10/05/2007 11:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bob Dylan in Sunday's NY Times Magazine : Why The Road Warrior Still Matters


Is that really Bob Dylan on the cover of this Sunday's October 7 New York Times magazine? No, it's actually the talented Cate Blanchett in drag, done up Dylanesque in the new star-studded film I'm Not There, which explores his various personae through a series of actors. Richard Gere and Heath Ledger, among others, take a crack at the man from Minnesota.

This begs a question: Why does the artist formerly known as Zimmerman still matter after almost 50 years in the business? His current affairs provide clues.

There's the Academy Award for Best Song in 2001 ("Things Have Changed"); there's the book Chronicles Vol. 1 that rode the best seller lists a couple of years ago; there's the weekly satellite radio program where he plays a DJ and spins eclectic vinyl. There's also the legion of fellow travelers. Just two weeks ago in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, the singer/guitarist Jack White popped up unannounced and joined Dylan onstage, taking over the show with his own tribute to the man.

But I found the answer when looking at the set list from his gig this week in Worcester, Mass. He's always on tour worldwide, and this show got rave reviews, with a solo Elvis Costello as opening act.

What struck me was that of the 16 songs by Dylan and his band, six were from his latest work Modern Times, which made its debut at #1 on many global music charts last year, including America. Two other songs were from the CD before that, Love And Theft, which was released on 9/11/01 and got lost in the shuffle of more pressing events.

That's right: a full half of the songs in Worcester were recent material. Dylan has always pushed his latest songs in concert. If ticket buyers aren't familiar and expect an oldies act, forget it. Hey, the guy knows slash the cost of the old threads and push the new stuff.

Of the other eight songs he did that night, two of them were decidedly obscure, leaving six songs that might be considered reasonably well-known to drive-by fans. He has almost 500 to choose from, of course, and they're frequently interpreted by singers from jazz to metal. From the beginning he was a covered artist, with Peter, Paul and Mary doing "Blowin" In The Wind" and Jimi Hendrix later nailing "All Along The Watchtower." Talk about a wide range!

On top of that, many of his classics now have different musical arrangements, and his concert vocal style -- to put it charitably -- is rougher than it was a generation ago. So even words and music one supposedly already knows may sound nothing like the original when he performs live.

This makes him bewildering to some concertgoers and reviewers (particularly if far from the stage) and explains the outright hostility some exhibit. They are insulted that he's not living up to their preconceptions and expectations. he's never dealt with that before.

All of which is why Dylan remains vital in the 21st century. His band positively smokes on stage, and that certainly helps, but anybody who's frontloading new material in concert after damn near five decades, while totally deconstructing their big hits of the past, is artistically vital by any definition.

Nobody asked an aging Picasso to go back and paint like he did in his "Blue Period." People change, and he's not the same folkie who sang at MLK's March On Washington in 1963, or the same rocker who wore heavy mascara, or the same country crooner who penned "I"ll Be Your Baby Tonight." Yet he has been those one time or another.

The Recording Industry Association of America says that the top three album-selling musical acts of all time are Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Garth Brooks. Elvis covered a Dylan song, Garth took another, "Make You Feel My Love," to #1 on the country charts in 1998, and the Beatles even put his face on the cover of their own Sergeant Pepper's album (upper right corner).

That's cutting quite a swath.

Meanwhile, in 2007, the Bard is still writing, still influencing, and still on the road, headin' for another joint.

'Nuff said.

Bob Dylan in Worcester, Massachusetts
October 2nd

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
3. Watching The River Flow
4. John Brown
5. Rollin' And Tumblin'
6. Workingman's Blues #2
7. High Water (For Charlie Patton)
8. Beyond The Horizon
9. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
10. Spirit On The Water
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Ain't Talkin'
13. Summer Days
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
15. Thunder On The Mountain
16 All Along The Watchtower