I was so much older then;
I’m younger than that now.
Once, out of curiosity, I asked my mom what charity, in the event of my untimely death, she would suggest donations to in lieu of flowers. “Well,” she replied, “you don’t go to church, and Harvard doesn’t need the money.” She paused for a moment to think, then asked, “Does Bob Dylan take donations?”
So my own mother, given the opportunity to associate me with any entity in the world, chose Bob Dylan. It’s true, I am a huge fan of the singer, who celebrates his 70th birthday on May 24. In fact, my Last.fm account reveals that I listen to Dylan more than any other artist: 2,128 song plays since 2007, almost a thousand plays more than my next favorites, Tegan and Sara.
It’s not particularly surprising that I’m a Dylan fan: almost everybody is. But even more people are Beatles fans, and according to Last.fm, l listen to Dylan 28 times as much as the Beatles. And unusually for a Dylan fan, I tend to prefer his later material over his early stuff. I like all of Dylan’s albums, but I’m much more likely to cue up Modern Times (2006) or Love and Theft (2001) than Blonde on Blonde (1966) or Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Why?
Well, for starters, that’s the material that’s been released in my own memory. Dylan’s now exactly twice my age; he had his early success (1962-1964), major artistic breakthrough (1965-1966), retreat into seclusion (1967-1968), country period (1969), first major artistic slump (1970-1974), and artistic comeback (1975) before I was even born. Then, while I was still just a kid, he had his spiritual journey (1976-1978), Gospel period (1979-1981), and second major artistic slump (1982-1988).
That brings us to the point in my adolescence when I was spending a lot of time browsing CDs at Best Buy with my dad. Dad had nearly the complete Dylan discography on CDs that I copied to cassettes so I could listen to them up in my room. As I was hearing songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965) and “Tangled Up In Blue” (1975) for the first time, Dylan released Oh Mercy (1989), a collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois that was hailed as a triumph. In 1992, when I was 17, I sat in Dad’s study and taped the live radio broadcast of the Madison Square Garden blowout that celebrated Dylan’s 30th year as a recording artist.
Dylan then released a pair of acoustic covers discs that aggravated critics almost as much as Dylan did when he stopped recording acoustic cover songs in the early 60s; then, after a major health scare, he reunited with Lanois for the masterpiece Time Out of Mind (1997). Even Pitchfork, the hipster site that normally snubs new releases by aging Boomers, calls Time Out of Mind “stunning.”
That was the year I graduated from college. In 2001, the year I had my first girlfriend (I was a late bloomer), Dylan released Love and Theft; then, in 2006, he followed with Modern Times. By that point I was living with my girlfriend Sara, and Modern Times was the only album on my iPod when I went to spend a week with friends in London. I listened to it over and over and over while I walked around the city, wondering where my life was going.
There’s another reason I prefer late Dylan to early Dylan, though—and it has a lot to do with why I like Dylan so much in general.
Late Dylan has a certain magic because it seems to defy all the rules of artistic careers—especially musical careers. In his early years Dylan rose higher than any other artist, but he still rose and fell in typical rock-star fashion. Breakout, breakthrough, burnout. And what comes next? For most artists, not much: artistically, by 30 or 40 they’re basically finished, spending the rest of their lives burning the fumes of their early triumphs. The greatest artists—the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen—catch a second wind and find new success by taking new approaches.
With Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan had that second wind, and then he kind of wandered in the desert for a while. There were shining moments in the subsequent 20 years—many of which, in typically eccentric fashion, were songs Dylan didn’t even release until years after they were recorded—but by even Dylan’s own account, his live show grew stale and his records seemed to be chasing trends. Still, he was Bob Dylan. As Pitchfork notes, by 1997 Dylan’s legacy as one of the greatest musicians of his time was very, very safely secured. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he made two of the greatest albums of his career: Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft stand shoulder to shoulder with anything Dylan’s ever released.
I mentioned above that I was a late bloomer; I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 25 years old. My whole life has felt like it’s playing on shuffle instead of in order: when I was a teenager I had the lifestyle of a 40-something (baby-sitting kids, staying home at night and listening to classic rock); in my late 20s I turned into a teenager with a series of short, intense relationships; and now in my 30s I spend most of my time partying with 20-somethings.
My own life continues to surprise me, and I admire the way that Dylan has surprised his audience for his entire storied career. Following your greatest artistic triumphs by completely changing your voice and recording a country album? Following your big comeback by finding Jesus and writing three albums’ worth of rock hymns? Turning back to acoustic folk 25 years after going electric? Following that period, during which Father Time twists the knife and wrecks your voice, with yet another fertile period of transcendent songwriting?
To this day, Dylan continues to surprise. As the world celebrates Dylan’s 70th birthday, no critic will be saying that his most recent album stands among his best work—because it was a completely bizarre Christmas album, the first of Dylan’s career. Just this spring he played China for the first time ever. Why? Why not? Dylan plans more volumes of his out-of-sequence autobiography, he shows up at film festivals wearing wigs, and he strolls onstage at the Grammys to sing one of his 60s landmarks, “Maggie’s Farm,” with young bands Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers.
So I like late Dylan best because it’s the most surprising Dylan—and surprising people, manifestly including himself, is what Dylan does best. It’s how he stays forever young.