BOB DYLAN IN THE 21st CENTURY: And the road shall not weary him

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BOB DYLAN IN THE 21st CENTURY: And the road shall not weary him

In his recent collection of essays Listen to This, the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has an interesting and provocative piece on Bob Dylan. It opens, “America is no country for old men. Pop culture is a pedophile's delight” then he ask what – in this world of manufactured teen pop – we are to do with “a well-worn, middle-aged songwriter who gravitates towards the melancholy and the absurd”.

Calling Dylan – who turns 70 little more than a month in April 2011 – “middle-aged” is charitable. But Ross also suggests many writers just want Dylan to die “so that his younger self can take its mythic place”.

Dylan continues to write and perform, but there's almost an agreed position among writers and critics to treat lightly, if at all, what he's up to these days.

“The achievement is so large and so confusing that the impulse to ignore all that came after his partial disappearance in 1966 is understandable. It's simpler that way – and cheaper. You need only seven discs, instead of forty.”

Ross's essay was originally written in 1999 and although much of it remains relevant, much has also changed.

The curious thing about Dylan today is while he goes forward with new albums, there is much more of his past in the present.

It began with the Bootleg Series in 91 when he started releasing studio and live performances which had never seen the light or were only in the realm of the avid collector. The on-going and non-chronological series – now up to Volume Nine, and which includes demo sessions from before he signed to Columbia (as Sony was then) through to unreleased material from the past decade – sits alongside his snapshot autobiography Chronicles: Volume One of 04 in which he singled out particular periods in his creative life for close scrutiny.

SNF0508A_280_796019aThere was also Martin Scorsese's in-depth No Direction Home documentary of Dylan and his music up to 66; the recent re-release of the Folksinger's Choice radio session he did in 62 (not sanctioned by Dylan); and the DVD of his famous and evasively witty '65 press conference in San Francisco.

This year eight of his Sixties albums – from Bob Dylan to John Wesley Harding -- have been re-presented in mono and there has been the release of a concert at Brandeis University in '63.

Add to that his Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour in which he plays music which influenced or amused him (from the Mississippi Sheiks in the Thirties to Gene Vincent in the Fifties) and Dylan today appears to exists in a netherworld, a man ever-present due to touring and new albums . . . but also ever-past.

No other artist – and Dylan has never been like any other – exists in such a way.

In concert he may defiantly render his classic songs unrecognisable (you can get to the chorus before you realise it's Like a Rolling Stone he's croaking out in a country-swing manner) but you could never say he'll do the expected.

However as Ross also notes, Dylan has survived without being a “survivor”, that description we reserve for those whose careers play out by rote as they await the inevitable: opprobrium, irrelevance, obscurity or death.

Dylan continues on his wayward path and those still listening count his recent albums – Time Out of Mind (97), “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (06) and Together Through Life (08) – among his best for their deft assimilation of many styles of American music (blues, folk, Western swing, country, popular ballads) into a singular sound which challenges, and lyrics which enlighten or confound at a turn.

That these albums were interspersed by the Bootleg series and compilations which threw chronology into a mixer just made Dylan's on-going career as a troubadour on a “Never Ending Tour” even more interesting. He was a man out of time, existing in one of his own making.

And he seems to have always just been there: since his self-titled debut in March 1962, he has released 34 studio albums, 11 live albums and nine volumes of The Bootleg Series during the administration of 10 US presidents from Kennedy to Obama.

Dylan today isn't relevant to most people, but the past two decades deserve more than a footnote in a half century-long career which blew out of the Midwest, took root in Greenwich Village then went global in songs which wrote themselves into people's lives in the 60s and 70s.

Dylan in the late 70s carelessly tossed out uneven but occasionally fascinating albums, but even his “religious” period (haven't they all been?) of the early 80s is being re-evaluated. Few would claim his late 80s or early 90s were any good, but then he reconnected to something he'd almost forgotten, his roots in American song. He went back to cover old folk and blues on Good As I Been To You in 92 and World Gone Wrong two years later.

Since then the past – his own, and that old weird American music which existed before him – has been ever-present.

The pleasure of Bob Dylan today -- as much as the frustration he causes those who want faithful readings of old hits – is he's an inconvenient pilgrim wandering between worlds, equally at home in the past or the now.

And that he can, if you let him, take you on that journey.

Aside from the intralinks provided in this article there is a wealth of other material, rare songs singled out and material on his films at Elsewhere starting here.

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