “Desire” and “Street Legal”)
7. the Christian years (“Slow Train Coming,” “Saved”)
8. uneven through the 1980s (“Shot of Love,” “Infidels,” “Empire Burlesque” and “Oh Mercy”
9. post-“Unplugged” era (“Time Out of Mind” “Love and Theft”)
10. the ever continuing road dog years (“Modern Times,” “Together Through Life” and Tempest”)
11. The American Songbook era (“Shadows in the Night,” “Fallen Angels” and “Triplicate”)
At every turn, just when people think they know what to expect, he would melt into some strange and new form. Music critics lavish praise on him for 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” as a return to form? He makes a series of Christian albums a few years later. He again finds widespread acceptance in his later years? It must be time to make some crooner albums. Folk music lovers hail him as the “voice of his generation?” Guess what – now he’s playing Rock and Roll.
And really, that last one was the tipping point – the paradigm shift of pop music from pointless fodder to important artistic statements. It’s no coincidence that “Sgt. Pepper’s” arrives a year after “Blonde on Blonde.”
While it is easy to just throw the sellout label on his decision to “go electric,” a bit of context reveals that chasing the mainstream was never really in Dylan’s plans.
Dylan was already a huge star in 1964. His fans hailed him a genius. He toured the world. The most important figures in popular culture hung on his every word and clamored for his next album. He could have gone on writing “The Times They are A’Changin’” for 20 more years and no one would have been upset about it – except Dylan himself.
I realize that saying anyone “dragged rock and roll from its pre-pubescence” comes off as pretentious. I’m also aware that countless writers with a greater skill set and more influence have already commented on the subject.
However, listening to “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4” Live 1966” never fails to remind me of why Dylan is important. It’s not the stockpile of amazing songs. It’s not the lyrics or the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not even the influence he had on other artists.
The one distinction that sets him apart has always been his artistic curiosity and his willingness to embrace it.
This album – like the concert it documents – is presented in two sets. First he sings by himself with an acoustic guitar. This is the Dylan the audience wanted. It was mostly new songs, but he throws in “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the folkies. But even this moment of concession is an act of defiance. Songs Like “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johana” no longer fit into the narrow constructs of what could be called folk music.
These are funeral dirges – requiems announcing that the old Bob Dylan was gone for good.
And with each fragmented phrase, he moved further and further from the artist his audience so adored. As they all sat and tried to figure out who the blind commissioner was and why the riot squads were restless, the singer was thinking of Fender Stratocasters and freedom.
The electric set – though visceral – was never really the main story for me. I remember being wholly underwhelmed the first time I heard his 1965 set at the Newport Folk Festival. Even tracks on this album like “Tell Me, Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You” don’t really stand out as important musical statements. To my ear, they are fairly boilerplate rock and roll takes on simple songs.
But to be that man standing in front of that audience singing those songs in that style stood as Dylan’s own protest.
He wasn’t going to play the game. He would go where the music led him. If you wanted to come along, great – if not, even better – but he really had no choice.
I’m sure most read my first sentence and thought I was crazy to say one of the most beloved and revered songwriters of all time was polarizing. They are probably the same ones who bitched about his Christian albums.
But those “failures” are not really missteps. Any artist that doesn’t fail isn’t really making art – they’re just hocking widgets and waiting for quarterly sales reports.
I don’t blindly support every decision he’s made. There are large swaths of his output that I cannot take seriously. I don’t love the fact that he released these recent Frank Sinatra-inspired monstrosities.
However, I do love the fact that he doesn’t really give two shits what people like me want or expect of him.