THE bedrock of Bob Dylan’s unprecedented, perhaps unequalled body of work is a simple, timeless idea.
This recurring theme is expressed by his many personas, through 37 studio albums, 58 singles, 11 live albums, 12 albums in The Bootleg Series, and many compilations. For over half a century, Dylan has, in piece after piece — many of them masterworks — pointed out that honesty is not a twee, fluffy idea, a straw-in-the-wind hope to be dismissed in circumstances, but an essential principle, the pivot of everything we do or say. Without it, we court, and too often realise, personal or social chaos.
In a post-factual world, where facts are at least variable, if not disposable, Dylan has, time and time again, pointed to the avoidable and dire consequences of dishonesty in self-appraisal, relationships (personal and business), societies, justice systems, capitalism, socialism, racism, religions, economics, globalisation, materialism, politics, physical decline and mortality and, most of all, in how we are driven by love or hate. He has been scathing in this evangelism. His moral steel, his widely-shared incomprehension that this eternal truth is not as obvious to everyone as it is to him, may be, partially at least, behind the polarised views on his work. He is an unwavering, undeniable spectre and that cannot be a recipe for universal popularity in these celebrity-fawning times. Dylan’s work makes people uncomfortable. He rattles cages. He asks questions we can hardly ignore if we want a contented life. He does not do celebrity, or massaging chit chat on the talk-show circuit. Dylan is either loved or dismissed, sometimes mocked. There is no halfway house. You are moved and maybe your conscience is formed by his work. Maybe you regard those who admire him as tone-deaf dreamers smothering in a 1960s kaftan. The challenging, unwavering political and moral demands that animate his work should not be underestimated. Because of that, many of us look away; some dismiss the messenger because of the message. But, then, that is not an unusual fate for a great artist.
Despite all of that, it is just as wrong to paint Dylan as an agitated, 1970s’ Redemptorist with a guitar, wearing a fedora at a rakish angle, as it is daft to describe him as a folk singer. As well as laser-sharp social commentary, he has written many preposterously beautiful and seemingly simple love songs — like Boots of Spanish Leather. Dylan is as alert to the deeply personal as he is to the general. He is, and has been for all of his life, one of the sharpest eyes of our time. When he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, yesterday, he was described as “probably the greatest living poet”. That award was, of course, a call to arms for all of those who prefer their literature in more conventional packaging. In our digital age, that seems a hollow, irrelevant differentiation. Bob Dylan is, by any criteria, in any age, a great artist and we should be proud that he joins four Irishmen — Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney — in that elevated category. He is 75 and is scheduled to give 29 concerts before the end of November. Once described as the voice of a generation, he has become a defining voice, and conscience, of our time.
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