It would have seemed like a silly joke and an impossibility to us some 50 or so years ago: Bob Dylan releasing an album of songs done by Frank Sinatra as he turns 75 years old. Yeah, right… good one. Hardy har har.
Yet here we are. That’s exactly what Dylan has issued four days before he hits 75. No one is laughing. Nobody is yelling “Judas” like they did almost exactly 50 years ago as he played rock music backed by The Hawks in England. Nor is he being excoriated for selling out, betraying this or that. It would seem that (enough) people are – finally! – getting the point of Bob Dylan.
Instead of being horrified by the greatest songwriter of the modern age – there really is no contest – singing standards, our appetites are whetted by last year’s Shadows in the Night (see our review here). Fallen Angels isn’t exactly more of the same. It’s an even bolder singer’s album, and make no mistake, whatever the tenor or texture of his voice, the man can deliver a song, articulate its lyrics and mainline its emotional core straight to your heart like almost no one else… save… yes… Frank Sinatra.
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Back 50 years ago in 1966, when Bob Dylan turned 25, he was aflame. Blonde on Blonde, the first double studio album by a major rock artist, was coming in July (many believe it was issued on May 16, the same day as Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. Wouldn’t it be a nice congruence. But all evidence supports July).
A half century later, a listen to it is still a profound if not mind- and life-altering experience. It’s a whirlwind of lyrical wit, wisdom, soul and brilliance, a simmering cauldron of musical imagination on which all that came before in folk, blues, rock and other populist indigenous styles get reconfigured into the definitive music of the day, music that brought on the future, music that sounds revelatory even all these years later, timeless music.
It’s music that changed The Beatles and the Stones, the culture, the world at large. As I listen – really listen – to “Visions of Johanna” (one of my touchstone Bob songs of recent years), shivers tingle down my spine, tears come to my eyes. I am in the rare presence of true aesthetic greatness.
Dylan himself calls it “that wild mercury sound.” Crawdaddy!’s Paul Williams noted at the time, “It is a cache of emotion, a well handled package of excellent music and better poetry, blended and meshed and ready to become part of your reality. Here is a man who will speak to you, a 1960s bard with electric lyre and color slides, but a truthful man with x-ray eyes you can look through if you want. All you have to do is listen.”
All you have to do is listen….
I well remember the night I really finally really got Bob. Fortunately, I’d seen him render his songs in the vintage style in July 1984 at London’s Wembley Stadium, and on that same afternoon hold 87,000 people in the palm of his hand for five solo numbers with just his guitar, voice and harp on a rack. And of course, his songs.
I got the Bob Dylan in concert I’d always wanted. That prepared me for a good half-century now of The Never Ending Tour when four years later in October 1989 I saw him again at Radio City Music Hall playing radically reconfigured takes on his songs, off the cuff, utterly in the moment. All around me members of m-m-my generation were scratching their heads. I was fucking thrilled. As my friend Jon Pareles of The New York Times observed, “Mr. Dylan seems involved in his songs again, delivering them with humor and anger and improvisatory fervor, reminding anyone who might have forgotten that a few words and a few chords can add up to revelations.” I’d like to think that it was then that what to others has been the confounding journey of Bob Dylan – and to me; I came out of a 1978 screening of the original unexpurgated four hours of Renaldo & Clara not knowing what was what, which way was where, much less who is Bob – began to make perfect sense to me.
I’ve been along for the ride ever since, catching Dylan live whenever the opportunity arose, even having a friend who was on tour with him one summer call me nightly so I could get my “moment of Bob Zen.” A little over a year ago I saw him play not only one of the best concerts of his I’ve ever seen but one of the best concerts I’ve attended by anyone ever (out of what must be by now thousands). And as I walked out I marveled at the span of generations in the others leaving as satisfied by what they’d heard as I was.
Yes, the times they have a-changed immensely over Dylan’s 75 years. We have a-changed. Dylan has a-changed. In fact, change has been one consistent aspect of Bob’s musical journey. Yet at the same time – as much as it may seem contradictory to what I just wrote as well as from a casual glance across the 54 years since he released his first album in 1962 – he has in some ways remained remarkably consistent.
Because for Bob Dylan, it has always been about the music. And following the music, the songs, the muse. “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music,” he said years ago.
He also sang long ago, back in his twenties, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” At age 75, he is still busy being born. It’s a bracing object lesson for this man of 62.
“All I can do is be me, whoever that is,” And all he keeps doing is capturing lightning in a bottle and illuminating all we know. Happy 75th, Bob. Keep on keeping on.
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