Happy birthday, Bob Dylan.
He merits the congratulations, of course, but not the sort we extend to famous people whom we celebrate for simply making it through another year. As anyone who’s seen him perform live over the past few years knows, Dylan can still put on fierce, machine-gun-blasting, nostalgia-free concerts. And he’s still capable of releasing new albums containing cocky, disconcerting, headlong music.
Dylan retains the sort of fundamental mystery that a younger entertainer such as Lady Gaga has to work very hard and nobly to try and equal. As the rock critic Ellen Willis put it, “His masks [are] hidden by other masks.” To take just one slight, recent example: When I reviewed his 2009 holiday album Christmas In The Heart, I described his rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” as “slow, deliberate — more like a threat than a promise.”
One great thing about advancing age for Dylan is that he’s always putting more distance between himself and the hoary old labels, the ones he ridicules almost every night in the introduction to his “Never-Ending Tour”: “The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll! The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture! The guy who forced folk into bed with rock! Who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse! Who emerged to find Jesus! Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s! Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”
Dylan is all of that and none of it. He is a symbol of “authenticity” and the most calculated, enjoyably corny showboater. He is cool and he is square.
I don’t have a favorite among Dylan’s performances. Or rather, I have too many to settle on just one. I could change my mind tomorrow, but today, I am extremely fond of his great, howling-into-the-storm version of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” the lead-off track from his tumultuous 1974 live album with The Band, Before The Flood.
You have your own list of favorites, I’m sure. Share them below, if you like. Happy birthday, Bobby.