In a few days, Robert Allen Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan, turns 80. It’s no small milestone, though it arrives at a particularly weird time in a life not short of weird times.
Since releasing one of his late-career classics last year in Rough And Rowdy Ways, Covid has forced Dylan (temporarily) into a life of (presumed) quiet contemplation after much of the past four decades have been spent on the road in his Never Ending Tour.
That said, no one would be surprised to find him emerge from lockdown with another couple of albums. And who knows, maybe even part two of his unreliable but fascinating memoirs.
(In the meantime, for those of us in Australia, there’s Emma Swift singing Dylan on our stages in a few weeks, as canvassed last week, and in several articles over the past year.)
Not everyone will celebrate, or care, come Monday, May 24. Some may only really care if the day is marked by the playing of songs sung by the birthday boy. Some like the dedicated loather of Dylan in my own home (who coincidentally, and in no way to her pleasure, has her own birthday a few days later) for whom such an action on my part could be lethal.
In this 2007 review of a series of compilations, I ponder how to get into Dylan, how some must run from him, and why exactly someone might hate the chap, and yet still live with someone who plays him a lot.
Dylan (Sony BMG)
My wife can't stand Bob Dylan. She'll enjoy his songs sung by others, she'll even tolerate, briefly, his songs sung by me (but then she'll tolerate, briefly, Elvis/Beatles/Jam/Pipettes/Arctic Monkeys sung by me so it may be that I have some innate advantage over one B. Dylan don’t you think?).
But the man himself? No way, no how, no sirree Bob. It's the voice, she says, the man can't sing. It's - variously - whiny, growly, off-key or just plain annoying. (What's that? Neil Young? Nah, she won't put up with him either. Joanna Newsom? Forgeddaboutit!)
But wait, I say, listen to the way he phrases the lines in Working Man's Blues No. 2, or the anger in the electric version of Maggie's Farm or the sheer unstoppable flow of Like A Rolling Stone. Nope. Now, bugger off.
Now she's hardly alone there. Even people who pay to see Dylan don't necessarily like him, or his songs. At his Sydney concerts recently, people were streaming out almost from the get go, their dark looks and mutterings under the breath easily read as "what the hell is that singing?", or "what was that song, or what did it use to be?", and "well that’s done, now if I get to see Paul McCartney one time I can cross off my '60s legends list before they all cark it".
Yet trying to engage with western culture without having some understanding of Dylan is like never having read the Bible, seen some Shakespeare, heard of Pelé or travelled outside your suburb. Sure, you can get on with a life, it is just that it will be a crimped, diminished, half-grasped life.
Ok, but where do you start? The man's been recording since 1962, he's got some 50 albums and ten times as many bootlegs. He's been a Jew and a Christian, and a Jew again, a rabblerouser and a recluse, a protest singer and a denier, a lover and a divorcee, a folk singer and country singer, a song and dance man and a taciturn stage performer. Just thinking of that can do your head in. There must be an entry point for beginners.
I would say the albums Highway 61 Revisited (for the brilliance of the new rock experience), The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (for the youthful vigour, folk roots and direct action), Blood On The Tracks (for the adult, sometimes brutal, dissection of a relationship gone wrong), New Morning (for the flawed but romantic prelude to that dissolution) and Modern Times (for the rasping old prophet with blues in his heart and a glint of humour in his eye).
Not a compilation though? Well, maybe. There's scores of them about, all of them inadequate. Now there's a new batch of them, all called Dylan. One a single disc, one a double and one a triple disc set.
The single and double-disc sets are woefully incapable of anything but scratching the surface. The triple disc at least starts to fill in the gaps (though any half serious Dylan fan will argue that at least a dozen "essential" songs have been left off, and each one of those fans will have a different dozen too) and gives due weight to his latter years.
It's not enough, but it's a start. Though probably not for my wife.