Is Bob Dylan the greatest artist of our time?
Probably, if you use three recognized criteria: sustained creative brilliance, influence on others, and length of career. Oddly enough, his main challenger could well be Andy Warhol, not known for originality but whose concepts have inspired a myriad of cultural movement from Hip-Hop Music to Facebook.
From the start Dylan was like a sponge – appropriating influences across the spectrum from folkie Woody Guthrie to rocker Buddy Holly.
When he got to New York in 1961 he threw himself into the Folk renaissance and became friends with Liam Clancy from whom he learned Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game. Recognizing the song’s brilliance Dylan adopted its template for his own anti-war anthem, With God On Our Side. Luckily for him the aggrieved Behan had himself employed a traditional melody, The Merry Month of May. Dylan never made the same mistake again.
He found his own creative voice by spending months in the New York Public Library poring over every available newspaper of the American Civil War period - distilling not only subject matter but speech patterns and cultural trivia. He emerged poet laureate of the “old, weird America” as Greil Marcus termed it.
Despite huge success he totally cast aside the Woody Guthrie mantle by teaming up with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 thereby creating Folk-Rock.
However, no one was prepared for the sheer aural and lyrical brilliance of Like a Rolling Stone when it was released that same month and many of us have spent a lifetime aspiring to its standard. Back then “singles” clocked in well under the three minute mark, but Rolling Stone was over six – it even contained a number of “mistakes” with the inexperienced Al Kooper playing well behind the beat on the Hammond B3 organ.
Dylan didn’t care. A groundbreaking song demanded an innovative hook. He urged the producer to turn up the organ and changed the course of music.
I once had the same manager, Elliot Roberts, who assured me that “there is nobody quite like Bobby Dylan” – he cared nothing for critics or indeed anyone else. The man just liked to play, if he ran out of major markets look elsewhere; that’s how they came up with staging concerts in minor league baseball parks.
Dylan’s been an icon for over 50 years now but he reinvents himself often on a nightly basis. At a Radio City show I only recognized Like a Rolling Stone during the second chorus – and that’s a song I’ve performed hundreds of times.
Like another semi-recluse, Neil Young, Dylan is leery of mass exposure, valuing creativity before all else. At the height of his fame in 1966 he retired to Woodstock - sick of celebrity and being viewed as the new Jesus.
But even in the solitude of the Catskills he combined with The Band to produce musical magic as demonstrated by the recent release of the Full Basement Tapes. On even a cursory listen you can hear an artist delving into the weird music of America’s past as an impetus for a further creative jump forward.
I went to a Dylan show in Bridgeport last summer. I hadn’t seen him since the Radio City gig twenty years previously; I was probably one of the few people who enjoyed his performance.
He no longer plays guitar – apparently suffering from arthritic fingers – he ether sings out front or from behind a keyboard. He dressed like a 19th Century prairie preacher, never acknowledged the audience and performed few of his expected standards. Most songs appeared to be of a recent vintage – all showed flashes of brilliance.
I worked my way up to the front of the stage – not hard as many were drifting towards the exits. This didn’t seem to bother Bobby in the least. His band, as ever was great. And so was he.
As far as I know he didn’t perform Like A Rolling Stone, or perhaps he did; but it hardly mattered. He was still the man, challenging, shape shifting, forever the joker and the tramp. Go see him while you can – they don’t make the like of Bob Dylan any more.