This Thursday, on May 24, 2012, Bob Dylan turns 71. Mr. Dylan is not just a musical icon, he's as etched in the American culture as Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain or Thomas Edison. Like Edison, Bob Dylan used a singular vision and electricity to illuminate our lives (while always carrying a light bulb). His epic songs arrived at a turbulent cultural time in our country's history. They spoke to deep concerns and were made of sturdy stuff -- intricately detailed songs full of truth, humor, fantastical language, sadness, joy, intensity -- populated with mysterious and sorrowful and shadowy characters. Change was in the air, and the times called for a writer to create songs made for that distinct period and music crafted to be around for a long time, if not forever.
Living in an age when Dylan is performing and so deeply embedded in our culture is comparable to living in the time of Shakespeare or Mark Twain, and being able to experience them perform their own written works. Like these two writers, Bob Dylan has worn many masks (sometimes literally, as during the Rolling Thunder Review in the mid-1970s) and has explored territory no other writer or songwriter has delved into in quite the same way.
What Bob Dylan possessed that no other musical artist of his generation had was the innate ability to continually reinvent himself. This was shown to dramatic effect in the 2007 Todd Haynes film, I'm Not There, where it took an entire group of actors to portray Mr. Dylan at various stages in his career. Most notably, Cate Blanchett completely inhabited the role of the soon to crash 1966 Bob Dylan. She presented the set piece of the film, brilliantly portraying the iconic and intense polka-dot-shirt-wearing Dylan, bursting with nervous energy, his hair a wild electric halo, and his swinging 1960s activities centered around partying at Warhol's Factory, or jumping out of a limousine on a whim to dance with Allen Ginsberg in gleeful abandon.
Bob Dylan came along and changed what songwriting in the traditional form could be. After immersing himself in the folk music he was drawn toward, he set pen to page and created work with an instantly recognizable voice and vision. He achieved nothing less than a drastic and permanent alteration of the musical landscape. Of course, there were singer-songwriters before Bob Dylan arrived on the scene, but no one made it appear so cool and culture-shifting a thing to do. His skill at reinvention has made sure he's stayed several incarnations ahead of other musicians and cultural figures for every decade since his first album was released in March, 1962. One of his most dramatic reinventions happened when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in July, 1965. With an electric backing band blasting a new kind of Dylan sound, Bob Dylan defied expectations and changed direction in full view of the world. No longer the Prince of Folk, he performed songs from his new album, Highway 61 Revisited, including his hit single, Like a Rolling Stone. With a single performance and one song, he changed all expectations of what audiences could expect of him.
Listen to "Like a Rolling Stone":
In the realm of musical reinvention, Miles Davis is the only other musician comparable to Bob Dylan. Miles invented new jazz styles and his work spanned every jazz style around during his lifetime. From Be-Bop to Fusion, Miles stayed ahead of the curve and kept reinventing jazz until he hit his own invisible wall and became a virtual recluse in his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment in the late 1970s. At specific points in each of their careers, both artists made a complete break with their audiences for a period of time... to regroup, rethink, and most likely get re-inspired. Miles achieved this by staying out of sight, and Dylan went off the cultural radar long enough to recover from his well documented (yet still shrouded in mystery) motorcycle accident, living with his family near Woodstock, New York. When no one was watching, he changed direction again, and created a visionary acoustic album while every other group of musicians released the psychedelic sounds of the late 1960s. And then he hunkered down and made a new/old kind of American music with The Band, in the basement of a big pink house.
In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's compelling documentary on Bob Dylan, the story ends in the mid-1960s. While this is as comprehensive a picture of Mr. Dylan's life and art we currently have in cinematic form, it would be fascinating if another director were to pick up Bob Dylan's story where No Direction Home leaves off. Bob Dylan's musical output in the 1970s certainly deserves its own documentary.
If our world and our culture is lucky, Bob Dylan's own musical journey has many more miles, stories, and reinventions to go.