Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The never ending creativity of Bob Dylan

 "Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them" -  Bob Dylan, “To my fans and followers”, 13 May 2011
Bob Dylan is 70. The longevity and brilliance of his career is frankly breathtaking. And his creative output continues unabated into his sixth decade of making music. He continues to tour extensively, has further back-catalog releases planned and is reportedly writing a sequel to Chronicles the first volume of his autobiography No doubt there will be future recordings and he continues to deliver the highly acclaimed radio show Theme Time Radio Hour.

This piece by David Hayes from the UK online publication Open Democracy is well worth reading. Hayes makes the point that the period since the mid 1990's has been among Dylan's most prolific and creative periods. I think he is right.
The media deluge that surrounds his 70th birthday - tributes, articles and profiles galore, new books and new editions of books, career reviews, and countless items in the “Dylan and me” sub-genre - is evidence of this rediscovery of a figure who (it is hard to recall now) was regarded during parts of the 1980s and 1990s as no longer of fresh interest artistically.

In great part the recognition is owed to Dylan’s immense and diverse creative efforts since the late 1990s. The turning-point may have been 1997, when the singer received emergency medical treatment for a serious heart infection. In the same year Dylan issued the first of what would become a series of three acclaimed albums of original songs (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Together Through Life).
These alone represent a musical renaissance in terms of the preceding decade. But there have in the post-1997 years also been well packaged compilations and “official” bootlegs of earlier material from his prolific   oeuvre (including to date nine volumes of The Bootleg Series, with many live performances and out-takes), and covers (Christmas in the Heart); an astonishing autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, which seems both to absorb and extend the literary lineages it belongs to, much as his music does; hosting an exuberant weekly radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, where songs of many styles and periods loosely connected by subject are presented with an inimitable mix of affection, learning and bone-dry wit; having his drawings and paintings exhibited, and reproduced in book form (Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series); and not least a concert schedule often described as the “never-ending tour”, which has seen Dylan perform live around 100 times a year across two decades and forty countries.

Dylan’s appearance in a range of advertisements (for lingerie, cola and cars) has, meanwhile, extended his commercial profile in what would earlier in his career have been unthinkable ways. More beneficial to his artistic reputation has been the work of film directors who have explored his achievement and beguiling persona via documentary (Martin Scorsese’s superb No Direction Home [2005]) and drama (Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There [2007], where six actors portray Dylan at various stages of his life).

All this - and there is both more, and more to come - is enough to make Dylan’s “late period” (assuming he really is mortal) worthy of note as a further rich phase of an already epic journey. This “mature” work also casts a fresh light on his career as a whole, in that the 1960s era of cultural and psychological transformation which his music helped define can now more clearly be seen as but one (albeit the founding and decisive) period in an ongoing achievement of astounding range. The arc of decades now, for example, allows the potent aura of ageless wisdom conveyed by some of the most renowned songs of Dylan’s 20s (Man of Constant Sorrow) to be heard alongside moving reflections on age, change and mortality (Not Dark Yet) composed decades on.

Bob Dylan has now spent fifty years doing what any great artist does - elaborating and sharing a distinct vision, and seeking to remain true to what he once called “the inspiration behind the inspiration”. The core of this achievement - songs, writings and performances (and some of the best “Dylanologists”, Betsy Bowden, Paul Williams, Greil Marcus and Michael Gray among them, emphasise how important the latter are to any assessment of his musical genius) - is more than ever available to anyone who cares and can afford to explore them.


Ciaran Lynch said...

By golly, wasn't Joan Baez a fabulous looking girl.

I saw Dylan in Waterford, S.E. Ireland in 1992, I think. It was an open air gig, little more than a 40 foot trailer piled high with speakers. He came on stage, picked up an electric guitar, walked up to the microphone, stepped back from it again and started to play. Two hours later he hadn't even said hello. It was great, those guitar songs/tracks just went on and on. Most people who stayed fell in with the groove and toe tapped the afternoon away. We drove clear across the country to Galway afterwards, that jangling guitar still playing in our ears.

Colin Penter said...

Cheers ciaran. Thanks for reading and your comments. Dylan in Waterford Ireland. Could not ask for any more. sounds wonderful. The women in the photo is actually Suse Rotolo who was Dylan's girlfriend at the time who also appeared on the cover of his second album and who had a profound influnce on him. She mainatined a dignified silence about their relationship and first spoke about in Martin Scorses's doco. She died recently and I wrote a piece about here at thetime. You can find it by seraching her name on the blog.

Colin Penter said...

Here is the blog piece about Suse Rotolo


Ciaran Lynch said...

Got it Colin, thanks..

I saw No Direction Home, but a while ago now. I also saw Joan Baez play in London in the 90's. All the old hits. I guess, because Joan seems to feature so much, Suze Rotolo was drowned out in my mind. I should go back and have another read and another look at the documentary.

I enjoy reading Always Keep a Diamond In Your Mind. It's not the same, I know, but it reminds me of Cohen's song, 'And There Are No Diamonds In The Mine.' A favourite.

Colin Penter said...

Cheers Ciaran, great to hear and thanks for your interest. i was not familiar with that Leonard Cohen song but i love that title and it does reflect the other side of the blog title (which is based on a Tom Waits song title). I dont know what the Tom Waits song title means but I just liked the title- as i like the Cohen title. Will have a look at it. I was reading his book of lyrics the other day and will have another look. best wishes cp