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Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, is coming to New Zealand to play three shows in August and September. He’s 73. His life and legend, along with that of the Beatles and the Stones, tower over modern music. Salient writer Mr Jones gets inside the man, the music and the myth.
I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you/ To be just like them/ They sing while you slave/ And I just get bored
–“Maggie’s Farm,” from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
You were born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941 in a small Minnesota city named Duluth. Your grandparents had fled the anti-Semitic pogroms in what is now Ukraine in 1905.
As a teen you listened to and played rock and roll – Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Your rendition of “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay” at your High School talent show was so loud that your principal cut the microphone off.
You moved to the big city, Minneapolis, in 1959 to go to university. It was the edge of the Sixties, and you developed
an interest an intense and life-defining passion for folk music. You preferred it to rock and roll, you said, because “the songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
You moved to the really big city, New York, in 1961 to pursue music. It made sense to drop out of university to go in search of your life. You met your idol, Woody Guthrie. He was the giant whose shoulders you would later stand on.
You played in pubs in the Village. You were a hit.
From then on, you’ve been one step ahead of the game. Yours is a story of evolution.
It’s impossible to really know someone whose life has been so closely documented but so little understood. ‘I’m Not There’ couldn’t tell your story without using different characters for the different phases of your life: young folk Dylan, mid-sixties electric Dylan, post-motorcycle-recluse Dylan, born-again Christian Dylan, older Dylan.
Everyone and no one can identify with your life story. Your talent lies in being the unique everyman. With your music you speak to us, sometimes at us; always for us.
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.
–“Mr Tambourine Man,” from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
You’ve released fifty eight singles, thirty five studio albums, eleven live ones and ten bootleg discs. Your first single was released in 1962, your latest this year. You’ve won ten Grammys, you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you’ve sold more than 100 million fucking albums. On paper, you’re one of the all-time greats.
But the genius of a musical body of work shouldn’t be measured quantitively. The best songs are the ones that speak to the listener. Your lyrics speak universal truths, and people just get it. Your voice is nothing flash, but your music’s not so much about the sound; it’s all feeling.
It’s clear you have loved: “I Want You”, “She Belongs To Me” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”.
It’s clear you have lost: “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, “Just Like A Woman” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”.
Your life has informed your art, and vice versa. You’re a chameleon: sometimes found with your heart on your (album) sleeve, sometimes hiding with your emotions in near-impenetrable verse.
The line it is drawn/The curse it is cast
The slow one now/Will later be fast
As the present now/Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now/Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.
–“The Times They Are a-Changin’,” from The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964
You have two lasting, intertwining legacies.
You impacted wider pop culture – the social scene in Western countries owes part of itself to you. Movies featuring your music and story are part of the culture of today. Artworks of, about, and by you provide a backdrop to our lives. You were the Sixties personified, and our parents are all still so in awe of you.
You changed music – folk is a part of our musical lexicon today because of you. You influenced The Beatles, who influenced everyone else. In fact, the greatest meeting in history came when you were backstage and introduced them to pot. You’d misheard them in “A Hard Day’s Night”: you thought John Lennon had sang “I get high” when really the lyrics were “I can’t hide”.
Covers of your songs have been influential in nearly every genre. Dylan’s Law says everyone is guaranteed to have heard one of your songs without knowing it was you who originally sang it.
Rap music, the folk of our time, owes much to the person who put words and meaning front and centre of his songs.
And of course, you’re still going. Releasing songs that three generations of people can get behind. Playing concerts while the rest of your generation slowly shake off their mortal coils, consigned to history.
But that ain’t you babe; you will cast a long shadow. As long as there is music, there will be Dylan.