May 11, 2001
DYLAN KEEPS A-CHANGIN', MAKING HIM A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW
By ANN POWERS
Bob Dylan is the Devil's Triangle of rock 'n' roll. Fly into his
atmosphere, and you're bound to get fatally lost. First there's the sheer
density of his output. More than 40 official releases on Columbia Records
float like uprooted trees amid a deluge of live bootlegs, work tapes,
planned collaborations and jam sessions, swollen even larger by others'
interpretations of his repertory. Dylan's presence is bottomless. Pete
Townshend once said of trying to assess it, "That's like asking how I was
influenced by being born."
Pull any song out of Dylan's sea and be overwhelmed again: his melodies
fuse fragments from every zone of American music, and his lyrics mix
history, fantasy, self-declaration, endless games and jokes. In even his
most accessible ballads, the spark comes from simplicity rubbing up
against convolution. Think of "Blowin' in the Wind": how many seas must
that white dove sail before sleeping in the sand? Only Dylan knows.
Then there's the public face of the man who created this vortex. He is a
protest singer who has expressed disdain for the political, a poet
nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature who has described
his process as vomiting, a founder of confessional songwriting who has
gone to paranoid lengths to keep his private life obscured. Dylan's fans
treat him as a god, but he is more like the Riddler, that comic-book
prankster delighting in people's bewilderment.
As May 24, Dylan's 60th birthday, approaches, a new swell of tributes,
biographies and reissues again pulls us into his latitude. But how do we
One way is to consider a concept that arose almost in tandem with his
fame, a sidelong way of interpreting greatness. This is the idea of the
New Dylan, the heir who might live up to the master's legacy and perhaps
even take his place. The label is dreaded by most who earn it, though it
usually boosts their stature because it sets a goal both lofty and
inchoate. But considering what it may actually mean to be a New Dylan
helps clarify this artist's own elusive nature.
Admirers look to Dylan to define creativity itself, but a head-on view of
him only adds to the mystery. Trying to find or be a New Dylan, a critic
or an artist confronts the basic issues he raised: Is this voice mine, or
am I stealing it? Is it solid, or can it change? What sustains it after
its initial novelty has faded? Dylan's endowment offers no obvious
answers, but emulating him has led many to engage with the questions.
'Any Poets Around Here?'
On May 19 at a benefit for the writers' organization PEN, a distinguished
panel will gather at Town Hall to ruminate on Dylan's ubiquity. Robert
Polito, author of "Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson" and director
of the creative writing program at the New School, conceived the program
after conversations with writers like Michael Ondaatje and Peter Carey
revealed that Dylan was a shared fascination.
Mr. Polito's insight that when writers get together, no matter their age,
they tend to talk about Dylan became the seed of an event that expanded
when PEN incorporated it into the New Yorker Festival. Now the lineup
includes the musicians Patti Smith, Tracy Chapman, Graham Parker and the
Esquires, along with the writers Bobbie Ann Mason, Rick Moody,
Christopher Ricks, Sam Shepard and Anne Waldman. The evening will be
moderated by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and directed by
Each of the participants has learned from Dylan, and the musicians have
all been blessed and burdened with the New Dylan title. It hit Ms.
Chapman in the late 1980's because of her incisive and passionate
songwriting; her manager, Elliot Roberts, was Dylan's manager for a
while. A decade earlier the feisty Mr. Parker was an early punk New
Dylan, bringing a more literate sheen to that nascent, raw genre.
When it comes to New Dylans, Ms. Smith is in the pantheon. She is the
subject of perhaps the most vivid legend attached to the term: a
visitation from the king at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village in 1975.
A widely circulated photograph of the pair became a sign of the passing
of the torch.
Ms. Smith showed her idol some genuine Dylanesque attitude when they met.
"We were like two pit bulls circling," she told the musician Thurston
Moore in a 1996 interview for Bomb magazine. "I had a very high
concentration of adrenaline. He said to me, `Any poets around here?' And
I said, `I don't like poetry anymore.' "
Ms. Smith regretted her impetuousness. "I really acted like a jerk," she
continued. "I thought, `That guy will never talk to me again.' " But
Dylan was apparently charmed, keeping up contact with Ms. Smith and even
playing a role in her recent career resurgence, inviting her to tour with
him in 1995.
When Ms. Smith ascended from the downtown poetry world at punk's birth,
she was the ultimate New Dylan. Not only was she a woman who liked to
rock hard and thought of herself as a genius (something truly new!), but
her ambition also expanded the music, pushing it into the realm of more
serious art. She caused a sensation wherever she went, and she had no
shame. Most of all, she refused to separate rock's down-and-dirty
pleasures from its transcendent grace; her role models, like Dylan's,
were Little Richard and Rimbaud.
