At an age when Bob Dylan could be clipping coupons at home in Malibu, polishing up his Nobel Prize for Literature or sipping contentedly on his branded liquor, this fall he is instead burnishing his legacy by hitting the road with his band and playing one-nighters around North America, as he has done year-after-year since 1988. His fall tour included a late addition at the Beacon Theater on Nov. 16 as well as venues in Brooklyn, Newark and Port Chester.
Taylor Swift is the hottest performer today in the music world. And she is talented and hard working–and she deserves the ovations. But I wonder if she, or anybody else, will ever build a six-decade career or a legacy quite like Bob Dylan’s.
Dylan is not a diva who only performs at the most glitzy and glamorous halls, either. As a matter of fact, Dylan has to be the only Nobel Prize recipient who has played a show in Schenectady, N.Y. (not to mention Akron, Ohio, and Erie, Pa., in the same week).
Dylan plays sold-out concerts night after night and gets raves from critics half his age. Perhaps they appreciate the opportunity to write about a living legend. Then again, who wouldn’t be a little starstruck in Dylan’s glow?
But something feels different to me this time around. Dylan seems more relevant than he has in recent years. His singing voice, often maligned for its roughness, has been singled out for its depth. His repertoire, which once relied on his most popular songs, are no longer a part of the set, having been replaced with rather obscure and easy-rolling Sixties chestnuts like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “To Be Alone with You.”
This is a positive development. Dylan had seemed flat out tired of singing those audience favorites after so many years. If he was bored, so were we in the crowd.
What’s especially impressive and noteworthy today is that The Bard is winning people over on his terms. He is no longer playing the rockers like “Like a Rolling Stone” or “All Along the Watchtower” every night or pandering to his fans by throwing in the odd protest gem from the early Sixties.
Act Your Age!
No, Dylan is flourishing by acting his age. It’s a lesson for other musicians–and for the rest of us as well.
Dylan has always subscribed to the axiom of be true to yourself. He followed this idea when he walked off The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, when the show’s lawyers censored his song about the John Birch Society. He did it when he went electric in 1965, when he wrote and recorded moving songs after he embraced Jesus in 1979, and then, when he took seven years off from releasing albums of new songs in the 1990s–only to emerge with a Grammy for Best Album in 1998 and an Oscar for Best Song in 2001.
Dylan must’ve known that things had to change in recent years if he intended to remain relevant and not merely The Legend.
He looked out of place when he played the hits a decade ago. I saw him perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012 and the show was very disappointing to me. He seemed to be mailing it in. He didn’t appear to be enjoying himself or challenging himself. For a troubadour of the modern folk era to be playing a “pop star” looked forced and stilted.
Now, he has refined the show to do songs that mean a lot to him, such as “That Old Black Magic,” a 1942 classic by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. His voice matches the songs, especially those from his successful 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. It emerged at the height of the global pandemic and stunned the public with its stateliness, wit and sharp vocals.
Dylan’s relevance can be seen in an impressive, 608-page new book from the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa called Mixing Up the Medicine by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel.
Strange, Rewarding Times
We live in strange times–and very rewarding days for the rock and roll royalty.
For the first time since 1969, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have released new songs in the same year, which have inspired plaudits from critics and gratitude from fans. Joni Mitchell not long ago made her first concert appearance in many years. A documentary about Joan Baez’s life has received warm write-ups, too.
Dylan is proving something valuable all over again. It’s good to be a Legend. But it’s better to act your age and remain relevant.
Jon Friedman is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution.”