Prince and Princess
This ability to straddle high and low, based in a refusal to distinguish
between casual and serious, is shared by all of the greatest New Dylans.
Lou Reed wrote philosophical meditations about prostitutes. David Bowie,
who mixed European art song with gutter glam rock, considered himself a
new Dylan and even recorded a request for his blessing, "Song for Bob
Dylan," in 1971. Bruce Springsteen was showered with comparisons to Dylan
when he made his debut in the mid-1970's, perhaps because he did a Chuck
Berry-style duck walk while staging virtual rock operas.
In the last decade Beck earned the title by jumbling together hip-hop and
folk with a magic touch like the one Dylan used when he made folk
electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Acknowledging the link,
Dylan invited Beck to tour with him, as he did Ani Di Franco, whose
structure-breaking folk-funk is equally deserving of a place in the
If that lineage were not so tied to conventional notions of the literary,
perhaps the world would acknowledge two titans who reached their apex in
the 1980's as the most important New Dylans. Prince is the rare artist
who shares Dylan's two strongest virtuosic traits: an encyclopedic
knowledge of the music that obsesses him and an urge to create so
promiscuous that it makes him take chances others would reconsider. His
persona is also Dylanesque: part prophet, part imp.
Then there is Madonna, whom no one would call Dylan's songwriting peer
but who has the same ability to make herself as big as the historical
moment she occupies. What Dylan did for a generation bent on realizing
new ideals about art, personal freedom and social justice, Madonna did
for one reconsidering liberation and its costs in the counterculture's
wake. Such artists tap into what everyone is thinking and make it seem
that they thought of it, if not first, then best. Taking command of the
era that defined her, Madonna became a New Dylan, too.
'We Were Just Us'
Mostly the New Dylan idea has not been connected to superstars. Instead,
it has become something of a roadblock in the folk-based singer-
songwriter genre that Dylan essentially defined. For musicians whose
chosen weapons are an acoustic guitar and a fine vocabulary, comparisons
to the legend are a special curse.
Loudon Wainwright III acknowledged the predicament in his blues "Talking
New Bob Dylan," written to commemorate the patriarch's 50th birthday. In
the 1960's, the song comically admits, Mr. Wainwright adopted the Dylan
style and thus earned a recording contract. But the plan backfired.
"Well, we were just us, and of course you were you," he admits of himself
and his fellows John Prine, Steve Forbert and Mr. Springsteen, all of
whom, he sings, now meet in a 12-step program to overcome their Dylan
Mr. Wainwright may be the most famous self-confessed New Dylan, but he is
hardly alone. The Dylan-oriented Web site expectingrain.com lists nearly
50 such songs, including "Killin' the Dylan in Me" by Chuck Brodsky,
"Leanin' on Bob" by Will Rigby and "Dylan Come Lately," written by
Dylan's old pal the Texas rocker Doug Sahm, who died in 1999.
Singer-songwriters are mired in the New Dylan role when his quirks become
their habits. Dylan's literariness is casual, a brilliant form of free
association. His rough talk-singing is just studied enough to free him
from tired phrasing and let him think on his feet. It's not that Dylan is
simply a natural; he considers every move. But when used as a blueprint
by others, his choices become mannerisms, traps instead of ways to
'These Things I Soak Up'
What is really hard to imitate is his approach to imitation. The founder,
after all, did not emerge fully formed from his childhood home, Hibbing,
Minn. He, too, was a mimic, even a bit of a thief. As two new books on
Dylan reiterate, he has a gift for mixing up his simulations until they
"Down the Highway," an exhaustive new biography by Howard Sounes,
documents a couple of early incidents in which Dylan literally stole
albums from his friends, presumably so he could study them. "Positively
Fourth Street," David Hajdu's engrossing new book about Dylan, his
ex-lover Joan Baez and her sister and brother-in-law, Mimi and Richard
Faria, shows even more vividly that although he was promoted as
shockingly new, Dylan formed his art through the influence of others, not
only his idol, Woody Guthrie, but also the many peers who might have
enjoyed his breakthrough had they possessed his wits.
"I seem to draw into myself whatever comes my way, and it comes out of
me," Dylan told a reporter in a Seventeen magazine profile quoted by Mr.
Hajdu. "Maybe I'm nothing but all these things I soak up." Such deceptive
humility is common from him and sometimes seems to be an evasion. But
Dylan's greatest art may be his act of opening up like a radio to several
frequencies as once. For many New Dylans, the progenitor's signal is too
strong. They can't replicate his art of combinations.
'A Nod to Bob'
Although some direct descendants, like Mr. Wainwright, Mr. Prine and Dan
Bern, find their own voices within Dylan's grid, his brightest progeny
tend to have different identities. Female artists like Ms. Chapman, Ms.
Di Franco and Lucinda Williams start from a different place by virtue of
sex, and in the case of Ms. Chapman, who is black, by virtue of race.
Steve Earle, who often sings just like Dylan, similarly has used his
Southern roots to forge his own place.
Confronting Dylan's music directly, singer-songwriters do well just to
relax and enjoy. The CD "A Nod to Bob: An Artists' Tribute to Bob Dylan
on His 60th Birthday" is one such mellow effort. Folk luminaries deliver
unfussy versions of favorites like "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Girl of the
North Country" with a few surprises, like a smoky take on the standard
"Delia" by Mr. Dylan's mentors Spider John Koerner and Dave Ray, and a
French version of "With God On Our Side" by the Quebecois ensemble
The best tracks are the easiest going: Norman Blake's end-of-the-evening
vocal on "Restless Farewell" and Greg Brown's slyly desirous "Pledging My
Time." Being a New Dylan, this compilation proves, is best when it's
Dylan will probably relish "A Nod to Bob" if he hears it. Lately he has
welcomed tributes, including his recent Oscar for the dour "Things Have
Changed," from the film "Wonder Boys." (Fans can hear it and many earlier
hits on "The Essential Bob Dylan," released in October on Columbia.) In
his acceptance speech, broadcast from an Australian stop on his
never-ending tour, Dylan thanked the Motion Picture Academy for honoring
"a song that doesn't pussyfoot around." Its view of a late midlife crisis
is certainly dark, but "Things Have Changed" is still a nimble step in
Mr. Dylan's cycle of reinvention.
'Don't Look Back'
This son of semi-rural Hibbing has transformed himself regularly from the
beginning of his career, when he abandoned the surname Zimmerman and said
he was part Sioux. The protest singer quickly gave way to the gnomic
rocker, who became the country squire, the soul-baring romantic, the
fervent Christian and returning Jew, the devil-may-care Traveling
Wilbury, the dedicated archivist of Americana and now the attendant at
mortality's gates. There was really no need for other New Dylans because
Dylan has always renewed himself.
The process is pungently documented in D. A. Pennebaker's classic film
"Don't Look Back," made during a 1965 British tour and now rereleased on
video and DVD. The DVD includes remarks from Mr. Pennebaker and Mr.
Dylan's longtime crony Bob Neuwirth explaining which of the seemingly
spontaneous backstage scenes were actually rehearsed. The video version,
without commentary, also makes it abundantly clear that even at 25 Dylan
was constantly under construction. The many filmed encounters with
reporters show him constantly refining his confrontational stance, while
with other musicians he sits back, absorbing new source material.
The film's most devastating scene involves one of the first New Dylans
trying to find common ground with the man himself. Donovan, whose growing
fame haunted Dylan as he traveled through Britain, shows up for a hotel
jam session. As Donovan performs the insipid "To Sing for You," Dylan is
all smiles. "Hey, that's a good song, man!" he bubbles, though his body
is utterly tense.
Then Dylan reaches for the guitar and with a smirk unwinds into "It's All
Over Now, Baby Blue." Feigning humility, he makes it clear that he needs
no emulators; the well of talent inside him can slake the thirst of the
A Place in History
Dylan is hardly as sadistic now as he was in that encounter, or in an
even more hilarious meeting with P. F. Sloan, a self-styled New Dylan and
the author of the song "Eve of Destruction," recounted in "Down the
Highway." Part of Mr. Dylan's latest, august persona is a strong interest
in the genealogy extending backward and forward from him.
In the 1990's he began recording many old folk and blues antiquities and
organized a CD tribute to the country forebear Jimmie Rodgers. He has
also continued to embrace select New Dylans, as he did with Ms. Smith and
Mr. Springsteen in the 70's. There is always a spot on his tour for an
opening act or co-headliner; sometimes it will be a new talent and
sometimes a contemporary like Paul Simon, whom Mr. Dylan can now welcome
to the stage.
This increased interest in placing himself within history undoubtedly
stems partly from age. It may also be affected by the success of his son,
Jakob Dylan, with his band the Wallflowers. As many have pointed out,
Jakob is the only artist truly entitled to the New Dylan title. Of course
that doesn't mean others will stop propagating, as long as we're still
playing with the puzzles Dylan first held out with a wicked grin.
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